When I ask people what love is, they very often mention the list of characteristics found in 1 Corinthians 13. You know how it goes: love is patient, love is kind... Lately, I have been thinking about these two particular adjectives at the beginning of this description of love. One reason for this is because I find it hard to remember what comes next, so I keep repeating "love is patient, love is kind" with the hope that my memory will eventually start functioning. But I also wonder if their placement next to each other might be intentional, if they are connected in some way. Perhaps our understanding of love loses something when we dissect its characteristics into singular, separate ideas. What happens when we join patience with kindness?
The word translated "patient" is makrothymei in Greek. It has two parts to it: the idea of length or slowness and the concept of suffering or anger. The word is sometimes translated as longsuffering or slow to anger. Here are a few examples of how it is used in the Scriptures.
It makes an appearance in another familiar list, one which describes the result of living by the Spirit of Jesus: "... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Notice that once again patience and kindness are positioned next to each other.
In a letter to the early church which was eagerly awaiting the coming of Jesus in triumphant glory, we read: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Here, patience is related to life.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word arek conveys the idea of patience or longsuffering. When YHWH is giving Moses the laws of the covenant, setting out a new way of living which reflects the nature and character of the God who delivered the Hebrews from slavery, we read: "And [the Lord] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness... '" (Exodus 34:5-6). In this instance, patience is connected to an abundance of love.
Let's take a look at the word kind. In Greek, it is chresteuetai and means considerate, helpful, loving, full of service. Kindness is a gift, given without regard for worthiness or unworthiness. In the letter from Paul to Titus, we read: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3: 4-5).
Jesus spoke about the source of kindness: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. ... But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:35-36).
When considering what it looks like for patience (longsuffering) and kindness to bump up against each other, two scenarios come to mind. The first is a mother in labour. I asked some young mothers to recount their experiences of labour in terms of length and suffering. They mentioned losing track of time, time feeling compressed and/or elongated, and the last part of the pregnancy feeling like it would never end. In terms of pain and suffering, the pain was said to be intense, especially if the labour was short. Some said it felt like too much to bear. Others likened their experience to their insides being ripped out or bones coming out of joint. And yet, immediately after this intense suffering, these mothers looked with kindness on the tiny human being who had caused them such pain. There was no thought of vengeance; only concern for the baby's well-being. Though grimacing only moments before, they had nothing but smiles for the child. Inexplicably, longsuffering was immediately followed by kindness.
The second scenario where we see patience and kindness in close proximity is the familiar story of the lost son and the patient father told by Jesus in Luke 15. Once again, we see kindness as a gift, a difficult act of mercy, given even to those who cause pain, to those who cause others to walk the road of longsuffering.
The descriptor "prodigal" is most often applied to the wayward son in this parable. Prodigal means wastefully extravagant, giving on a lavish scale. While the younger son was certainly wasteful, the father is the most extravagant character in this story, generously heaping gifts on his undeserving son.
From the beginning, the son seems interested only in his own exploits. There is no concern for his father's well-being; he can't wait for him to be dead (literally) so he can get his inheritance. The son decides to leave home even though he is very much needed on the family farm. The son squanders all his riches in lavish living. Only when he reaches an impoverished, desperate state does he think of his father. He returns home a beggar, hoping for mercy, willing to be a servant instead of a son.
The father has waited long, perhaps years, for his son to return. The father has suffered like only a parent can, not knowing if his son is alive or dead. The father has also endured the pain of having a son who does not respect him, a son who would rather be with faithless friends than in the presence of his devoted father. And yet, the father's first response upon seeing his wayward son is not a reprimand. He makes no demand for a reckoning of the young man's whereabouts or his wealth, no exclamation of disappointment is uttered. The father's longsuffering is immediately followed by kindness. Love is patient, love is kind.
My tendency is to follow longsuffering with a session of whining and complaint. I want others to know what I have been through. I especially want to make the offender, the one who caused me pain, aware of the consequences of their actions. Only then am I ready to move toward offering kindness. My version of 1 Corinthians 13 might read: love is patient, love demands justice, and then love is kind. But a mother does not give her newborn baby a lecture about how much pain and suffering the child has caused; there is immediate and unconditional kindness. Likewise, when the prodigal father meets his lost son, he does not stand with hands on hips, lips pursed, questioning the son about his financial fumbles. Instead, he embraces him and showers him more riches! Is this irresponsible parenting? No, it is what love does.
A quick side note: of course, there is a place for implementing good boundaries and teaching someone about the consequences of their actions, but that is not the first thing a new mother teaches her child. Nor is it the first response of a father welcoming home a wayward child. These lessons come later. Love comes first.
Love suffers long and quickly morphs into kindness, even while the suffering is still ongoing. There is no pause for righteous indignation, for judgment, for a well-deserved scolding, or a period of complaining and venting. Love has no time for self-indulgence or self-justification. It is only concerned with helping the other, even if it is the person who has caused the lover protracted pain and elongated suffering.
I must admit that I am mostly a stranger to this close pairing of patience and kindness. In my life, there is often a significant gap between experiencing pain and engaging in loving service. It makes me all the more aware that I am a blessed recipient of the longsuffering kindness of God the labouring mother and God the prodigal father. May it never be said of us: "You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth" (Deut. 32:18).
Since we live in the gracious and patient kindness of God every day, let us practice being patient and being kind with each other.
"Mother" by William Hubbard. Image from fineartamerica.com