When was the last time you felt at the end of your tolerance level with people? “If he says that one more time, I’m going to scream.” “If she does that to me again, I’m going to walk right out that door.” “If you kids don’t quiet down by the time I count to three, I’m going to wale the tar out of you.” “If that telephone rings one more time, I’m going to pull it out of the wall.” We may not carry through with our threats, but the fact remains, our nerves are frazzled, our patience is exhausted, and we feel we are about to have a nervous breakdown.
Our breaking point probably varies from day to day, and on any given day everybody’s breaking point is slightly different. But there is one person whose endurance level is always supremely higher than ours. It is part of God’s nature to be slow to anger. We call it His long-suffering.
If we want to understand God’s long-suffering we must go back to His relationship with His Old Testament people Israel. They were about as exasperating as anybody could be, and it was never more evident than when Moses lingered on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God’s hand. Because it took him a little longer than they anticipated, they got edgy and demanded that Aaron fashion them new gods to lead them to their promised land.
It was inexcusable! God had performed one miracle after another to deliver them from their bondage and bring them to this place, yet they turned their backs on Him when He did not meet their expectations. That would be enough to try anyone’s patience, and it sorely tried God’s. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation’” (Exodus 32:9-10). God said that they were obstinate, or more literally, that they had hard necks, necks that would not bow to His will in spite of His goodness to them.
That offer to Moses presented him with a serious test. Which was more important to him, the preservation of the existing nation or the personal honor of becoming the founder of a new nation? He passed the test beautifully and prayed for God to stay His hand of judgment. God answered his prayer. Those people deserved to be punished, but God delayed the application of His righteous indignation against them; that is the essence of long-suffering. The word itself appears for the first time in the Bible just a little later, when Moses returned to the mount to get a firsthand glimpse of God’s glory. “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6 KJV).
Long-suffering is actually two Hebrew words, the first meaning “long” or “slow,” and the second meaning “nostril,” “nose,” “face,” or “anger.” Obviously, long-suffering does not refer to a long nose. But it is interesting that the Hebrew uses the same word to mean either nose, face, or anger. Maybe that was because anger is clearly seen on the face and is sometimes expressed by snorting or wheezing through the nose. But anger is the foremost idea in this expression. It means literally “slow to anger” and is so translated in the New American Standard Bible, as well as in several passages of the King James Version (e.g. Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Proverbs 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). It takes a long-suffering person a long time to get heated up with anger.
The same concept appears in the New Testament as one Greek word, and it conveys exactly the same idea as the Old Testament expression. It means “long tempered,” or “slow to express wrath.” God’s long-suffering has to do with His wrath. He can get angry, as we shall see in the next chapter, but it takes Him an extremely long time to do so. His nature is to delay the expression of His wrath. He is of long endurance. Those obstinate Jews deserved to be destroyed immediately for their rebelliousness and disobedience. They would have driven anybody else to quick retaliation. But God postponed the execution of His judgment because He is a long-suffering God.
Is there a difference between God’s mercy and His long-suffering? His mercy involves His restraint toward the blame-worthy, and long-suffering means essentially the same thing. They are related terms which often appear together in the Old Testament. But there is a distinction. While both involve restraint toward sinful people, mercy emphasizes the misery which our sin causes us, while long-suffering emphasizes the sin which causes us our misery. Long-suffering bears patiently with us in our sin, waiting and longing for us to repent.
Our sin is a horrible offense to God’s holy nature, and His justice cries out for its punishment. But at the same time, His love is longing to forgive us, His grace is making it possible for Him to forgive us even though we do not deserve it, His mercy is reaching out to us in compassion over the consequences which our sin has caused us, and His long-suffering is delaying the punishment we deserve, giving us the opportunity to repent and trust His grace. What a magnificent God!
There is another related word in the New Testament which must also be distinguished from long-suffering, a word which means literally “to abide under,” and which is usually translated in the King James Version “patience.”4 That word refers to patience in difficult circumstances, while long-suffering refers to patience with difficult people. It is never applied to God (Romans 15:5 means He gives patience, not that He has it.) He does not need patience with circumstances because He controls them. They cannot resist Him. But He made people with wills of their own. They can resist Him, and they do. They wrong Him, offend Him, sin against Him, tempt Him, and endeavor to provoke Him to wrath. But He is not easily provoked. He does not quickly explode into a blaze of anger. He is long-suffering.
God’s long-suffering is the attribute which allows Him patiently to endure our offenses and call us to repentance rather than promptly punish us. It is His self-restraint in the face of provocation which delays the expression of His wrath. As we all know, it takes a great deal of power to show restraint when people are provoking us. Think about the pressure you feel when your boss criticizes everything you do although you try desperately to please him, or when your neighbor blasts his stereo next to your bedroom window long into the night although you have asked him not to. Sometimes we feel as though we may not have the power to restrain ourselves. But God has that power. The prophet Nahum put the two together when he said, “The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power” (Nahum 1:3).
The nation Israel never did stop provoking God. In fact, God counted ten different occasions, from their exodus from Egypt through the period of their encampment at Kadesh-barnea, when they refused to take Him at His Word and do what He told them (cf. Numbers 14:22). It all came to a head when the spies returned from checking out the land and the majority gave a pessimistic report. “Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! And why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Numbers 14:14).
God’s patience was just about exhausted. He again expressed His inclination to destroy them and He repeated His offer to make Moses the founder of a new and greater nation. And again Moses prayed, “But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as Thou hast declared, ‘The LORD is slow to anger’” (Numbers 14:17-18). Moses appealed to God once more to stay His hand of judgment, and the appeal was made on the basis of God’s own self-revelation of His long-suffering character. Again God answered his prayer. It was another display of Moses’ total unselfishness and of God’s amazing long-suffering.
But there was no end to the abuse God suffered from His people. Paul, in his sermon in the synagogue at Antioch, remarked that God put up with their disgusting behavior for forty years in the wilderness (Acts 13:18). When they finally did reach their promised land, they repeatedly turned away from the Lord and worshiped the gods of the Canaanites. He chastened them for their sin by delivering them into the hands of surrounding nations, but He did not utterly destroy them. Instead, He raised up judges to lead them out of their servitude and misery, and He did it over and over again.
Later in their history, during the period of the kings, several times God delayed His judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. After the Babylonian captivity, when the restored nation rejected His Son and nailed Him to a cross, He waited yet another forty years before allowing the Romans to level Israel’s capital city and disperse them to the ends of the earth. His restraint in exercising His wrath against sin went far beyond what we would have expected.
The demonstration of God’s long-suffering has not been limited to the nation Israel. There are other dramatic illustrations of it in Scripture; for example, His evaluation of the entire human race in the days of Noah. “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:5,11-12). Yet He waited another one hundred twenty years before He destroyed the population of the earth with a flood, and during that time He had Noah on the earth preaching to them the message of righteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:5; Genesis 6:3). The Apostle Peter identified that as long-suffering. He referred to that generation as the people who were disobedient, when “the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20 KJV).
Look at another illustration. God warned Abraham that his descendants would be sojourners in a strange land, but that in the fourth generation they would come out with many possessions and return to their promised land. Then He told him the reason for the delay: “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). Their cup of iniquity was filling up, but it was not yet full. God gave them time to turn from their wickedness, but they refused. In fact, it got worse. Idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution, and every conceivable abomination multiplied with each succeeding generation until their cup was full and God commanded the people of Israel to destroy them. But He had patiently waited, delaying the application of wrath. It is His nature to restrain Himself.
The Apostle Paul said that God “endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Romans 9:22 KJV). There are some people who can be categorized only as vessels of wrath. God has been good to them, yet they have resisted His grace, chosen to defy Him, and immersed their lives in every variety of wickedness. They are worthy of nothing but His wrath, equipped only for eternal ruin. Yet God patiently puts up with them with much long-suffering.
We wonder why He doesn’t do something. Why doesn’t He oblige the insolent atheist who shouts, “If there’s a God, let Him strike me dead right now?” Why didn’t He shut the mouth of the brazen Soviet cosmonaut who insisted that God does not exist because He was nowhere to be found a few hundred miles from earth? Why doesn’t He strike people with lightning who blaspheme His holy name? It is His nature to be long-suffering. We see it demonstrated all around us every day. Not only does He refrain from punishing them, He gives them rain from Heaven and fruitful seasons, and provides them with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). That is like sending provisions to the enemy who has invaded the land and seeks to destroy it. It makes some wonder whether God really is concerned about sin. But we need not wonder long.
There is challenge in this doctrine for both the unbeliever and the believer. Think first of the challenge to the unbeliever. The very fact that long-suffering is defined as a delay in the expression of God’s wrath implies that eventually His long-suffering will terminate and His wrath will be displayed. This highlights another difference between long-suffering and mercy. Scripture says God’s mercy is everlasting (Psalm 100:5). It endures forever (Psalm 106:1). That is never said about His long-suffering. Long-suffering has a terminus point. There comes a time when God’s patience with willful, rebellious sinners will run out and He will exhibit His wrath. Solomon wrote,
A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy (Proverbs 29:1).
We do not know when that will be, but we do know that it will be. We can count on it. We cannot trifle with God’s long-suffering or try to take advantage of Him.
Because God delays His judgment, sinners may begin to think that He is not aware of their sin, or that He does not care about it, or possibly that He has forgotten it. So they go on sinning without fear of the consequences. After all, if they have gotten away with it this long, who is to say that they will not get away with it forever? Solomon warned us of that attitude: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Does God ignore sin? Look again at the Old Testament references to His long-suffering. Right after the golden calf incident and the revelation of God’s long-suffering, He immediately adds that He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:7). After that gross exhibition of unbelief at Kadesh-barnea, He repeated it again: “He will by no means clear the guilty” (Numbers 14:18). The prophet Nahum assured us that God is slow to anger and of great power, but he immediately added, “And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Nahum 1:3).
Some human judges may be accused of softness toward sin and leniency toward sinners, but the divine Judge will ultimately punish every unrepentant sinner. He may postpone His judgment for awhile, but He does not forget the sin. Paul reminded the Athenian philosophers of that: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31 NIV). A day of judgment is coming when God’s wrath will be revealed.
The message of judgment is not any more popular today than it was in Paul’s day. It does not calm troubled minds or soothe frazzled nerves. It will not win friends or ingratiate us with people, but it is true. The person who has never turned from his sin or trusted Jesus Christ as his Saviour must not be misled by God’s long-suffering. It is not a license to go on sinning. It is the evidence of God’s love for sinners and His desire to save them from eternal punishment. He is patiently waiting, holding back His wrath against their sin. It would be wise for them to avail themselves of His gracious delay. God’s long-suffering and forbearance are designed to lead them to repentance and eternal salvation (Romans 2:4).
There is in this doctrine a challenge for the believer also. It is, first of all, a challenge to pray for those who deserve God’s judgment, even as Moses prayed for his people. On two occasions, God restrained His wrath because Moses asked Him to, demonstrating that this is something God is pleased to do in answer to our prayers. Are you longing to see a loved one come to know Christ? Ask God to delay His judgment and to use that demonstration of long-suffering to lead that person to repentance.
Secondly, it is a challenge to proclaim the message of God’s long-suffering. The world needs to hear that God is patiently waiting, but that the day of His patience will eventually end. Our nation needs to hear that God is graciously restraining His wrath against sin, but that one day the cup of iniquity will be full and He will restrain Himself no longer. As unpopular as the message may be, it must be proclaimed. It is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. If we knew that a dam had cracked and that a great torrent of water would soon sweep through the valley below, destroying everything in its path, we would be quick to warn the inhabitants of that valley. We do know that God’s long-suffering may soon give out and that a great torrent of judgment will be poured out on the inhabitants of this earth. Should we be any less quick to warn them?
Finally, it is a challenge to be long-suffering in our own personal relationships with others. The Apostle Paul encouraged us to be long-suffering with one another, bearing with one another in love and forgiving one another (cf. Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 1:11; 3:12-13). People often get on our nerves. They irritate us, exasperate us, slight us, provoke us, gossip about us, wrong us, offend us. Our patience wears thin and we want to strike back in anger. God wants us to be long-suffering, to bear those injuries patiently, and to forgive.
Solomon wrote several proverbs extolling the person who has learned this important lesson. They are worth some prayerful meditation.
He who is slow to anger has great understanding,
But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly (Proverbs 14:29).
A hot tempered man stirs up strife,
But the slow to anger pacifies contention (Proverbs 15:13).
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city (Proverbs 16:32).
Being long-suffering with people who exasperate us is not easy, and it is certainly something we cannot do consistently in our own strength. Long-suffering is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is produced in us by the Spirit of God as we occupy our minds with Him, grow in our knowledge of Him, and yield ourselves to His control. How can we refuse to do that when we consider His long-suffering with us, His interminable patience with our stubbornness, self-will, and rebelliousness?
The world may not consider long-suffering to be a very important trait, but the believer who has demonstrated it to others will tell you it has brought harmony to his relationships. It helps him to get along with his spouse, to handle his children, to put up with his boss, to deal with his employees, to enjoy his in-laws, and to show his neighbors that the gospel of Jesus Christ makes a difference in his life. As we grow in the likeness of our long-suffering God, we shall show the world that He is real and so bring glory to Him.
List some specific unbelievers whom you would like to see trust Christ as Saviour. Then begin to pray that God will give them a sense of His long-suffering and use it to bring them to Himself.
Think of some recent occasions when you have been short-tempered with people. Go to them personally, ask their forgiveness, and express to them your desire to become more long-suffering.