Years ago I heard a college president speak to a group of honor students. He congratulated them on their academic achievements and then went on to make the point that what would determine whether or not they would be successful in their chosen fields would be the utilization of their soft skills. He noted that since they would all find themselves working in some type of community, learning how to get along with others was fundamental to implementing the substantial knowledge they had acquired. If they were unable to do that, they would know— but not be able to do. They would be theorists rather than practitioners.
This was the situation the believers were in at Corinth. While they prided themselves in the knowledge they possessed, they were fragmenting due to their inability to get along with each other. They were theorists of the faith rather than practitioners.
Paul had told them in an earlier part of his letter that knowledge “puffs up while love builds up,” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Later, he returns to this theme and develops it more fully as he talks about some of the things that characterize the soft skills of love.
Interestingly, the place where he begins is with patience (13:4). I think it’s safe to say that most of us would have started with something loftier or nobler—say compassion or gentleness. Patience seems a little too pedestrian of a way to start off an anthem on love. Nonetheless, there it is and it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves that Paul is not speaking of patience in regard to waiting for your tax refund or for your vacation time to come. He’s speaking of relational patience. It’s patience in regard to people rather than things.
To be patient in people terms is to put up with the attitudes and behaviors of others when they are less than ideal. It is to bear with the weaknesses of people. Mind you, we’re not talking about relational felonies here—merely the misdemeanor things that characterize all relationships. Someone is moody, or stubborn, not the best listener, or . . . (fill in the blank).
I can think of three solid reasons to practice relational patience. The first is that God is patient with us. If the One who is perfect can put up with our imperfections, we really don’t have an excuse for not doing so with others. Another reason along those same lines is that whatever patience we show to others is probably no more than has already been shown to us. We don’t really think it never requires any patience for someone to get along with us, do we? (Smile) Finally, when we learn to look past these things in others as opposed to dwelling on them, it opens us up to experience all of the positive qualities of that person.
Patience is like a bridge—we have to regularly travel over it in order to connect with other people. It may not be the loftiest characteristic of love, but it’s possibly the most practical. If it’s not there, we exist as a lonely island and miss out on the rich life of community that God intends for us.
Love is patient!