Just as humility breeds gentleness, gentleness will inevitably lead to patience. In many respects, they are almost synonymous. The word in Ephesians 4:2 is long-tempered.
For example, think of Noah, who spent 120 years of his life building a giant boat on dry land even though it had never rained on the earth. That’s a long time. Meanwhile, Peter tells us that Noah was a herald or preacher of righteousness (2Pe 2:5). You can imagine the kind of criticism he received from his neighbors, but he stood his ground. Not only did Noah keep building, but he also declared the truth of God’s coming judgment. He suffered all kinds of shame and humiliation, yet remained blameless before God and the people around him.
Frankly, we can study the lives of every prophet in the Old Testament and see the same thing. James wrote, “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast” (Jas 5:10, 11).
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, he told Jeremiah that he would be hated and persecuted. What did Jeremiah do? He served God faithfully and patiently to the very end. When God told Isaiah to speak, he also said that no one would listen to him. Israel would refuse to turn from their sin, but Isaiah did as God instructed.
Aristotle once said that the greatest virtue of the Greeks was refusing to tolerate insults. In his mind, having the pride and courage to strike back was characteristic of a noble person. God, on the other hand, rejects that notion. He calls his people to be patient, to be long-tempered, to accept his circumstances, and to respond with humble, gentle godliness.
Elsewhere, Paul says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1Th 5:14, 15).
That’s an excellent passage to consider in light of what Paul is telling the Ephesians. Consider the context. Throughout the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul has encouraged the Gentiles to embrace their inclusion in the church despite the potential hardships of joining together with the radically different culture and mindset of the Jews. “The Gentiles are fellow heirs,” Paul said, “members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6).
Ephesians 4 emphasizes learning how to be humble, gentle, and patient, not with the world, but with our brothers and sisters in the church. Again, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1Th 5:14). He’s instructing the church how to deal not with the world but with one another.
There are times when our fellow saints become idle. There are times when others become fainthearted. Our brothers and sisters may become weak. Anyone of these scenarios can lead to a degree of difficulty and possible conflict between us. How so? Take a look at Romans 14. Paul says, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Ro 14:1).
The believer who is weak in faith may lack a sound theological understanding of many things. His faith is shallow. As a result, he perceives things differently than his stronger brothers in the church. In short, they’ll disagree with one another. In the case of the Romans, one man says it’s okay to eat meat from the Gentile marketplace while another man calls it a sin.
Which man is right is hardly essential to Paul. He concludes, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Ro 14:17). In this case, it doesn’t matter who’s right. It is far more critical that we learn to preserve peace in the church by being patient, learning to be long-tempered.
I’ve been in the ministry for a little over ten years now. I’ve sat across the table from a member of the church who I could see was drifting from one point of biblical truth or another. They’d say something that tripped all kinds of alarm bells in my head. Uh oh, I thought, I better straighten this person out before it goes too far.
Along the way, I’ve learned to move a bit slower, though I’m tempted to pounce much like that wild lion. I’m ready to tear apart someone’s wrong thinking in an instant. The truth is, the aggressive approach usually drives a person further away. I always want to speak the truth and speak it boldly, but I also need to be patient. There’s a reason Paul spent a year and a half with the Corinthians. There’s a reason he spent three years with the Ephesians. The truth of the Bible is not about winning an argument with someone; it’s about transforming the mind, which takes time.
“That’s fine,” you say, “if we’re talking about trivial subjects such as eating meat from a pagan sacrifice. But what if the issue at hand is a bit more substantial? What if, let’s say, someone’s error goes much deeper?” Paul’s answer is the same. Be humble, gentle, and patient. Bear with one another.