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Love is Patient and Kind: Insights from Jonathan Edwards

“Love,” says Paul in perhaps the most famous chapter in all his writings, “is patient and kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Continue reading . . .

“Love,” says Paul in perhaps the most famous chapter in all his writings, “is patient and kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Some render the word “patient” as “longsuffering,” the willingness to endure much at the hands of others without being moved to retaliate or seek vengeance. This does not mean, notes Jonathan Edwards, “that all endeavors in men to defend and redress themselves when they are injured by their neighbor are unreasonable; or that men should suffer all injuries which their enemies please to bring upon them, rather than take an opportunity which they have in their hands to defend and vindicate themselves, thought it be to the damage of him who injures them” (Charity and its Fruits, Yale, 8:191-92).

I think Edwards means that on certain occasions it is entirely permissible, perhaps even necessary that we defend ourselves or our reputations (especially when the welfare of others, but not ourselves, is at stake). We are not to be passive doormats that would serve only to encourage the sin of others. At the same time Christians are not to be quick to resist or denounce those who seek our harm. Our responsibility is to be as Jesus himself who “when he was reviled . . . did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

So where do we find the inner strength and resolve to be “patient” and “longsuffering” toward those who mistreat us? Edwards points us to the love that God himself has shown us in saving us from a well-deserved damnation. “Those who love God as they ought,” he notes, “will have such a sense of God’s wonderful long-suffering towards them under so many injuries as they have offered him that it will look to them but a small thing for them to bear with the injuries that have been offered them by their neighbor” (194). What Edwards is saying is that when we rightly reflect on the magnitude of love God has shown us in spite of the magnitude of sin we’ve committed against him, we will regard it as “a small thing” to bear up under the injustices and wrongs committed against us by other human beings.

Clearly, we must first have a proper sense of our own lowliness and the fact that we deserve only hell but are in its place given heaven if we are ever to respond with patience and longsuffering toward those who mistreat us. “Humility,” says Edwards, “is a main root of a meek and long-suffering spirit, because it makes him less disposed to an [sic] high resentment of injuries; for he that is little and unworthy in his own eyes will not think so much of the heinousness of injuries offered to him, as he that has an exalted opinion of himself, for it is a greater and higher crime to offend one that is great and high than one that is mean [lowly] and vile. It is pride which is very much the foundation of high and bitter resentment and revengeful spirit” (194).

Perhaps the simplest way to say the same thing is found in the words of one of my spiritual mentors, Russ McKnight, now with the Lord. When asked, “Russ, how are you doing?” he would typically answer, “Better than I deserve.” That wasn’t an expression of false humility, far less a cute and clever response designed to make you laugh. He truly meant it. Russ was keenly aware that his sin had rendered him justly deserving of nothing but hell. That being the case, how could he count as anything but grace (and not debt) the countless good things he experienced on a daily basis?

Thus we see that genuine, sincere, authentic love in the life of a Christian is disposed to be patient with those who oppress us and to suffer long when we are put upon.

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