The deluge of information and competition in our culture provokes a particular kind of vice and anxiety in me; the feeling that I must produce and perform beyond my creaturely capacities. I must present to the world a perfect image of myself with no sense of development or change. I have studied for four years, written a thesis, and I am now in full-time ministry; i feel that I must have something to say, and if I am to be heard I must say it loudly and quickly. Another way to put this is that I am impatient to do theology and to do it well. I want immediate results; I don’t want to have to wait to become a good theologian.
John Webster, a theologian I am coming to enjoy more and more, confronted me with my impatience in an essay where he articulates the nature and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Towards the end of the article he offers this rebuke to any who desire to grow in the knowledge and love of God, though he orients his comment towards theologians:
“Theological work, including theological interpretation, requires the exercise of patience. This is because in theology things go slowly. We are temporal creatures, we do not relieve revelation in a single moment; and we are sinful creatures whose idolatry and inattention are only gradually overcome…. We must be patient, suffering God’s works, looking for the coming of the Spirit to instruct us in the truth of the Word. Webster, The Dominion of the Word, 31).
My desire to produce theology in a moment of inspiration is grounded in my habitual vice of impatience and my idol of a self-image of someone who has something important to share. In this passage, Webster argues that impatient theology is a rejection of our humanity and our need for redemption. Theology cannot be done in the key of self-created genius, or emotive inspiration, or rational self-propulsion, but only in submission to the one who is my creator and redeemer. Ultimately theology must be done in the context of God’s own patience.
1 Peter 3:9 says, The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
God’s patience towards his creatures is grounded in the plentitude of his love and goodness. Out of the infinite and eternal life of God, he shows patience to his creatures- Psalm 103:13, he remembers that we are dust – who are in dead in their sin – Rom. 5:6-8, For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. In the economy of salvation, we are the recipients of God’s patience towards us as creatures and sinners demonstrated in the long-suffering of God and the salvation wrought in Christ, and we are given his patience through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
To do theology well, I must receive the gift of patience and participate in the mortification of my idols and impatience. Receiving this gift means attending to being patient with my own limitations, accepting that I am a creature who is limited, and I must be patient with the Holy Spirit’s slow work of sanctification. In other words, my growth as a theologian is co-terminus with my steady growth in sanctification.
The gift of the Holy Spirit and the working of Christ’s patience within me frees me from the anxiety to produce something brilliant or worthwhile. I can be free to faithfully seek God in my ministry, my studies, my writing, and my prayers. Patience in theology means relying on the one who I am called to write about and study; it means resting in his providential guidance of my study as he redeems my desires and intellect, turning them towards their proper end: the knowledge, love, and communion with the Triune God.
Finally, the patience that God has towards me and the patience he gives me in my pursuit of him turns towards my ministry, towards patience with others in the church. Here a whole host of idols and vices arise, like my desire to see lives changed (so that I can be seen as a successful minister). When I do not see the results that I think i should, I grow impatient and bitter. Webster’s insight about theology works here as well. If theology is slow because it is God working out the sanctifying of our minds and hearts, so will the sanctification of whole lives and communities be gradual. This gives me hope as I look to a lifelong vocation of ministry in Christ’s church. If God can be patient with me in my wandering pursuit of him as he mortifies and vivifies my mind and heart, how much more so am I called to be patient with his body the church?