Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)
When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”
The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.
Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.
This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.
I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.
Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.