Have you ever noticed that in his famous list of love’s qualities in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, the apostle Paul begins and ends the list with the same trait: patience? Although he uses two different words, showing different aspects of this important quality, they both mean patience.
It is often said that the Greeks had a word for everything. Ancient Greek actually had two words for patience, both used by Paul. Let’s learn more about these words and what they tell us about how we should relate to God and to others.
Patience with people
The first is makrothymia, composed of makran (“far away”) and thymos (“anger”) — in other words, to put one’s anger far away. This involves patience with others, particularly in the restraint of anger, when it is often needed most. The word does not connote the patience of those who are powerless to do anything about a situation, but rather the patience of those who have the power to act against the object of anger, perhaps even to exact revenge or punishment. This is the patience of those who could affect others and react with negative action, but in love choose not to do so.
Makrothymia is the patience husbands need with their wives and wives with their husbands, that parents need with children (and sometimes children with parents). It is the patience employers at times need with employees, and workers need with those they work for. It is the patience we should have when someone irritates or hurts us in any way, great or small, and we feel a desire to retaliate. It is the kind of patience that every Christian must develop, and that we may need many times in a given day.
So it is not coincidental that this is the first quality Paul tells us love consists of — the patience of those who are provoked but choose restraint. Without this primary quality, love for others cannot exist. It is foundational to love itself.
Patience with circumstances
Paul ends his list of the characteristics of love with the second form of patience. The word he uses here is hypomonē, which fuses hypo (“under”) with monē (“remaining” or “enduring”) and connotes the idea of “remaining under” suffering or difficult circumstances. In the New Testament the word is often translated “perseverance” (Romans 5:3, 4, etc.). It is a particularly rich word with a wide range of meaning. In Luke 21:19, for example, we find it translated “Stand firm, and you will win life” (emphasis added). The King James translates this verse a little less clearly: “In your patience possess ye your souls.”
This kind of patience represents the attitude of those who are not in a position of strength, but of weakness — unable to do anything to change the situation they are enduring. This is the patience of the Christian undergoing persecution for their faith, whether from the individual’s government, job, neighbors, or even their own family. It is the patience of those dealing with long-term illnesses, injuries, poverty, loneliness, depression, or any other kind of suffering.
If it is not a coincidence that Paul begins his list of love’s qualities with patience (what we must have with others), then it is not a coincidence that he ends his list with endurance, the patience we must have with situations. If we cannot love others without the first type of patience, then we cannot love God without the second kind. Without persevering love, our love for God will fail when tested by the inevitable trials of life. That is why the word hypomonē is found in Jesus’ parable of the seed, in which “the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15, emphasis added here and below).
All too often we think of patience as a virtue, but perhaps only a minor one — a distant cousin of the great spiritual virtues, such as faith and love. Yet careful consideration of the structure of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 shows us that love itself begins and ends in patience and that this quality is pivotal to effectively loving others and loving God. This is especially so as we go about fulfilling the Great Commission.
Romans 15:5 tells us that God is a God of patience. If we are to become like Him, patience, in its two forms, is a quality we must strive to develop with His help. As Paul himself wrote in his letter to the Colossians, we must live “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).