The first is patience. This is the idea that little is to be gained by allowing the arrival of adverse circumstances to distract us from doing what we have always know to be good, and right, and of enduring value. Paul names what endures in terms that lie at the heart of a Christian vision of human flourishing: sincerity, kindness, love, truth, and the assurance of God’s presence and power.
It is notable, however, that these virtues are not named in isolation, as abstract ethical or theological principles that are somehow to be imbibed, or believed. The list begins with a hard gaze on the reality of deprivation and distress, the all-too-human locations and manifestations of external circumstances placing a life under significant stress. The preposition used throughout is the Greek word “in” (en). In the initial list of circumstances it refers to these various locations of adversity, but in the second list of virtues the meaning shifts to connote the commitments that we make in the face of such distress and difficulty. It is in plagues that we discover what it means to live with genuine love. It is in protests that we can find out test our capacity to speak with truthful words.
The cultivation of patience became something of a theme in the life of the church in the early centuries. Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Augustine all wrote explicitly about patience in the tumultuous context of North Africa in the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era. The Mennonite historian Alan Kreider has argued that the church’s commitment to this (non-violent) “lost bequest” of patience undergirded the church’s self-understanding and mission in the early centuries, before giving way to forms of violent impatience in the form of Christendom.
This ability to respond to deprivation, persecution, and adversity through the patient cultivation of core Christian virtues proved to be a “fermenting” presence within the wider world of antiquity. It bore witness to a way of life that was characterised by hope in a God who relates to creation with continual forbearance. Crucially, it was deeds and not creeds that really mattered. As Cyprian put it in his treatise on De Bono Patientia (“On the Good of Patience”): “we do not speak great things, but we live them.” Only this kind of embodied patience provides strength in “the varied ills of the flesh and frequent and severe torments of the body with which the human race is daily harassed and wearied.”