Dr. Richard L. Strauss
January 27, 1980
When was the last time you felt like you were at the end of your endurance level with people? You were just fed up. "If he says that one more time, I'm going to scream." That kind of feeling?
"If you kids don't quiet down by the time I count to three, I'm going to whale the tar out of you." That kind of fed up.
"If that telephone rings one more time, I'm going to pull it out of the wall." You know what I mean.
We may or may not carry through with our threats, but the fact remains, our nerves are frazzled, our patience is exhausted, and we feel like are about to enjoy a well-earned nervous breakdown.
It seems as though our breaking point varies from one day to the next, and on any given day everybody's breaking point is slightly different. But there is one person whose tolerance level is always supremely higher than anyone else's.
Of course, I'm talking about the Lord. It is part of God's nature to be slow to anger. We call it His long-suffering.
1. The Meaning of God's Long-Suffering
If we want to understand the meaning of God's long-suffering we must go back to His relationship with His Old Testament people Israel. He was dealing with them as a nation. Some of the people in that nation were believers; others were not. As a nation, they were about as exasperating as anybody could ever be, and nowhere was it more evident than when Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from the hand of God.
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 Egyptian bondage and bring them to this point, yet they turned their backs on Him at the first sign of a problem. That would be enough to try anyone's patience, and it sorely tried God's patience.
"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 NASB).
They were obstinate—literally, they had hard necks. The NIV says "stiff necked." They had necks that would not bow to the will of God even though He had been good 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 with flying colors. Moses prayed for God to stay His hand of judgment, forgiving His people and preserving them.
"So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people" (Exodus 32:14, NASB).
They deserved to be punished, but God delayed the application of His righteous indignation against their sin. That is the essence of long-suffering. The word itself appears for the first time in the Bible just a short time later when Moses returned to the mount and God showed him His glory.
"And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,'" (Exodus 34:6 NKJV).
Long-suffering is actually two Hebrew words. It's a hyphenated word in English, but in Hebrew it is two separate words. The first meaning "long" or "slow;" the second meaning "nostril," "nose," or "face;" and the third meaning "anger." Long-suffering does not mean a long nose. But it is interesting that the Hebrews used the same word to mean either nose, face, or anger. That may have been because anger is clearly seen on the face and is sometimes expressed by snorting or wheezing through the nose. But it is anger that is foremost in the expression.
It means literally slow to anger and is so translated in several passages in the KJV (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Proverbs 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). These words in this verse (Exodus 34:6), are, in fact, translated "slow to anger" in the NASB and NIV. It takes a long-suffering person a long, long time to get heated up with anger.
The same concept shows up in the New Testament as one Greek word, makrothumia, which means exactly the same thing as the Old Testament Hebrew expression (makros: long; thumos: anger, rage, wrath or temper). It means long-tempered, slow to express wrath.
When we read about God's long-suffering, it has to do with His wrath. God can get angry, as we shall see in the next lesson about God's wrath, but it takes Him an extremely long time to do so. His nature is to delay the expression of His wrath. He is long-tempered, long-suffering, of long endurance. Those obstinate Jews deserved to be destroyed immediately for their rebelliousness and disobedience, but God postponed the execution of His judgment on them because he is a long-suffering God.
What is the difference between God's mercy and God's long-suffering?
We learned that mercy involves His restraint toward the blameworthy, but now it looks like long-suffering essentially means the same thing. They are related terms and they often appear together in the Old Testament, but there is a distinction.
Mercy views us primarily in our misery, while long-suffering view us in the sin which causes our misery. It bears patiently with us in our sin, waiting for us to repent.
Our sin is a horrible offense to God's holy nature—I don't think most of us understand how horrible it really is—and His justice cries out for sin to be punished. But all of God's attributes work together. At the same time, His love is longing to forgive, His grace is making it possible for Him to forgive even when we do not deserve it, His mercy is reaching out to us in compassion over the consequences of our sin, and His long-suffering is delaying His punishment, giving us the opportunity to respond, to repent of our sins and trust His grace.
There is a related word in the New Testament which must be distinguished from long-suffering. The word hupomonee, which means literally "to abide under," and which is usually translated in the KJV "patient" (e.g., Romans 5:3; James 1:3, 4). The word refers to patience in difficult circumstances.
That's the difference between patience and long-suffering. So the word translated "patience" is referring to 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.)
God doesn't need patience with circumstances because He controls them all. He can change them. Events cannot resist Him. But He made people with wills of their own, and they can resist Him and they do. They wrong Him, offend Him, sin against Him, tempt Him and try 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.
If we were to define God's long-suffering, we might say it is the attribute of God that allows Him to endure our offenses and patiently call us to repentance rather than promptly punish us. It is His self-restraint in the face of provocation that delays the expression of His wrath.
As we all know quite well, it takes a great deal of power to show restraint when people are provoking us. But God has that power. He's omnipotent all powerful. So He has the power to restrain Himself. The prophet Nahum put the two together like this: "The Lord is slow to anger, and great with power (Nahum 1:3, our memory verse this week). We learn how great that power really is when we see the demonstration of God's long-suffering.
2. The Demonstration of God's Long-Suffering
The nation Israel never did stop provoking God. In fact, God counted 10 different occasions between their exodus from Egypt and their arrival at Kadesh Barnea when they provoked him when they refused to take Him at His Word and do what He told them to do. It all came to a head when the 12 spies returned from checking out the land and 10 of them gave a pessimistic report.
"That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, 'If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?' And they said to each other, 'We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt'" (Numbers 14:1-4).
God's patience was about exhausted. He expressed again His inclination to destroy them and He repeated His offer to make Moses the founder of a new and great nation (Numbers 14:11-12).
But again Moses prayed.
"Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as You have declared: 'The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion'" (Numbers 14:17-18a).
He made his request for pardon on the basis of God's own revelation of Himself. God had said He was long-suffering. Moses believed that, and he knew God had the power to restrain His wrath, so he pleaded for pardon on those grounds.
"The Lord replied, 'I have forgiven them, as you asked'" (Numbers 14:20, NASB).
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 those people. Paul, in his sermon in the synagogue at Antioch, reminded us that He put up with their disgusting behavior for 40 years in the wilderness (Acts 13:10). When they finally did reach their promised land, they repeatedly turned away from the Lord and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites. And while He chastened them for their sin by delivering them into the hands of surrounding nations, He did not utterly destroy them. Instead, He raised up judges to lead them out of their servitude and misery. Incredible! He blessed them, because He's long-suffering.
Several times during the period of the kings, He delayed His judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. And after the Babylonian captivity, when the restored nation rejected His Son and nailed Him to a cross, He waited yet another 40 years before allowing the Romans to level their capitol and disperse them to the ends of the earth. His restraint in exercising His wrath against sin went far beyond what they deserved.
And His demonstration of long-suffering has not been limited to the nation Israel. Look at His evaluation of the whole 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. 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; NASB).
Yet He waited another 120 years before He judged the earth and destroyed the population of the earth with a flood. And all that time He had Noah preaching to them the message of righteousness (see 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).
So God was long-suffering not just toward Israel but for the whole world.
Look at another illustration. God warned Abraham that his descendants would be sojourners in a strange land (that is, the Egyptian bondage), but that in the fourth generation they would come out with many possessions and return to their promised land. Why the delay? Why did they have to stay in bondage so long?
He told him the reason for the delay: "For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full" (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 it only gets worse.
Idolatry, child sacrifice, religious prostitution and every conceivable abomination multiplied with each succeeding generation until their cup of iniquity was full and God commanded the people of Israel to destroy them. But He had patiently waited; He delayed the application of wrath. It is His nature to restrain Himself.
I'd now like you to turn over to Romans 9, because there is a very interesting concept there related to God's long-suffering. The Apostle Paul said He "endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Romans 9:22).
Think that through a minute. God is saying there are people who can only be categorized as "vessels of wrath." God has been good to them, yet they have resisted His grace and chosen to defy Him. They are worthy of nothing but His wrath, equipped for nothing better than eternal ruin. They are vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. And yet God patiently puts up with them with much long-suffering.
We wonder why He doesn't do something. If we were God, we'd probably move much earlier and zap some people. Why doesn't He oblige the insolent atheist who shouts, "If there's a God, let Him strike me dead right here and now?" Don't you wish God would do that? I have to be honest with you, I wish He would. I mean, what an opportunity to show that He's there, and He's real, and He doesn't put up with that sort of foolishness.
Why doesn't He shut the mouth of the brazen Soviet cosmonaut who insists that there is no God because he didn't find Him a few hundred miles from earth? Why doesn't He zap people who blaspheme Him? Because it's His nature to be long-suffering. We see it demonstrated all around us every day.
Not only does He not punish them, He gives them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, and provides them with food and gladness (Acts 14:17). Gladness? How do you like that! That's like sending provisions to the enemy who has invaded your land and seeks to destroy it. It begins to make us wonder whether God really does care about sin. That leads us to a challenge.
3. The Challenge of God's Long-Suffering
There is a challenge in this doctrine both for the believer and for the unbeliever. Look first at the challenge for the unbeliever.
a. The Challenge for the Unbeliever
The very fact that long-suffering is defined as a delay in the expression of God's wrath implies that eventually it will come to an end. And that highlights another difference between long-suffering and mercy.
The Bible says that mercy is everlasting (e.g., Psalm 100:5). It endures forever (e.g., Psalm 106:1). That is never said about His long-suffering.
Long-suffering as an attribute of God goes on forever, but the practice of long-suffering that God has toward sinners has a terminus point. There comes a time when God's patience with willful, rebellious sinners is something He no longer chooses to extend, and He exhibits instead His wrath. "A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1, NIV). We never know when that will be, but we know that it will be. You can count on it.
If you have never trusted Jesus as your Savior from sin, I plead with you not to trifle with God's long-suffering, nor try to take advantage of Him. There will come a day when He deals with you.
Because God delays His judgment, sinners begin to think that He isn't aware of their sin, or that He really doesn't care about it, or that maybe He has forgotten about it. And so they go on sinning. After all, they have gotten away with it this long. Who is to say they will not get away with it forever?
Solomon warned us of that tendency:
"When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people's hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Does God ignore sin? Go back and look again at the Old Testament references to His long-suffering. Right after the golden calf incident and the revelation of His long-suffering, He adds immediately that He will be no means clear the guilty (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 will not at all acquit the wicked" (Nahum 1:3).
God does not go on indefinitely overlooking sin for which there has been no repentance—sin which has never been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ. He may postpone His judgment for a while, but He does not forget the sin. Paul reminded the Athenian philosophers of that on Mars Hill.
"In the past God overlooked such ignorance"—there is His long-suffering—"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 everyone by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
That message isn't any more popular today than it was in Paul's day. It doesn't calm troubled minds nor sooth ruffled nerves. It won't win many friends nor ingratiate us with many people. But it is true.
If you have never turned from your sin and trusted Christ as your Savior, do not be misled by God's long-suffering. It is not a license to go on sinning and to continue rejecting His Son. It is the evidence of God's love for you and His desire to save you from sin's eternal punishment. He is patiently waiting, holding back His wrath against your sin.
Avail yourself of His gracious delay. God's long-suffering and forbearance is designed to lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4). It is His desire that it will result in your eternal salvation (see 2 Peter 3:15). The only reason God has allowed you to live this long is so that you could hear a message like this. He brought you to this church this morning or lead you here to listen to or read this message, so that you could hear that Christ died for your sins. God is infinitely holy, but He willingly accepts you through His Son because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins and you can have that salvation if you only trust Jesus for that free gift.
b. The Challenge for the Believer
But there is in this doctrine a challenge for the believer as well. It is a three-fold challenge.
- It is a challenge to pray for those who deserve God's judgment, even as Moses prayed for His people. On two occasions that we looked at, in Exodus and in Numbers, God restrained His wrath because Moses asked Him to. Do you see what that teaches us? It shows us 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. God answers prayer. And the doctrine of long-suffering is a challenge to pray.
- It is a challenge to proclaim the message of long-suffering. If this world needs any message today, it 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. Our nation is moving more and more toward unholiness. One day the cup of iniquity will be full and He will restrain Himself no longer. It's not a happy message, but as unpopular as the message may be, it must be proclaimed. It is a matter of eternal life and eternal death.
- It is a challenge to be long-suffering in our personal relationships with others.
"Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do" (Colossians 3:12-13 NKJV). [See also Colossians 1:11; Ephesians 4:2.]
People get on our nerves. They irritate us, exasperate us, slight us, provoke us, gossip about us, wrong us, and offend us. Sometimes our patience wears thin and our tendency is to strike back in anger. God wants us to be clothed with long-suffering, to bear those injuries patiently and to forgive (see Proverbs 14:29; 15:18; 16:32).
That isn't easy to do, neither is it something we can do consistently in our own strength. That's why 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, 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 this to be a very important trait, but the believers who have experienced it will tell you it has brought happiness to their lives and harmony to their relationships with others. It helps them get along with their spouses; it helps them handle their children; it helps them put up with their bosses; it helps them deal with their employees; it helps them enjoy their in-laws; it helps them show their neighbors that the gospel of Christ makes a difference in their lives. And it all begins when we get to know our long-suffering God.
God Is Long-Suffering
The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked.
Nahum 1:3a KJV
Continue to AT-16: The Grapes of Wrath