"For a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness." (Acts 13:18)

I was a little surprised when I searched my hymnal and could find no hymn which was devoted to praising God for His patience. Now, there were several composed to address the need for patience in the lives of the people of God, but not one (that I could find) which adequately heralded this oft under-appreciated attribute of God. And yet, the Scriptures speak of God's patience frequently. In fact, one of the most common Old Testament descriptions of God speaks of Him as "slow to anger". That's patience! - and what a wonderful thing for you and me that He shows His patience toward us.

Today's verse comes to us in the midst of one of Paul's evangelistic sermons preached on his first missionary journey to the region of Galatia. He reminded his Jewish audience of many of the blessings which had been shown to the nation in bygone ages, not the least of which was the manner in which God dealt patiently with them in their sins. Following the exodus, the deliverance of the people from Egypt, God led them towards the land of promise. But while encamped at Kadesh Barnea, the people rebelled against God in unbelief and refused to follow Him into such a frightening land filled with giants. In anger, God turned them back into the wilderness, refusing to permit them entry into the land because of their unbelief. But still we're told that God showed patience toward them. Paul said: "He put up with them in the wilderness". In His anger, it would have been justifiable and oh so easy for God to have destroyed them immediately. But instead, He showed patience toward them and that's an amazing wonder, when you think about it.

I remember times, as a boy, when I tested the limits of my mother's patience. I knew that I was on 'thin ice' whenever I would hear her say something like: "I'm about to lose my patience with you!" I understood that she was giving me a final warning. It was a display of mercy on her part. And you know what? - God does that too! In Job 33:14 we read: "Indeed God speaks once, or twice, yet no one notices it." Why would He bother to issue multiple warnings or what would incline Him to withhold His anger when it is so justly deserved? Well, Isaiah tells us that "the Lord longs to be gracious" and "waits on high to have compassion" upon His people (Isa 30:18). In other words, in His patience, God restrains His anger and delays the punishment of sin, so as to give us more time to repent.

Stephen Charnock wrote: "While he is preparing his arrows, he is waiting for an occasion to lay them aside, and dull their points, that he may with honor march back again, and disband his armies. He brings lighter smarts sooner, that men might not think him asleep, but he suspends the more terrible judgments that men might be led to repentance." Let me ask you this - what 'lighter smarts' has God touched your life with and to what effect?

Oh how wonderful that God's infinite power is bridled by His patience! In Proverbs 10:25 we see Him as a devastating whirlwind sweeping away the wicked. In Psalm 97:2,3 we read of a scorching fire that goes before Him to consume His adversaries. I think one of the most chilling passages on God's wrath is found in Ezekiel 22 where sinful Israel is told: "I shall gather you and blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and you will be melted in the midst of it. As silver is melted in the furnace, so you will be melted in the midst of it; and you will know that I, the Lord, have poured out My wrath on you." How wonderful, then, that this God, who is so capable of such absolute destruction, is also patient and kind, loving and good. Like a dam holding back a mighty flood, God's patience, or longsuffering, is that divine attribute which enables Him to delay judgment, even when it is most deserved by you or by me.

Now, don't for a moment begin to think that His show of patience is an indication of weakness. I'll agree that this may easily be true in man where, many times, patience is shown to others only out of necessity - out of fear, for instance, or because of indecisiveness or a lack of confidence or even a lack of strength. In fact, there may be many reasons why we may stoop to a show of patience. But let us not project any of these weaknesses upon God. Rather, let us see His patience as a display of His love and goodness.

Does Peter not do this when he writes of "the patience of God . . . in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark"? Some estimate that Noah may have preached righteousness for a hundred years to his wicked neighbors prior to the day when God finally opened up the heavens and the waters fell upon the earth. What a marvelous display of patience! And is this not why the Apostle Paul also establishes that God cannot be considered "unrighteous" if He chooses to visit the unbeliever with anger and condemnation (Rom 3:5). In all of this we are humbled by His mercy and awed by His patience when we consider our own transgressions and how our actions truly only merit His displeasure.

Charnock also wrote: "God's patience is the silence of his justice, the first whisper of his mercy." With what 'whispers of mercy' has He spoken to you? How many times has He chosen to sheath His sword (remember Balaam?) - opting to show you His patience rather than His wrath? Don't misinterpret His patience as indifference! Rather, praise Him and rejoice in His steadfast and patient love.

The Rev. Donald Caviness is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, MS.