The Forgotten Virtue
Reading a volume of “Letters of Spiritual Counsel” by Martin Luther, I was struck by the words of one Luther’s associates who described the reformer’s practice when visiting the sick and dying. Luther would approach the sick man, bend down to him and first enquire the man’s his sickness. Then he would enquire as the state of the man’s faith.
“Then he asks whether the sick man has been patient before God. When he has now assured himself that the sick man’s will is inclined toward God, that he acknowledges that the illness sent upon him by the will of God is to be borne with patience…[then] Luther highly praise this disposition of his as the work wrought in him by the Holy Ghost himself.”
It’s striking that Luther would ask about the man’s patience. That’s different. Today, enquiring into a person’s patience would be awkward, maybe even off putting, even to Christians.
But Luther had it right. During suffering we need to be patient. That implies endurance of the condition of suffering. In fact, the word “patient” in the sense of one who receives medical care comes from the Latin, which means “sufferer”.
Of course we don’t want to be patient because we don’t want to suffer any longer. We seek the quickest remedy possible. And we are used to quick remedies. Ibuprofen and other medicines work quickly to make our aches and pains go away. One injection of antibiotic, and we are cured. The last thing we want is patience; we want a cure.
But what if the cure doesn’t come quickly? What if our pain is chronic? Or our sickness is mortal? Many believers say that such is a time for prayer. And indeed it is. But Luther teaches us that is a time for patience as well, maybe even more so.
The reason Luther asked about a man’s patience is because he was trying to learn about that man’s faith. In times of suffering faith begets patience in God. Recall the catechism’s teaching that we are to be “patient in adversity” (#28). It means that the man was prizing God and his Word above everything else that he esteemed precious. Faith means that God was present, working in the man. “Luther [would then] commend such faith to others, at the same time admonishing the sick man to continue steadfast in his faith and promising to pray for him.”
Patience is a lost virtue; to speak of it is awkward. But in the Scripture patience is critical. If the Lord brings a sickness that lasts longer than we like, that involves chronic pain and could even be terminal, and medical treatment only minimally helpful, then it is the Lord’s will for us to go through it. He is not taking us out of suffering, but keeping us in. Then and there with no way out, we must reconcile our hearts with His will. What we need now is His grace for patience. We must be patience in adversity. James 1:2-3 says, My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.
So amidst your difficulties, are you patient with and in the Lord’s will. May He give us much grace.