Gleanings from Paul
by A. W. Pink
23. Prayer for Long Suffering
"Strengthened With All Might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness" (Col. 1:11). This is the third petition of the prayer, and we will begin our remarks upon it by pointing out its relation to those preceding it, particularly verse 10. First, it seems to us that whereas verse 10 treats more of the active side of the Christian life, verse 11 has more definitely in view its passive side. Or, to express it in another way, whereas the former intimates the use we should make of communicated grace in a way of doing, this teaches us how to improve that grace in a way of suffering. And is not this usually the order in which divine providence affords the saint occasion to discharge each of those responsibilities? When the Christian is young and vigorous, those graces which are expressed in the performing of good works are afforded their fullest opportunity. But as natural strength and youthful zeal abate, as trials and infirmities increase, there is a call for another set of graces to be exercised, namely, patience and long-suffering. Even in old age, or even while lying upon a bed of sickness and helplessness, the Christian walks worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing if he meekly bears his appointed lot and does not murmur. And certainly he is bearing fruit to the glory of God if he endures his trials cheerfully and is "longsuffering with joyfulness."
The Consequence of "Walking Worthy of the Lord"
But we may trace a yet closer relation between the two verses. If by grace the child of God is enabled to walk worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him well, being fruitful in every good work, what is certain to be the consequence? He will not only increase in the practical knowledge of God but also incur the hatred of his fellowmen. The closer he cleaves to the standard set before him, the more conscientious he is about wholly following the Lord, the more he will stir up the enmity of the flesh, the world, and the devil. The more he endeavors to deny self and be out and out for Christ, the more opposition he will encounter, especially from those who profess but do not possess, who detest none so much as those whose uncompromising strictness exposes and condemns their vain pretensions. Yes, young Christian, you must be fully prepared for this and expect nothing else. The closer you walk with Christ the more you will be persecuted. And what does such opposition, such hatred, such persecution and affliction call for from us? What will enable us to stand our ground and keep us from lowering the banner? What but being "strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness"?
Knowledge of God Through Obedience to His Precepts
Finally, a still closer connection may be seen in linking the closing clause of verse 10 with what follows in verse 11: "increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." This will be the more apparent as we bear in mind the particular kind of "knowledge of God" which is spoken of here: not one that is obtained by theological study and reasoning, nor even by meditative devotions, but rather one which is acquired through obedience to His precepts. The order of the Greek—"increasing in the knowledge of God: with all might being strengthened"—makes this still clearer: the latter follows upon the former. Those who have schooled themselves to heed God’s commandments will find it far easier than others do to submit themselves to His providential will. Those who have lived to please God rather than themselves are the ones least likely to be stumbled by afflictions, and are the last to sink in despair under them. Those who are zealous of good works will possess their souls with patience in adversity and cheerfully endure when the enemy rages against them.
We are the losers if we do not pay the closest attention to the order of the petitions in the prayers of the apostle and the relation of one petition to the other; for we not only fail to perceive their real import but miss valuable lessons for our spiritual lives. Those who cursorily scan them instead of giving them prolonged meditation rob their own souls. Many Christians bemoan their lack of "patience" under affliction. These must be startled if not staggered by weighing this expression, "longsuffering with joyfulness." Yet how few of them are aware of the reason why they are strangers to such an experience. That cause is here plainly revealed: it is due to the fact that they have been so little "strengthened with all might according to his glorious power." And that, in turn, is because they have "increased" so little "in the knowledge of God," i.e., that personal proving of the goodness, the acceptableness, and the perfection of the will of God (Rom. 12:1), which is obtained through obediently walking with Him, making a point of pleasing Him in all things, and "being fruitful in every good work." Failure in the practical side of our Christian lives explains why our "experience" is so unsatisfactory.
"Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness"
(Col. 1:11). It will appear to some of our readers that we are drawing out this series to a wearisome length, but others will be thankful to find in them something more profitable than the brief and superficial generalizations which characterize most of the religious literature of this day. Our aim in them is to not only furnish bare expositions of the passages before us but to foster a spirit of devotion and provide that which will be of practical use in the daily life of the Christian. Take this present verse as an example. It is indeed important that the reader should obtain a correct idea of the terms used in it, yet he needs much more than that. To supply a full and lucid definition of what "patience" is, and then to exhort one who is in acutely trying circumstances to exercise that grace, will be of little real help. To tell him to pray for an increase of it is saying nothing more than he already knows. But to point out how patience is worked and increased in us, what are the means for the development of it and the things which hinder—in short, what God requires from us in order to increase its growth—will surely be more to the point.
What the Apostle Prays For
First, the apostle prays that the saints might be "strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power." Such language implies that it was not ordinary strength for which he here asked, but rather unusual "glorious power" for the particular task in view. His language argues that he had in mind an exercise of grace more difficult than any other, one from which our constitutions are so naturally remote that more than ordinary diligence and earnestness must be put forth by us at the mercy seat in obtaining this urgently needed supply. Every act of grace by us must have an act of divine power going before it to draw it forth into exercise. As the "work of faith" is "with power" (2 Thess. 1:11), so the work of faith to bear afflictions requires divine strengthening of the soul; and to acquit ourselves with "all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness" necessitates our being "strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power."
To be "strengthened with all might" signifies to be mightily strengthened, to be given a supply of grace amply sufficient for the end in view. It means spiritual energy proportioned to whatever is needed, with all the believer may have occasion for, to enable him to discharge his duty and carry himself in a manner pleasing and honoring to God. "According to his glorious power" implies both the excellence and sufficiency of it. The glory of God’s power is most seen when it appears as overcoming power, when victory attends it, as when we read that "Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father" (Rom. 6:4). Thus the apostle sets over against our utter weakness the "all might" of divine grace, and "his glorious power" against our sinful corruption. The special use to which this strength was to be put is "unto all patience," that is, sufficient for the enduring of all trials; and "longsuffering" would be patience drawn out to its greatest length; "with joyfulness" signifies not only submitting to trials without repining, but doing so gladly, rejoicing in the Lord always. This third petition, then, was for a supply of grace that would enable the saints to bear all trials with meek subjection, persevering constancy, and cheerfulness of spirit.
Help Available as Needed
Again we see what an exalted standard of conduct is set before us, yet at the same time what blessed supplies of help are available. Do not say such a standard is utterly unattainable when the Lord declares, "My grace is sufficient for thee"—sufficient not only to enable you to endure "a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet" but also to make you resolve, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:7, 9). Do not look in unbelief on either the number or might of your enemies or on your own weakness, but in the confidence of humble but expectant faith say, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). Is not this "glorious strength" indeed, which enables its recipients to persevere in the path of duty notwithstanding much opposition, to bear up manfully under trials, yes, to rejoice in tribulations? What a glorious power is this which is proportioned to all we are called upon to do and suffer, enabling us to resist the corruptions of the flesh, the allurements of the world, and the temptations of the devil; which keeps us from sinking into abject despair or making shipwreck of the faith; which causes us to hold our course to the end.
How is "all might" secured? Some would say it is by no endeavor of ours; we in our helplessness can do no more in obtaining grace for the soul than the parched ground can do in causing refreshing showers to descend from heaven; we must submit to God’s sovereign determination and hope for the best. But that is a denial of the Christian’s responsibility. God indeed asks nothing from the ground, for it is an inanimate and irrational creature. But it is far different with moral agents—the more so when He has regenerated them. "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required" (Luke 12:48). And much has been given to the one born of God: Christ is his in the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Ghost indwells him, life has been communicated to his soul, faith imparted to his heart; and therefore much may justly be required of him. Grace is not some mysterious influence which fortuitously descends and enters into the Christian’s heart irrespective of how he acts. The opening word of our verse intimates the opposite, for "strengthening" implies God’s blessing on our use of suitable means—whether it is the strengthening of the body, the mind, or the spiritual life. Observe, the first (though not the only) means is an earnest and importunate crying to God.
The Believer’s Privilege and Duty
It is both our privilege and our duty to "come boldly [or freely] unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy [for past failures], and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16). Often we have not because we ask not, or because we ask amiss. Grace must be sought believingly, fervently, perseveringly. Moreover, there has to be a daily feeding on "the word of his grace" (Acts 20:32) if the soul is to be "nourished up in the words of faith" (1 Tim. 4:6). If we neglect our daily bread, fail to meditate on and appropriate a regular supply of manna, we soon become feeble and faint. Further, exercise is essential: we must use the grace already given us if we would obtain more (Luke 8:18). Spiritual strength is not given to release us from the fight of faith, but to furnish and fit us for the same. Grace is not bestowed on the Christian in order that heaven may be won without engaging in a fierce conflict, as many seem to think, but in order that the believer may be "strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might." Therefore he is urged to put on the whole armor of God and thus be able to stand against "the wiles of the devil" (Eph. 6:10-11). We are strengthened with all might "unto [for this end] all patience."
The Particular Kind of Patience in View
We must now inquire into the nature of patience, or, more specifically, the particular kind of patience which is here in view. It is a steady persisting in duty which keeps one from being deterred by opposition or fainting under suffering. Actively, it finds expression in perseverance, or refusing to quit the race because of the difficulties or length of the course. Passively, it appears in a meek and quiet spirit, which endures afflictions without complaining. Primarily, though perhaps not exclusively, it is the latter that is spoken of here, namely, that frame of heart which bears submissively whatever trials and tribulations the Lord calls one to pass through. It is very much more than a placidity of temper which is not unduly provoked by the common irritations of life, for often that is more a matter of healthy nerves than a virtuous exercise of the mind and will. Grace is more potent than nature: it can make the timid courageous, cool the most hotheaded, quiet the impetuous. Grace works submissiveness in the most impulsive. It makes our hearts calm when outward circumstances are tempestuous, and though God lets loose His winds upon us, He can keep us from being discomposed by them and lay the same command upon our passions as upon the angry waves: "Peace, be still" (Mark 4:39).
The Grace of Patience
Patience is not stoical apathy toward the divine dispensations. It is no narcotic virtue to stupefy us and take away the sense and feeling of afflictions. If it had any such opiate quality, there would be nothing commendable or praiseworthy in it. That is not suffering which is not felt; and if patience deprived us of the feeling of sorrow, it would cease to be patience. We have witnessed the mass of our fellowmen stupefied and insensible under the hand of God, taking no notice of Him when His judgments fell heavily upon them, enduring them with stolidity, or rather moral stupidity; but the senseless boast "We can take it" was no more patience than is the non-writhing of a block of wood when it is sawed and planed. Patience quickens the sufferings of the saint, for he refers the sufferings to his deserts. Consciousness of his sins in provoking God pierces his conscience and brings pain to his inner man also. But the wicked look only upon what they suffer, and make no reflection upon their deserts.
Nor does the grace of patience stifle all modest complaints and moderate sorrow. A patient Christian is permitted this vent through which his grief may find relief. Grace does not destroy but regulates and corrects nature. God allows His children to shed tears so long as the course of them does not stir up the mud of their sinful passions and violent affections. It is not wrong to complain about what we suffer so long as we do not complain against God from whom we suffer. We may lawfully, and without any breach of patience, express our grief in all outward and natural signs of it so long as that agitation does not exceed its due bounds and measures. Job, who is commended to us as the great example of patience, when he received the sad news of the loss of his estate and his children, "rent his mantle and fell down upon the ground" (Job 1:20). And that we might not regard this as a display of impatience, the Spirit has added, "In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly" (Job 1:22). The disciples made "great lamentation" over Stephen (Acts 8:2), though by his martyrdom he had greatly glorified God. It is not grief but the excess of it which is disallowed.
Patience in Affliction
Nor does patience oblige us to continue in afflictions when we may warrantably free ourselves from them. The eminent Puritan, Ezekiel Hopkins, rightly pointed out that when God sends heavy afflictions our way, we ought to, for principles of self-preservation, try to free ourselves from them; otherwise we sin against nature and God. Generally, whatever calamity we experience, it is not patience but obstinacy to refuse deliverance when we can obtain it without violating our duty or dishonoring God.
Positively, patience consists of a willing submission to the dispensations of divine providence. When Job said, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10), that was the language of patience. "The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11) was the supreme example of this grace. It is the ready acquiescence of the soul to whatever God sees fit to lay upon it. It is the calm enduring of provocation and persecution, especially trial which comes unexpectedly. It is a steady and thankful bearing of all troubles, however grievous and long protracted, mortifying the opposite passions of fear, anger, anxiety, inordinate grief; refusing to be overwhelmed by those troubles, persevering in the discharge of duty to the end; relieving oneself by faith in what is to be had in God by communion with Him: resting in His love, leaning on His arms, and encouraging oneself by expectation of that eternal and blessed glory which awaits us after our appointed race is run.
What Patience Does
Patience consists of tranquilizing or composing our minds, which issues in the quieting of our unruly passions. Very impatient persons who fret and fume within may express little emotion outwardly. That impatience which finds no external vent is the most injurious and dangerous to character, just as latent fevers, which lurk within and prey upon the body, may do much harm although they are not outwardly evident. Patience calms those storms and tempests which are apt to rise in the heart when a person is under any sore and heavy affliction. The emotions will be stirred, but this grace takes away the violence of them. All those turbulences and uproars of passions, all those willful and wild emotions which distract reason and rend the soul, making us unfit for the service of God or the employment of our business—these patience ought to quell, and in measure suppress. He who can rule his body better than his soul, his actions than his passions, lacks the principal part of patience.
All this must be done upon right grounds. This requires us to distinguish sharply between natural and Christian patience. There is a natural patience sometimes found in those devoid of true grace: such strength of character, fortitude of mind, tranquillity of spirit, which often puts the people of God to shame. Yet that is only a moral virtue, proceeding only from natural and moral principles. How is the Christian who naturally is impulsive, fiery, fickle, to ascertain whether his patience is of a superior order? By the principles from which it proceeds, the motives actuating it, and the ends for which it is put forth. Moral virtue proceeds only from the principles of reason, is actuated by such arguments as human prudence furnishes, and is exercised to promote self-esteem or the respect of our fellowmen. Many an unregenerate person, by a process of self-discipline, has hardened himself to bear the evils which befall him by persuading himself it is folly to rebel against fate and torment himself over the inevitable, telling himself that what cannot be cured must be endured, that to give way to peevishness is childish and will effect no good, and that to yield to a spirit of fury will only lower him in the eyes of others.
But spiritual patience proceeds from a principle of grace, is actuated by higher motives, and is induced by greatly superior considerations than those which regulate the most refined and self-controlled unregenerate person. Spiritual patience springs from faith (James 1:3) and from hope (Rom. 8:25). Patience eyes the sovereignty of God, to which it is our duty to submit. It eyes His benevolence and is assured that the most painful affliction is among the "all things" He is making work together for our good. It looks off from the absolute nature of the affliction, considered in itself, to the relative nature of it, as it is dispensed to us by God, and therefore concludes that though the cup is bitter, in our Father’s hand it is salutary. Though the chastisement itself is grievous, patience realizes it will make us partakers of God’s holiness here and of His glory hereafter. Patience eyes the example Christ left us and seeks grace to be conformed to it. The Christian strives to exercise patience not out of self-esteem, because he is mortified when his passions get the better of him, but from a desire to please God and glorify Him.
The careful reader will find in the last three paragraphs several hints on those means which are best suited to promote and strengthen patience, such as faith, hope, love. But we will mention one or two others among which we place high the complete resigning of ourselves to God. Since most outbursts of impatience are occasioned by the crossing of our wills, it behooves each Christian to daily ascertain how fully his will is surrendered to God, and to be diligent in cultivating a spirit of submission to Him. While complete yieldedness to God does not include reducing of ourselves as serfs to our fellowmen, still less the condoning of the wrongs they have done, yet it does require us to be not unduly occupied with the instruments of our afflictions, but rather to look beyond them to Him who has some good reason for using them to stir up our nests.
God’s Infinite Patience and Faithfulness
Meditate frequently upon the patience of God. What infinite patience He exercises toward us! He bears far more from us than we can possibly bear from Him. He bears with our sins whereas we bear only His chastisement, and sin is infinitely more opposite to His nature than suffering is to ours. If He is so long-suffering with our innumerable offenses, how inexcusable it is for us to fret and murmur at the least correction from His hand! Meditating on the faithfulness of God helps us to bear trials with more fortitude. There is no condition which needs more promises and there is none which has so many promises attending it as suffering and persecution. God has promised support under it (Ps. 55:22), His presence in it (Isa. 43:2), deliverance from it (1 Cor. 10:13). He is faithful to His Word. Ponder His wisdom and goodness and you will find sufficient reason to acquiesce to His providences. If afflictions came by blind chance, we might indeed bemoan our hard fate; but since they are appointed by our omniscient and loving Father, they must be for our gain.
The more we set our hearts and hopes on creature enjoyments, the more bitter is our disappointment when they fail us or are taken away. Jonah was "exceeding glad" for the gourd which the Lord prepared to shade and shelter him (Jon. 4:6), but he was "angry, even unto death" (Jon. 4:9) when it withered away. This is recorded for our warning! If you immoderately value any earthly comfort, you will immoderately chafe at its removal. Pride is another enemy to patience. So is effeminate softness.
We will return to the subject of patience when we reach 2 Thessalonians 3:5. As for "longsuffering," the term defines itself, signifying a prolongation of patience to the end of the trial. Yet in view of the connections in which those terms are found, we may distinguish between them thus: "patience" looks more to the attitude of the heart Godward while we are being tried; "longsuffering" respects our attitude toward the instruments which He makes use of in the trial. Thus, "longsuffering" includes the ideas of being slow to anger with those who persecute or afflict us, meekly bearing for Christ’s sake those injuries which His enemies inflict on us, refusing to retaliate when we are oppressed, following the example of our Master "who, when he was reviled, reviled not again" (1 Pet. 2:23).