Patience a Virtue. Impatience a Sin?

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned….” Among the most frequently confessed sins are anger, being judgmental, and impatience. “Patience is a virtue.” We’re all familiar with that expression. Patience is listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 as among the fruit of the Spirit. So, there’s no disputing that the Christian ought to be patient. But is impatience a sin? W. H. Auden, the English-American poet, wrote “Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.” Insightful about the human condition to be sure, but not sure that has standing in the world of moral theology.

We don’t like to wait. When we’re children, we want to be teenagers. Teenagers want to be in college. College students want to be in the “real world.” We seem wired to achieve a milestone and, almost before we can even begin to enjoy it, we instantly want the next thing. This carries over to everyday life, where modern technology means that you rarely have to wait. Want to watch a movie? Stream it immediately. Want to read a book? Download it to your e-reader and begin instantly. Have a quick question for a friend? Text him and he’ll likely interrupt an actual conversation to read your message and answer. Our natural desire for instant gratification is fostered more and more by retailers such as Amazon and Walmart offering same-day delivery, national grocery chains with online grocery shopping and daily delivery, or Disney World selling a pass allowing you to jump to the front of the line.

Narayan Janakiriman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas has done studies on instant gratification’s effect on our society. He concludes, “The need for instant gratification is not new, but our expectation of ‘instant’ has become faster, and as a result, our patience is thinner.”  But how thin does patience have to be in order to be sinful? And why is patience a virtue, anyway?

Think about how you might define patience. Some define it as “waiting without complaint.” Sounds good, but if so, patience might seem to be a morally insignificant trait. What’s so virtuous about not complaining? In itself, not complaining carries no particular virtue. Suppose a person awaits the arrival of a friend from out of town, and spends the time contentedly reading or watching television. We wouldn’t say that, simply because they’re not complaining, they exhibit patience. Of course, there is patience and then there is patience. Consider these circumstances:

The first type is the patience needed when facing a nuisance of some kind. A person or a set of circumstances really irritates you, and you’d love to complain about it, but you hold your tongue, knowing that such a grievance would be petty or simply compound the problem. That person at the office who is so insufferably annoying doesn’’t, after all, mean to pester you. And what good will it do to moan about those potholes on your street? So, you quietly endure these things.

A second type of patience is called for when facing boredom. Those who fall into a rut at work or at home often experience unease over the uneventful routine. To those who don’t struggle with boredom, it might seem absurd to suggest it can be a serious trial. But those who endure the plague of drab routine without complaint exhibit the virtue of patience.

A third type of patience is the most serious and significant. It is the patience required when one suffers in some way, either physically or psychologically. Be it your struggle or that you must assist someone else who suffers, a family member or friend, then you are called upon to be patient. Whether you bear the burden of affliction directly or indirectly, your challenge is to endure that discomfort.

Might I suggest that it is the attending discomfort that makes one’s lack of complaint virtuous. Perhaps we can say that to be patient is to endure discomfort without complaint. This calls into play some other virtues, specifically, self-control, humility, and generosity. That is, patience is not a fundamental virtue so much as a complex of other virtues. But what about impatience?

Interestingly, the classical understanding of the opposite of patience was not called impatience, but “wrath.” This is understandable since we often feel anger, resentment, and indignation when we’re impatient. So, if inwardly we are feeling anger, resentment, and indignation – have we now crossed the boundary into sin? What about self-control, humility, and generosity in this same moment?

It seems to me that a person would be sorely tempted to say something, be uncharitable, and let it all affect his relationship – and as tempting as it might be, it is also accompanied by grace to be patient. And we have a choice. To choose the grace and at the same time feel the impatience is perhaps one of the most Christian of moments. We face a choice: Do what our inner emotion would have us do – perhaps say a harsh word, sever the relationship, etc. – or choose what God asks and act in patient charity.

Patience is indeed a virtue, life is making it awful thin, but grace abounds.

Image credit: Pexels, BY-CC

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