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Patience From A Church Father:
Insights From "Patience" by Tertullian*

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 193

The zeal for healthy leadership is the legacy of the Christian Church. Though entangled in the Montanist heresy, the writings of Tertullian (140-230 AD) nevertheless give us insight on one of the most important characteristics of a Christian leader: patience.
 
Given the unique challenges to leaders in a severely persecuted emergent Christian Church, Tertullian's writings on "patience" are a priceless testimony of how this "fruit of the Spirit" needs be operative each moment of our lives as God's leaders.
 
In the following excerpts from "Patience," Tertullian addresses nearly every major issue of Christian leadership--personal unrest, jealousy, division, doubt, reactivity, and temptation, to name a few. All, he says, are linked to patience.
 
Consider how the following excerpts relate to your ministry. In which areas are you patient? In which areas are you not? May our leadership not be overwhelmed by the "fever of impatience."
 
Excepts From PATIENCE by Tertullian
 
CHAPTER 1

(1) "Patience [is] a virtue which I am utterly unfit to practice, being, as I am, a man of no account. ... (5) In my pitiable state, ever suffering from the fever of impatience, I must sigh after the health of patience which I do not possess, and I must beg and beseech it, remembering and reflecting, as I consider my weakness, that one does not easily attain the good health of faith and the soundness of the discipline of the Lord unless patience lends assistance thereto.

(6) Patience has been given such pre-eminence in matters pertaining to God that no one can fulfill any precept or perform any work pleasing to the Lord without patience. (7) Even those who do not possess it pay recognition to its excellence by giving it the honorable title of 'the highest virtue.'

CHAPTER 2

(1) There has been given to us as a model in the practice of [divine] patience... (2) Long has He been scattering the brilliance of this light [i.e. patience] upon the just and unjust alike and has allowed the deserving as well as the undeserving to enjoy the benefits of the seasons, the services of the elements, and the gifts of all creation.

(3) He endures ungrateful peoples who worship the trifles fashioned by their skill and the works of their hands, who persecute His name and His children, and who, in their lewdness, their greed, their godlessness and depravity, grow worse from day to day; by His patience He hopes to draw them to Himself.

CHAPTER 3

(1) This is, indeed, a picture of the divine patience which exists... (2) God allows Himself to become incarnate: in His mother's womb He awaits (the time of birth) and after His birth suffers Himself to grow into manhood, and, when an adult, shows no eagerness to become known, but bears reproaches and is baptized by His own servant and by His words alone repels the attacks of the Tempter.

(3) When He, (begotten) of the Lord, becomes a master teaching man how to avoid death, He teaches him for his own good how to offer reparation to outraged patience. (4) He did not wrangle or cry aloud; neither did anyone hear His voice in the streets; a bruised reed He did not break, a smoking wick He did not quench. (Now, the Prophet--or, rather, the testimony of God Himself, placing His own Spirit in His Son with all patience--has not lied!)

(5) He did not force one who was unwilling to stay close to Him; He scorned no one's table or dwelling; in fact, He ministered personally to His disciples by washing their feet. (6) He did not despise sinners or publicans, He showed no anger even toward that city which refused to receive Him, even when the disciples wished fire from heaven to fall upon such a shameful town; He healed the ungrateful, yielded to His persecutors.

(7) More than this, He even kept in His company the one who would betray Him and did not firmly denounce him. Why, even when He is betrayed, when He is led like a beast to the slaughter--for thus (is it written): 'He does not open His mouth any more than does a lamb in the power of its shearer'--He who could have had if He wished, at a single word, legions of angels from heaven to assist Him did not approve of an avenging sword on the part of even one of His disciples.

(8) It was the forbearance of the Lord that was wounded in (the person of) Malchus. And so, He actually cursed for all time the works of the sword and by healing him whom He had not Himself struck, He made satisfaction by forbearance, which is the mother of mercy.

(9) I say nothing about His crucifixion; it was for this that He had come. Still, did there have to be such insults attending the death He must undergo? No; but as He went forward to His death, He willed to have His fill of joy in suffering: He is spat upon, beaten, mocked, disgracefully clothed, and even more disgracefully crowned.

(10) Marvel at the constancy of His meekness: He who had proposed to escape notice in the guise of man has in no degree imitated man's impatience. For this reason particularly, you Pharisees, you should have recognized the Lord! Patience such as this no mere man had ever practiced! (11) Such were the manifestations (of His patience), the very magnitude of which is the reason why pagan nations reject the faith; for us they are its rational foundation. For those to whom there has been granted the gift of faith they suffice to make it very clear, not only by the words our Lord used in His precepts, but also by the sufferings which He endured, that patience is the very nature of God, the effect and manifestation of a certain co-natural property (of His being)....

CHAPTER 5

(3) Impatience, more than anything else, is opposed to faith. (4) For, that which is conceived by God's rival is certainly not a friend to the things of God. There is the same hostility in the things as there is in their authors. Furthermore, since God is infinitely good, and the Devil, on the other hand, is superlatively evil, by their very difference they bear witness that neither one effects anything for the other; it can no more seem to us that some good is produced from evil than some evil from good.

(5) Now, I find the origin of impatience in the Devil himself. Even when the Lord God subjected to His own image, that is, to man, all the works He had made, the Devil bore it with impatience... (8) For, as soon as he perceived that it was through his impatience that he had committed the first sin, having learned from his own experience what would assist in wrong-doing, he availed himself of this same impatience to lead men into sin.

(9) Without delay, and would say not without forethought, he contrived a meeting with the woman, and simply and solely through their conversation she was touched by his breath, already infected with impatience. But never would she have sinned at all had she preserved her patience according to the divine command!... Thus, a second member, too, of the human race falls through the impatience of the first; and his fall, too, results from his own impatience committed in two ways: with regard to the forewarning of God, and with regard to the deceit of the Devil; for he was unable to observe the former or to oppose the latter. ...

(13) What sin previous to this sin of impatience can be imputed to man? ...(15) For, immediately, that impatience which was conceived by the seed of the Devil with the fecundity of evil gave birth to a child of wrath and instructed its offspring in its own arts. Since it had plunged Adam and Eve into death, it taught their son, also, to commit the first murder.

(16) Vain were it for me to ascribe this sin to impatience, had Cain, the first homicide and the first fratricide, accepted it with equanimity and without impatience when his offerings were refused by the Lord; if he had not been angry with his brother; if, in fine, he had killed no one. (17) Therefore, since he could not commit murder unless he were angry, and could not be angry unless he were impatient, it proves that what he did in anger is to be referred to that which prompted the anger.

(18) Such was the cradle of impatience which was then, so to speak, in its infancy. But to what proportions it soon grew! And no wonder: if it was the prime source of sin, it follows that, being the prime source, it was therefore also the sole fashioner of all sin, pouring forth from its own abundant resources the varied channels of crimes...

(20) Impatience is, as it were, the original sin in the eyes of the Lord. For, to put it in a nutshell, every sin is to be traced back to impatience...

(22) Is it not clear that Israel itself, through its impatience, was ever sinning against God? (23) Forgetting the heavenly arm whereby it had been rescued from the afflictions of the Egyptians, ...(24) they gave up hope in the Lord, unable to endure a three-days' thirst. For this, too, they were charged with impatience by the Lord. (25) But, not to range over individual instances: never would they have been destroyed had they not fallen into sin by impatience.

CHAPTER 6

(1) Such is the patience which is both subsequent to and antecedent to faith. Accordingly, Abraham believed in God and it was credited to him by God as justice. Now, he proved his faith by patience, when he was commanded to offer in sacrifice his son... (2) Rightly, then, is he blessed because he was faithful; and rightly was he faithful because he was patient.

(4)When the Lord and Teacher of patience was not on hand... (5) He came and united the grace of faith with patience, no longer was one permitted to do injury with so much as a word, or even say 'Thou fool!' without being in danger of the judgment. Wrath was forbidden, passions were kept in check, unruly hands were restrained, the poison of the tongue was removed. (6) The Law acquired more than it lost when Christ said: 'Love your enemies and bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.' Just see what a Father's patience acquires for us!

CHAPTER 7

(5) The Spirit of the Lord, through the Apostle, has called the desire of money the root of all evils... (6) If we feel impatient when we suffer some loss, we will be found to possess a desire for money, since we grieve over the loss of that which is not our own... (7) The man who is upset and unable to bear his loss sins, you might say, against God Himself by preferring the things of earth to those of heaven... (8) Let the whole world fall in ruins provided I gain the patience to endure it!

(9) Patience to endure, shown on occasions of loss, is a training in giving and sharing. He who does not fear loss is not reluctant to give.

CHAPTER 8

(1) Our very life and our very body we have exposed in this world as a target for all manner of injury and we endure this injury with patience; shall we, then, be vexed by the deprivation of lesser things? Far be such shame from the servant of Christ, that his patience, trained by greater trials, should fail in trifling ones!

(2) If one tries to provoke you to a fight, there is at hand the admonition of the Lord: 'If someone strike thee,' He says, 'on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' Let wrong-doing grow weary from your patience; whoever be struck, the one who strikes, weighed down by pain and shame, will suffer more severely from the Lord; by your meekness you will strike a more severe blow to the wrong-doer; for he will suffer at the hands of Him by whose grace you practice meekness.

(3) If a spiteful tongue bursts out in cursing or wrangling, recall the saying: 'When men reproach you, rejoice.' The Lord Himself was accursed before the Law, yet He alone is blessed. Let us, then, His servants, follow our Lord and patiently submit to maledictions that we may be blessed!

(4) If, with slight forbearance, I hear some bitter or evil remark directed against me, I may return it, and then I shall inevitably be bitter myself. Either that, or I shall be tormented by unexpressed resentment. (5) If, then, I retaliate when cursed, how shall I be found to have followed the teaching of our Lord?

It follows, then, that our Lord forbids us to do certain acts, but at the same time admonishes us to endure with meekness the same treatment at the hands of another.

CHAPTER 9

(1) Not even that form of impatience which results from the loss of our dear ones is excused, although in this case a sort of rightful claim to grieve justifies it... (3) He who has gone ahead is not to be mourned, though certainly he will be missed. But this lonesomeness must be alleviated by patience. Moreover, impatience in such things is a sad indication of our own hope and gives the lie to our faith.

 
CHAPTER 10

(1) There is another, and very strong, motive which gives rise to impatience, namely, the desire for revenge ... it takes the upper hand in executing vengeance and, in paying back the evil, does twice as much as was done in the first place.

(2) Revenge mistakenly appears to be a soothing of one's pain, but in the light of truth it is seen to be only evil contending with evil. What difference is there between the one who provokes and the one provoked except that the one is caught doing wrong sooner than the other? Nevertheless, before the Lord each is guilty of having injured a fellow man and the Lord forbids and condemns every act of wrong-doing.

(7) When He says: 'Do not judge, that you may not be judged,' is He not demanding patience? What man will refrain from judging another except one who will forego (the right) of self-defense? What man judges with the intention of forgiving? And if he does forgive, he has but shied away from the impatience of a man who judges and has usurped the honor of the true Judge, that is, God!

(8) What misfortunes has such impatience, as a rule, brought upon itself! How often has it regretted its self-defense! How often has its obstinacy become worse than the occasions which provoked it! Now, nothing undertaken through impatience can be transacted without violence, and everything done with violence has either met with no success or has collapsed or has plunged to its own destruction.

(9) If you are too mild in your self-defense, you will be acting like a madman; if your defense is excessive, you will be depressed. Why should I be concerned about revenge when I cannot regulate its extent because of my inability to endure pain? Whereas, if I yield and suffer the injury, I shall have no pain; and if I have no pain, I shall have no desire for revenge.

CHAPTER 11

(1) Widespread and extensive are the workings of the Evil One who extends innumerable incentives to impatience which, at times, are slight, at times very great. (2) The slight ones you should ignore for their insignificance; to the great you should yield in view of their invincible power. When the injury is not very important, there is no need for impatience, but when the injury is more serious, then there is greater need for a remedy against the injury, namely, patience.

(3) Let us strive, then, to bear the injuries that are inflicted by the Evil One, that the struggle to maintain our self-control may put to shame the enemy's efforts.

CHAPTER 12

(1) As for what pertains to the practice of this peace so pleasing to God (I ask you): What man, completely given over to impatience, will forgive his brother, I will not say seven times and seventy times seven times, but even once? (2) What man, taking his case with his adversary to a judge, will settle his trouble to the accommodation of the other party, unless he first puts an end to his wrath, his resentment, his harshness and bitterness, that is, his impatient disposition?

(3) How will you forgive and experience forgiveness if you cling to your injury through a total lack of patience? No one whose mind is violently disturbed against his brother will complete his offering at the altar unless first he has been reconciled to his brother through patience. (4) If the sun goes down upon our anger, we are in danger. We may not live a single day without patience. Yet, since patience governs every aspect of a salutary way of life, what wonder that it also paves the way for repentance which, as a rule, comes to the assistance of those who have fallen?

(5) What benefits it produces in both parties when, in spite of their forbearance from their marriage rights--provided it be only for that reason which makes it lawful for a man or woman to persist in their separation--it waits for, hopes for, wins by its prayers repentance for those who will eventually be saved. It purifies the one without causing the other to become an adulterer!

(6) So, too, in those examples in our Lord's parables there is a breath of patience: it is the patience of the shepherd that seeks and finds the straying sheep (for impatience would readily take no account of a single sheep, whereas patience undertakes the wearisome search) and he carries it on his shoulders, a patient bearer of a forsaken sinner.

(7) In the case of the prodigal son, too, it is the patience of his father that welcomes him and clothes him and feeds him and finds an excuse for him in the face of the impatience of his angry brother. The one who had perished is rescued, therefore, because he embraced repentance; repentance is not wasted because it meets up with patience!

(9) 'Charity,' he says, 'is magnanimous.' It derives this from patience. 'It is kind.' Patience works no evil. 'It does not envy.' Envy is certainly a characteristic of impatience. 'It is not pretentious.' It has derived its contentment from patience. 'It is not puffed up, is not ambitious,' for that does not befit patience. 'It is not self-seeking.' It suffers (the loss of) its own goods provided that it be to another's advantage. 'It is not provoked.'

What, then, would it have left to impatience? Therefore, he says, 'charity bears with all things, endures all things.'

CHAPTER 15

(1) God is fully capable of being the trustee of our patience: if you place in His hands an injustice you have suffered, He will see that justice is done; if a loss, He will see that you receive compensation; if a pain, He acts as healer; if death, He restores life. How much is granted to patience that it should have God for a debtor!

(2) And not without reason. For it pays attention to all His prescriptions, it becomes surety for all His commands: it strengthens faith, governs peace, sustains love, instructs humility, awaits repentance, places its seal upon the discipline of penance, controls the flesh, preserves the spirit, puts restraint upon the tongue, holds back the (violent) hand, treads under foot temptations, pushes scandal aside, consummates martyrdom.

(3) In poverty it supplies consolation; upon wealth it imposes moderation; the sick it does not destroy, nor does it, for the man in health, prolong his life; for the man of faith it is a source of delight. It attracts the heathen, recommends the slave to his master, the master to God. It adorns a woman, perfects a man. It is loved in a child, praised in a youth, esteemed in the aged. In both man and woman, at every age of life, it is exceedingly attractive.

(4) Now, then! If you will, let us try to grasp the features and appearance of patience. Its countenance is peaceful and untroubled. Its brow is clear, unruffled by any lines of melancholy or anger. The eyebrows are relaxed, giving an impression of joyousness. The eyes are lowered, in an attitude rather of humility than moroseness. (5) The mouth is closed in becoming silence. Its complexion is that of the serene and blameless. It shakes its head frequently in the direction of the Devil, and its laughter conveys a threat to him. The upper part of its garment is white and close-fitting so that it is not blown about or disturbed (by the wind)...

(7) When the Spirit of God descends, patience is His inseparable companion. If we fail to welcome it along with the Spirit, will the latter remain within us at all times? As a matter of fact, I rather think the Spirit would not remain at all. Without its companion and assistant it would feel very uncomfortable anywhere and at any time. It could not endure, all by itself, the blows which its enemy inflicts, if stripped of the means which helps it to endure.

CHAPTER 16

(1) ...This the operation of the patience which is divine and true, namely, Christian; a patience not like the patience practiced by the peoples of the earth, which is false and disgraceful... (5) Let us, then, love the patience that is of God, the patience of Christ; let us return to Him that which He expended for us; let us who believe in the resurrection of the flesh and of the spirit offer Him both the patience of the spirit and the patience of the flesh.

Thomas F. Fischer
 

* This nineteenth century text is in the public domain.
Source URL: http://listserv.american.edu/catholic/church/fathers/tertullian/ter-pati.txt

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