The virtue of impatience?


By Corinne Winter

How many times have we heard, “Patience is a virtue?” So often perhaps that the saying itself tests our patience. It is, of course, true.
The season of Advent is often associated with patience. We identify with the people of Israel waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We hear the words of prophets urging their people to hold on, to continue trusting in God’s faithful love no matter how far removed it may seem. In our liturgical prayers we express our own longing for the ultimate fulfillment begun and promised in Jesus the Christ. “Maranatha, Come, O Lord,” we cry.

Corinne Winter

In contrast with the busy-ness of the commercial and social season, we are encouraged to find times of quiet, to seek an inner peace that makes space for God’s Word and work in us. And the hectic nature of our experience makes that quiet, that peace, that patience especially vital. But the Advent readings and prayers seem to me to sound other notes as well, ones that may be described as impatient in a couple of ways.

First, there is the note of eagerness. God is asked to come quickly, not to delay in answering the prayers. Delay is described as reflecting badly on God’s own power. People will see that God’s people are languishing and will mock their God.


While I understand that the prayers of the psalmists and the comforting words of the prophets most likely had to do with immediate situations facing the people to whom or on whose behalf they were addressed, theological reflection applies the same eagerness to our prayers for God’s ultimate victory. That is an application I personally find challenging. As troubled as the world certainly is, I sometimes fear asking for changes I don’t fully understand. How seriously and openly do I pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done?” But I am exhorted to ask that eagerly, to long for its fulfillment.

Eagerness is, of course, compatible with patience. Patience keeps eagerness from becoming a pathological anxiety. And eagerness keeps patience from devolving into complacency.

A second form of impatience applies to practices of injustice, especially to those that have become so embedded that they may be taken for granted. Repeatedly during the season of Advent, we hear the prophets condemn such practices as exploitation or neglect of others, especially of the most vulnerable — widows, orphans and strangers. The warnings are harsh and sometimes even acted out in dramatic fashion. The practice or even the toleration of injustice separates the people from God and merits divine wrath.

We, then, ought to be impatient with and intolerant of injustice in our own world. We need to cry out against and when possible to act out against attitudes, laws and customs that deny the human rights of any group or individual. We need to understand systems of privilege and try to overcome even those from which we ourselves benefit.

As the news makes us aware of so many issues, that calling also seems overwhelming at times. If I spend all my time condemning the wrongs that I see and joining in the fight to establish just laws and systems, when will I find time even for prayer, much less for family and friends?
So, perhaps what I need to seek this Advent is wisdom, wisdom to find the proper balance for my own life. When is it time to speak out, to join actively in a particular struggle and when is it time to support others in their efforts? When is it time to be patient, to be quiet, to wait for the Lord and when is it time to be eager, impatient, intolerant of wrongs?

(Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)

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