Love in Action (2) — Immense Patience

If you weren’t here last week, we started a new sermon series on love. We talked about how important love is in living the Christian life, and I described love as “true north”, because it is the one thing that should motivate everything we say and everything we do. All of God’s other commands are centered in this one command.

But the key is that love is something we have to do. “Love doesn’t just think about it. Love doesn’t just plan it. Love does it.” And I said that our central verse throughout this study is going to be I John 3:18 (NLT), “Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.”

And our key thought in last week’s lesson was, “In order to love people, you have to be with them.” We talked about how God wants to be with us, and how, if we are going to love others, we have got to be with them.

This morning, we’re going to talk about another important characteristic of love. I don’t know if kids in school take home report cards anymore, but when I was growing up, the teachers gave us report cards to take home, and one of our parents had to sign it.

I heard a story recently about a little boy who brought his report card home. Unfortunately, it had a couple of “F’s” on it, and he was nervous about showing it to his parents. But he came up with a plan. He brought it to his dad and he said, “Dad, here’s my report card, along with a couple of your old report cards I found in the attic.” Pretty smart kid!

I never really understood those letter grades, though. We all know that “F” stands for fail. But F is the only letter grade that stands for anything. “A” doesn’t stand for “awesome”. “C” is average, but average doesn’t start with the letter “C”. “B” and “D” don’t stand for anything. And then they skip from D to F. I always wondered whatever happened to the letter E. But “F” is the only letter that stands for something. It stands for “Fail”.

And getting an “F” can be a devastating experience. Now, you may not have ever received an “F” on a report card, but chances are you have failed at something in your life, because all of us fail at one time or another. Not everyone succeeds in life, but at some point, everyone will fail at something. But failure doesn’t have to define you. Just because you have failed, that doesn’t make you a failure.

In his book Love Does, Bob Goff tells about the biggest failure in his life. It happened when he was a young man at his very first real job. It was at a fancy restaurant, so fancy that the waiters wore tuxedoes. At first, Bob’s job was a busboy, cleaning off the tables. He spent a year doing that, just waiting for the opportunity to move up to being a waiter, because that’s where you got the big tips.

Finally, after one year of cleaning tables, Bob was told to go get a tuxedo and start as a waiter. Bob was so excited, but it didn’t go very well. In fact, he did something at his very first table that caused him to be fired on the spot. Now, I won’t tell you what he did. I’ll let him tell you this evening at our house at 6:00, but let me just tell you that it was a failure of epic proportions.

But, I’m sure that all of you have a similar story of a time in your life when you messed up on the job or in a relationship or at school or in your spiritual life, because we all have times in our lives when we have failed.

And it may not be too far off the mark to say that God intentionally guides people into failure. I mean, think about it. God made us as little kids who can’t walk or talk or even use the bathroom properly. We have to be taught everything, and, in the process of learning, we fail over and over and over. All of that learning takes time. The whole thing is designed so we try again and again until we finally get it right. And through it all, from the time we are children to the time when we are adults making some of those same mistakes when we were younger, God is endlessly patient.

Just look through the Bible. The Bible reads like a “who’s who” of failures. Hebrews 11 has often been called the roll call of faith, but it could also be called the roll call of failures. Noah got drunk. Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife. Jacob and his mother Rebecca lied to Isaac in order to steal the blessing that belonged to Esau. Moses killed a man and because he lost his temper, he failed to enter the Promised Land. David, the greatest king Israel ever had, failed miserably when he murdered a man and took his wife.

And then, you get to the apostles, and you’ve got these men who walked with Jesus for three years, but they still messed up over and over. Jesus teaches them time and again about his upcoming death and resurrection, but they were still devastated when Jesus died, and shocked when he was raised. He taught them repeatedly about being humble, and yet over and over they argued about who was the greatest. Worst of all, one of his closest friends, Peter, denied three times that he even knew Jesus!

Yet, despite their many failures and despite how slow they were to learn, Jesus still loved them. He was so very patient with them. Failure is just part of the process. And, fortunately, God doesn’t make it a three-strikes-and-you’re-out sort of thing. Rather, every time we mess up, God picks us back up and puts us back on our feet. And he doesn’t keep a record of all the times we messed up in the past.

John Maxwell has said, “Failing doesn’t mean I’m a failure; it just means I have not yet succeeded. It doesn’t mean I’ve accomplished nothing; it just means I’ve learned something. It doesn’t mean I’ve been a fool; it just means I’ve had the courage to take a risk. It doesn’t mean God has abandoned me; it just means He has a better idea!”

So, as we look at all of these people in the Bible who failed, how did God deal with them? And I think the best answer to that question is given to us by the apostle Paul in I Timothy 1. As Paul reflects back over the failures in his life, which included participating in the murder of Christians, Paul said,

“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (I Timothy 1:16)

I like the way the NIV translates this verse, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience…” (I Timothy 1:16, NIV)

You see, God shows “immense patience”. And I’ll be honest with you. I think this is one of the hardest things for me to understand about God’s love. I truly don’t understand it. And many times, I have asked the question, “God, why are you so patient with me?”

I’m so inconsistent. One minute I’m praising God, the next minute I’m complaining. One minute I’m kind to other people, the next minute I rush right past someone who’s in need. One minute I promise to honor God, the next minute I’m doing something to get the glory for myself.

Yet, through it all, God is patient. God is immensely patient. It’s not just one of his characteristics. It’s who he is.

In Exodus 34, when Moses went up to Mount Sinai, the Lord descended in a cloud (I’m still trying to get my head around what that must have been like) and he proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6). The Contemporary English Version translates what God said, “I am merciful and very patient with my people.” That’s who I am! I’m immensely patient.

And it’s important that we realize that the Lord isn’t patient with us because we deserve it. He’s patient with us because it’s who he is. He doesn’t lose patience with those he loves, because patience is his very nature.

As I said earlier, all of us will fail at some point in our lives and unfortunately, some Christians base their self-worth on the level or frequency of failures that they have experienced. I often hear it put something like this, “I just can’t seem to forgive myself for what I did.” Because, in our minds, being a success means never failing, never messing up. But that’s just not true.

In 1923, Babe Ruth broke the record for most home runs in a season. But, there’s another record he broke that year that most people don’t know about. In 1923, Babe Ruth struck out more times than any other player in Major League Baseball. Despite the number of times that he failed, we regard him as a success.

Michael Jordan has a commercial in which he says that he missed more than 9000 shots in his career. 26 times, he was trusted to take the game winning shot and he missed. He failed over and over and over again. And yet, we regard him as a success, one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived.

You see, we don’t judge great athletes by their failures. And God doesn’t base our value on our failures. The truth is that God loved us even when we were extreme failures. In Romans 5:8, we’re told that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Why would God do that? Because of his “immense patience”. And if we, as God’s people, are going to imitate God, and if we are going to fill our lives with a love that looks like God’s love, then we are going to have to learn to show “immense patience” toward those who are around us.

Look again at I Timothy 1:16. Why did God show immense patience to Paul? Paul says, “For that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

God showed immense patience with Paul to serve as an example to those of us who are Christians. Which means that God shows immense patience with us so that we can learn how to show immense patience with others.

You may not have noticed this, but people all around us are going to fail. People all around us are going to mess up. Now, I understand that our preference is that everyone around us always does what is right. We would hope (and sometimes maybe we even expect) that everyone around us will always be kind, and will always do the loving thing, and will never do anything stupid.

But, the truth is that our husband or wife is going to mess up from time to time. Our children and our parents are going to mess up. Our friends are going to mess up. The people we work with or go to school with are going to mess up. The people sitting around you here are going to mess up.

I love what Liz Reynolds once said. She said, “It wouldn’t be hard to be patient if it weren’t for other people.”

But when other people fail, when other people mess up, we have a choice to make. How are we going to react to their failure? Are we going to get insulted and offended? Are we going to write them off and have nothing to do with them? Or, are we going to be like God and show “immense patience”?

And maybe that’s the reason why I have so much trouble understanding how God can be so patient with me, because I know how impatient I can be with others at times. I know how easy it is to get frustrated with people who fail, or people who don’t measure up to my level of expectation. Now, when I mess up, I want others to extend grace to me. But I’m not always so quick or so willing to extend it to others.

But, if love is going to be “true north” in our lives, if love is going to be the one thing that motivates everything we say and everything we do, then we are going to have to learn to be immensely patient with people.

And it’s important that we understand why we’re called to be patient. We’re not just patient with people because it’s a nice thing to do or because it keeps our blood pressure from sky-rocketing. We’re patient with people so that we can point them to Jesus.

Because we have so many opportunities to show the love of God, not by preaching or prodding or pleading, but simply by being patient. Waiting instead of whining. Smiling instead of stewing. Taking our place in line with a calm spirit. Letting someone in need go ahead of us. And don’t you ever forget that people are paying attention.

Bob Goff tells about a time when he traveled to speak at a large church. It was a quick trip and he had to get back to the airport early the next morning. He went to return his car at Avis, and he said that he got “that guy”. And you all know who I’m talking about, because we’ve all gotten him, the slowest worker in the whole place. Bob said his clothes were going out of style while he was waiting for this guy to wait on him.

But finally, the guy came over and as he took the car keys from Bob, he said, “How was your trip?” and Bob was tempted to give him a piece of his mind, but he was making every attempt to show “immense patience”, so he simply said, “It was fine, thank you.” He finished up turning the car in, then headed over to the airport to make a new reservation because now he had missed his flight. But, as he was walking away, the guy called after him and said, “Mr. Goff, I really appreciated what you had to say in your sermon last night.”

People are watching. And we want to show immense patience in order to point people to Jesus. You can’t talk about Jesus here in this room and then go out and be anything other than immensely patient.

In I Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says to “Be patient with everyone.”

In Ephesians 4:1-2, Paul said, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”

Paul says we need to be patient, but he also says that involves “bearing with one another in love”. The New American Standard uses the phrase “showing tolerance.” The idea is to patiently put up with someone who has done you wrong.

And, as I said, the reality of life is that people are going to let you down from time to time, they’re going to disappoint you. Even your brothers and sisters in Christ. Even your family members. People will say things to you that aren’t very kind, they’ll have an attitude that isn’t what it ought to be, or they’ll do something that’s not very Christlike. And that’s where patience enters into the concept of love.

Patience means continuing to put up with someone even though he has let you down time and time again. It means being slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Because that the way God loves. He shows immense patience. There’s a traditional story told by Jewish rabbis in which Abraham was sitting outside his tent one evening when he saw a tired old man coming toward him. Abraham rushed out, greeted him, and then invited him into his tent. There he washed the old man’s feet and gave him food and drink.

The old man immediately began eating without saying any prayer or blessing. So Abraham asked him, “Don’t you worship God?”

The old traveler replied, “I worship fire only and reverence no other god.”

When he heard this, Abraham became incensed, grabbed the old man by the shoulders, and threw him out of his tent into the cold night air.

When the old man had departed, God called to his friend Abraham and asked where the stranger was. Abraham replied, “I forced him out because he did not worship you.”

And God answered, “I have suffered him these eighty years although he dishonors me. Could you not endure him one night?”

Our God shows immense patience, and he expects for us to do the same. I think the most convicting of all of Jesus’ parables has to be the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18. You’re familiar with the story. There’s a king who forgives one of his servants a debt of 10,000 talents, the equivalent of 20 years’ wages. But then that servant went out and found a servant who owed him a hundred denarii, three months’ wages. And he refused to forgive that debt.

And, of course, the point of the story is that it doesn’t make sense that someone who is forgiven so much would be so unwilling to forgive someone else. It doesn’t make sense for those of us who have experienced God’s immense patience to not be patient with others.

Think about just how patient God has been with each and every one of us. We all struggle with temptation. We make mistakes over and over and over again, coming back to God time and again, promising to do better. If God didn’t have an immense patience, he wouldn’t be able to even hear our pray¬ers without giving up on us.

It’s like that game that all one-year-olds love to play. They’ll sit in their high chair and throw a spoon down on the floor just to watch Mommy and Daddy pick it up. Then they’ll throw a fork, then a biscuit, then a big bowl of oatmeal. By this time, Mommy and Daddy are getting tired of the game and they’ll put a stop to it.

But we all do the same thing with God, don’t we? Over and over again, we throw down righteousness. And over and over again, God picks it back up. He shows such immense patience. And I’m so glad that we have a patient God. Because if he wasn’t, we all would have been wiped out a long time ago.

So, who is there in your life that you need to show more patience toward? Who is there in your life that you have a tendency to irritated with really quick? It’s easier to be patient with those we love so most, so as we grow in our love, we will find it easier to be patient. And at those moments when you find it most difficult, just think about how God has been patient with you, and ask him to fill your life with his immense patience.

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