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Love’s Flagship

 



Love’s Flagship 

Love is patient. 

1 Corinthians 13:4


Patience is the red carpet upon which God’s grace approaches us.


See the people hiding in the house? That’s us. The folks ducking behind the stairwell? That’s you and me. We’re avoiding the bill collectors. This is the eve of eviction. The bank has given us one day to pay the mortgage. Credit-card agents are camped on the front lawn. Loan sharks have our number on speed dial. 


But we are broke. We’ve peddled our last food stamp. The water is disconnected, the car repossessed, the furniture picked up, and now the IRS agent is knocking on the door. He wants back taxes. “I know you are in there. Open up!”


So we do. He tells us how much we owe; we remind him that turnips give no blood. He mentions jail, and at this point a warm bed out of the reach of creditors doesn’t sound half bad.

Just as he motions for the sheriff, his cell phone rings. It’s Washington. The president wants a word with us, an explanation from us. We have none. No defense. Only a plea for patience. He listens in silence and asks to speak with the agent again. As the president speaks, the suit nods and says, “Yessir . . . Yessir . . . Yessir.” He closes his phone and looks first at you



and then at me. “I don’t know who you know, but your debt is paid,” he says, tearing up the papers and letting the pieces fall.

Maybe you didn’t know God did that for us. Maybe no one has told you about “God’s . . . patience and willingness to put up with you” (Rom. 2:4 CEV). Could be you dozed off the day the minister read Psalm 103:8: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (NIV). If so, no wonder you’ve been edgy. No wonder you’ve been impatient. Bankruptcy can put the best of us in a foul mood. You know what you need to do?

Step out on the porch. Stand where the IRS guy stood, and look at those papers—the torn pieces scattered and strewn across the lawn. Stare at the proof of God’s patience.

 

You were in debt!

Those times you used his name only when you cussed? God could have blown up at you. But he didn’t. He was patient.

Those thousand sunsets you never thanked him for? He could have put you on beauty rations. But he didn’t. He was patient with you.

Those Sundays you strutted into church to show off the new dress? It’s a wonder he didn’t strike you naked. But he didn’t. He was patient.

 

And, oh my, those promises: “Get me out of this, and I’ll never tell another lie.” “Count on me to stand up for you from now on.” “I’m done with temper tantrums, Lord.” Goodness gracious. If broken promises were lumber, we could build a subdivision. Doesn’t God have ample reason to walk out on us?

 

But he doesn’t. Why? Because “God is being patient with you” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Paul presents patience as the premiere expression of love. Positioned at the head of the apostle’s Love Armada—a boat-length or two in front of kindness, courtesy, and forgiveness—is the flagship known as patience.

 

“Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4).

The Greek word used here for patience is a descriptive one. It figuratively means “taking a long time to boil.” Think about a pot of boiling water. What factors determine the speed at which it boils? The size of the stove? No. The pot? The utensil may have an influence, but the primary factor is the intensity of the flame. Water boils quickly when the flame is high. It boils slowly when the flame is low. Patience “keeps the burner down.”

 

Helpful clarification, don’t you think? Patience isn’t naive. It doesn’t ignore misbehavior. It just keeps the flame low. It waits. It listens. It’s slow to boil. This is how God treats us. And, according to Jesus, this is how we should treat others.


He once told a parable about a king who decides to settle his accounts with his debtors. His bookkeeper surfaces a fellow who owes not thousands or hundreds of thousands but millions of dollars. The king summarily declares that the man and his wife and kids are to be sold to pay the debt. Because of his inability to pay, the man is about to lose everything and everyone dear to him. No wonder

the man fell down before the king and begged him, “Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.” Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt. (Matt. 18:26–27 NLT, emphasis mine)

The word patience makes a surprise appearance here. The debtor does not plead for mercy or forgiveness; he pleads for patience. Equally curious is this singular appearance of the word. Jesus uses it twice in this story and never again. It appears nowhere else in the Gospels. Perhaps the scarce usage is the first-century equivalent of a highlighter. Jesus reserves the word for one occasion to make one point. Patience is more than a virtue for long lines and slow waiters. Patience is the red carpet upon which God’s grace approaches us.


Had there been no patience, there would have been no mercy. But the king was patient, and the man with the multimillion-dollar debt was forgiven.

 

But then the story takes a left turn. The freshly forgiven fellow makes a beeline from the courthouse to the suburbs. There he searches out a guy who owes him some money.

But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. “Be patient and I will pay it,” he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full. (vv. 28–30 NLT, emphasis mine)

The king is stunned. How could the man be so impatient? How dare the man be so impatient! The ink of the CANCELED stamp is still moist on the man’s bills. Wouldn’t you expect a little Mother Teresa–ness out of him? You’d think that a person who’d been forgiven so much would love much.

But he didn’t. And his lack of love led to a costly mistake.

The unforgiving servant is called back to the castle.

“You evil servant!” [the king, a.k.a. God, declares.] “I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny. (Matt. 18:32–34 NLT)

The king’s patience made no difference in the man’s life. To the servant, throne-room mercy was nothing more than a canceled test, a dodged bullet, a get-out-of-jail-free card. He wasn’t stunned by the royal grace; he was relieved he hadn’t been punished. He was given much patience but gave none, which makes us wonder if he actually understood the gift he had received.

If you find patience hard to give, you might ask the same question. How infiltrated are you with God’s patience? You’ve heard about it. Read about it. Perhaps underlined Bible passages regarding it. But have you received it? The proof is in your patience. Patience deeply received results in patience freely offered.

 

But patience never received leads to an abundance of problems, not the least of which is prison. Remember where the king sent the unforgiving servant? “Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny” (Matt. 18:34 NLT).

Whew! we sigh. Glad that story is a parable. It’s a good thing God doesn’t imprison the impatient in real life. Don’t be so sure he doesn’t. Self-absorption and ingratitude make for thick walls and lonely jails.

 

Impatience still imprisons the soul. For that reason, our God is quick to help us avoid it. He does more than demand patience from us; he offers it to us. Patience is a fruit of his Spirit. It hangs from the tree of Galatians 5:22: “The Spirit produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience.” Have you asked God to give you some fruit? Well I did once, but . . . But what? Did you, h’m, grow impatient? Ask him again and again and again. He won’t grow impatient with your pleading, and you will receive patience in your praying.

And while you’re praying, ask for understanding. “Patient people have great understanding” (Prov. 14:29). Could it be your impatience stems from a lack of understanding? Mine has.

 

Sometime ago our church staff attended a leadership conference. Especially interested in one class, I arrived early and snagged a front-row seat. As the speaker began, however, I was distracted by a couple of voices in the back of the room. Two guys were mumbling to each other. I was giving serious thought to shooting a glare over my shoulder when the speaker offered an explanation. “Forgive me,” he said. “I forgot to explain why the two fellows at the back of the class are talking. One of them is an elder at a new church in Romania. He has traveled here to learn about church leadership. But he doesn’t speak English, so the message is being translated.”

 

All of a sudden everything changed. Patience replaced impatience. Why? Because patience always hitches a ride with understanding. The wise man says, “A man of understanding holds his tongue” (Prov. 11:12 NIV). He also says, “A man of understanding is even-tempered” (Prov. 17:27 NIV). Don’t miss the connection between understanding and patience. Before you blow up, listen up. Before you strike out, tune in. “It takes wisdom to have a good family, and it takes understanding to make it strong” (Prov. 24:3).

Before anything else, love is patient.

 

For an example, come with me to Paris, France, 1954. Elie Wiesel is a correspondent for a Jewish newspaper. A decade earlier he was a prisoner in a Jewish concentration camp. A decade later he would be known as the author of Night, the Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the Holocaust. Eventually he’ll be awarded the Congressional Medal of Achievement and the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

But tonight Elie Wiesel is a twenty-six-year-old unknown newspaper correspondent. He is about to interview the French author François Mauriac, who is a devout Christian. Mauriac is France’s most recent Nobel laureate for literature and an expert on French political life.

Wiesel shows up at Mauriac’s apartment, nervous and chain-smoking— his emotions still frayed from the German horror, his comfort as a writer still raw. The older Mauriac tries to put him at ease. He invites Wiesel in, and the two sit in the small room. Before Wiesel can ask a question, however, Mauriac, a staunch Roman Catholic, begins to speak about his favorite subject: Jesus. Wiesel grows uneasy. The name of Jesus is a pressed thumb on his infected wounds.

 

Wiesel tries to reroute the conversation but can’t. It is as though everything in creation leads back to Jesus. Jerusalem? Jerusalem is where Jesus ministered. The Old Testament? Because of Jesus, the Old is now enriched by the New. Mauriac turns every topic toward the Messiah. The anger in Wiesel begins to heat. The Christian anti-Semitism he’d grown up with, the layers of grief from Sighet, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald—it all boils over.

He puts away his pen, shuts his notebook, and stands up angrily.

“Sir,” he said to the still-seated Mauriac, “you speak of Christ. Christians love to speak of him. The passion of Christ, the agony of Christ, the death of Christ. In your religion, that is all you speak of. Well, I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don’t speak about them. Can you understand that, sir? We don’t speak about them.”1

Mauriac is stunned. Wiesel turns and marches out the door. Mauriac sits in shock, his woolen blanket still around him. The young reporter is pressing the elevator button when Mauriac appears in the hall. He gently reaches for Wiesel’s arm. “Come back,” he implores. Wiesel agrees, and the two sit on the sofa. At this point Mauriac begins to weep. He looks at Wiesel but says nothing. Just tears.

Wiesel starts to apologize. Mauriac will have nothing of it. Instead he urges his young friend to talk. He wants to hear about it—the camps, the trains, the deaths. He asks Wiesel why he hasn’t put this to paper. Wiesel tells him the pain is too severe. He’s made a vow of silence. The older man tells him to break it and speak out.

 

The evening changed them both. The drama became the soil of a lifelong friendship. They corresponded until Mauriac’s death in 1970. “I owe François Mauriac my career,” Wiesel has said . . . and it was to Mauriac that Wiesel sent the first manuscript of Night.2

What if Mauriac had kept the door shut? Would anyone have blamed him? Cut by the sharp words of Wiesel, he could have become impatient with the angry young man and have been glad to be rid of him. But he didn’t and he wasn’t. He reacted decisively, quickly, and lovingly. He was “slow to boil.” And, because he was, a heart began to heal.

 

May I urge you to do the same?

“God is being patient with you” (2 Pet. 3:9). And if God is being patient with you, can’t you pass on some patience to others? Of course you can.

Because before love is anything else:

Love is patient.

 

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