The text is just the first three words of verse 4: “Charity suffereth long.”
Most of the English translations translate it as “Love is patient.” The word love is correct. The word “charity” here is the word agape, or love, in the New Testament. Even the rest of that translation, “love ispatient,” is a fair translation, because that best captures in our modern English vocabulary what is meant here: love is patient. But there are a couple of things that we must not miss. The first is this, that what is being described here is not just a characteristic of love, but the activity of love. It is not just describing what love looks like but it is describing to us what our love will do. Charity suffers long.
All fifteen of the descriptions in verses 4 through 7 are forms of verbs. They bring us back to this, that love is not just a feeling but an activity, and that love is sometimes an activity that is contrary to how one feels, that love is the choice of the will to go against how one feels. So Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Is that something you feel like doing? No, they are your enemies. But you must love them and you choose to love them. That is why each of these descriptions of love comes from a verb.
So, even though “patience” is probably the word we would use in our vocabulary today to give the most accurate sense or meaning here, “suffers long” is really better because that is a verb. This is something that you do: you suffer long. You are long-suffering. And here is the point: This is not just describing some people who have the characteristic of being patient people, but this is describing how we should choose to love others. This is describing the course of action that we would follow if we truly love the other. In love, I would be willing, and I will be resolved, to suffer long, to be patient with others.
The Greek word that is used here has the idea of having a long temper. It is interesting that we do not have anything in the English language for that. We do have something for a short temper, but this word is “a long temper,” to be long tempered. It has the idea of giving time, of being patient, waiting. That is the idea. There are a couple of places in the New Testament where you find this word used and where that meaning comes out very clearly. Matthew 18:26 and 29. You have here the parable of the unjust servant. He asked to be forgiven. His master was going to sell his wife and his children and all that he had so that he could make his payment. In Matthew 18:26, “the servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me.” That is the word there: have patience, suffer long with me, wait, “and I will pay thee all.” Give me time. In verse 29, the same man, who was forgiven, turns around and demands of his fellow-servant (or his peer) that he pay him what he owes. “And his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience [same word] with me, and I will pay thee all.” Give me time, be long-suffering.
The word is also used in I Thessalonians 5:14. This word is addressed especially to the officebearers in the church. That is clear from what he says in the very first line: “We exhort you, brethren.” He is speaking to his fellow-officebearers in the church. “We exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, [and then this:] be patient toward all men.” Suffer long with all men. The point is: you are going to need to be patient because you are going to have in the church the unruly or the idle and they are going to need to be warned. You are going to have in the church the feebleminded or the faint of heart. You are going to have in the church the weak. If you are going to deal with them as an officebearer, as the shepherd would deal with his sheep, you are going to need to be patient. You are going to have to give them time, you have to wait, you have to come to them with the same exhortations again and again and the same help again and again over years and even decades and you are going to have to be patient with them.
Perhaps this idea has to do especially with the way that we react or the way that we choose to react. The ancient church father Chrysostom, commenting on this phrase (love is long-suffering, or suffers long), says this of the word used: “It is a word which is used of the man who is wronged and who has it easily in his power to avenge himself but will never do it.” A man is wronged, he has it in his power to take revenge, but he will never do it. When we give time, when we are long-suffering, we do not explode, we are not quick to retaliate, we do not want to even the score, but instead, especially when we are treated wrongly, we receive the injuries with meekness and with patience. We do this repeatedly, we do this continually, constantly. This is not a passive/aggressive behavior that waits for a little while and then explodes. But this is a loving patience. It communicates, sometimes it corrects, but always it is patient in love.
Now, as we try to understand this, it is important for us to make a distinction here between two kinds of patience—two ways that we suffer long. There is a patience that we have for the circumstances of our life with trials, with troubles, with persecutions, with trials and troubles, with health or poverty, or with some other circumstance in our life. The other kind of patience is a patience with people in our life. The text, when it says, “Charity suffers long,” has especially in mind the second, not a patience with circumstances but with people. There are people whom we have to endure. What that tells us is this, that sometimes in life we can endure a lot in regard to circumstances, but we find people very hard to endure. Perhaps you have seen that, you have witnessed that. Somebody is going through a tough time in his life and you think he is doing pretty well, but then he will say something like this: “My life already stinks. I don’t need you in it.”
We really cannot change much about the circumstances of our life, but when someone irritates us, we can easily think, “Well, I’ll get them out of my life, that will make my life easier.” You see the contrast there—there is a patience with circumstances, but not with people. What we have to see is that just as God places the circumstances in our life, so He also places people in our life. And He says, “Love them and suffer long. Be patient with them.”
The best way for us to understand what is meant here by suffering long is to consider God’s patience and God’s long-suffering towards us sinners. We see such patience in God Himself, and if we will be godly, we will follow it. We see that also in our Savior. If we will be Christ-like, we will follow that.
In Exodus 34:6, God is going to reveal His glory to Moses. He hides Moses in a cleft of the rock. He covers Moses with His hand. He passes by and He declares to Moses who He is. This is what we read: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” God is going to show Moses His glory. And here is the glory of God: that He is long-suffering!
Psalm 103:8-10: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” God is long-suffering.
Then we ask the question: Why? The reason is that God is determined to save every one of His elect. That is the point in II Peter 3:9, where it speaks of the long-suffering of God. In this chapter, the apostle is talking about the return of Christ. Some people are saying, “Well, He’s not going to come back. Everything is going on as it was.” So they start to accuse God of not keeping His promise. Then the apostle says this: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise [the promise of His return], as some men count slackness; but is [and now here is the explanation for why God has not come back, why Jesus has not returned, why this earth with all its sin and the curse has not been destroyed yet, why the new heavens and the new earth in which we will be and dwell with God has not come yet—why? Because He is not slack concerning His promise but] is long-suffering to usward [toward us. That is, not to all people but to His people—us believers] not willing that any [the idea is any of us] should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” God does not will the repentance of every last man and woman, but He does will the repentance of every last one of His elect and every one for whom Jesus has given His life blood. So God suffers long; God withholds His judgment and His wrath.
That comes to expression especially in the suffering of Jesus Christ and in the cross of Jesus Christ. In I Peter 2 you see that (and this is a fulfillment of what Isaiah speaks of in chapter 53:7) when He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judges righteously. Jesus suffered long; Jesus was patient when He was on the cross. Just think of His prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Or think of that patience as it worked out in the life of one of the two thieves who were crucified with Him. They both hurled their insults at Him. He could have called twelve legions of angels, but He bore it. When He was reviled, He reviled not again. And that long-suffering led to the repentance of the one thief. Think of how that is explained in the parable of the lost sheep regarding the Shepherd (Jesus). He goes out to find that sheep. And He persists: “till he find it.” He does not quit looking. He does not give up on looking. He does not say, “Well, so much for that sheep. I’ve given enough time to it.” But he seeks till he finds it.
Love is long-suffering. And you know it because you know God’s love for you. But, oh, we need it, do we not? We need longsuffering. We need patience.
Why do we need patience? We could first answer that question this way: We need patience because we are called to live in relationships with people who are sinners. And those people who are sinners are going to mistreat us and they are going to injure us. Those people are sinners, and in their personal dealings with us they are going to be unfair, they are going to be dishonest, they are going to oppress and take advantage of us, they are going to break their promises and their word to us, they are going to defraud us of things that they owe to us, and if they have authority over us they are going to abuse that authority. If they are under our authority, they are going to disrespect us, they will steal from us. These people are going to break your things and ruin your things. They are going to impose themselves on you. In their speech, they are going to speak evil of you, they are going to spread false rumors about you, they are going to misrepresent you, they are going to exaggerate your faults, they are going to belittle you, they are going to be cruel in their words against you. They are going to be unthankful and demanding. They are not going to understand you. You are not going to understand them. In their thoughts and their attitudes towards you, they will be sinful. They will have pride and arrogance and hatred and envy. They will treat you with silence. They will hold grudges. They will avoid you. They will be jealous, they will be critical and judgmental. Oh, we need patience!!
Those things that I just listed I read in Jonathan Edwards’ book Charity and its Fruits. He spent pages listing why we are going to need patience with people. These people are going to do these things to us not just once, but over and over again.
We need patience because we live with sinners. But do you know that that is not the main reason we need patience? The main reason that we need patience is not because the people we live with are hard to live with. The main reason, the real reason that we need to be long-suffering, is that this is missing. This is missing in my life. Why is it missing? Why am I not patient? Why, sometimes, is it totally missing? The simple answer is: because of my sin. I do not need patience because of other people’s sins. I need patience because I am a sinner.
My sin. That is the problem. It is a sin problem. A lack of patience is a sin problem. If I take that seriously, that means that whenever I am impatient, I am sinning. And that means I need to be corrected, that means I need to repent, that means I need to change. You see, the problem is not a patience problem or a personality issue, it is a sin problem. How is that described in the text here? What kind of a problem is it? In the text, it is a love problem, is it not? “Love suffers long, love is patient.” And if you do not have patience, it is because you do not have love.
Think of that. We do not figure that way. We say, “Well, I just have a problem with impatience; or, I just have a problem with anger.” No, you have a problem with love. When you are impatient, when you rage, when you react angrily, you are not loving. That is the problem. The problem is sin. And, really, at the root of it is this: pride. The root of impatience is personal pride.
Think of your impatience. When were you last impatient? This morning? This afternoon? When you were leaving the house for church and you reacted to an individual? It is not wrong for us to correct. We have to correct our children, but the question is: what is our motive? What is the attitude under which we operate? Often it is this: In my pride, I think that I deserve better from the other. Or, in my pride, I think that if somebody is doing something, I could do better. Just let me do it. I can show you how it is done. The real reason for our impatience is pride, is it not?
Think of the unforgiving servant. Are we not like that? God is so patient with us and we are so thankful to God for His patience, but we are so much like this unforgiving servant when we deal with one another. Charity suffers long.
The response. The Scriptures call us to the activity of love. That is the proper response. First, we repent of our lack of love and our impatience, and we make that repentance a part of our life. Not just to repent once, or to recognize that it is there, but to continually and repeatedly be sorry with those whom we injure with our impatience, to deal with it as sin, to stand before God and to see impatience as sin, to confess it not only to Him, but to one another. That is a massive step towards peace and love. And then, along with that, to seek the Lord for love and patience, to seek Him in His Word, to seek to understand His love and patience towards us, and to seek Him also in prayer, making this a prayer in our life: “Lord, make me an instrument of your love and your patience in the lives of others, so that when they see and they experience my patience and my love, they are able to understand that God is loving and patient.” Make that your prayer.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. If God is so patient, so long-suffering with us in His love, we ought also to be that with one another. Amen.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy patience and Thy long-suffering with us. Repeatedly we offend, not only in thoughts and in words but also in actions. In grace, Thou dost receive us and forgive us. Lord, give us a love that covers a multitude of sins and in which we are patient with others, with personalities, with personality weaknesses, with repeated offenses and repeated injuries, realizing that the real need that we have for patience is our own sin. Sin is why it is absent. So, help us, we pray, in the knowledge of Thy love for us, so to love one another. We ask it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.