Patience with people
The first of those words was makrothymia which is composed of makran (“far away”) and thymos (“anger”) – in other words, to put one’s anger far away. This involves patience with others, particularly in the restraint of anger – when patience is often needed most. It does not connote the patience of those who cannot do anything about a situation, but that of those who have the power to act against the object of anger, perhaps even to exact revenge or punishment. This is the patience of those with power to affect others; it is the patience of those who could react with negative action, but who choose not to do so in love.
It is the patience husbands need with their wives and wives with their husbands, of parents with children (and sometimes children with parents). It is the patience employers sometimes need with employees and those who work with those for whom they work. It is the patience we should have when someone irritates or hurts us in any way – great or small – and we feel a desire to retaliate. It is the kind of patience that every Christian must develop, and that we may need many times in a given day.
So it is probably not coincidental that this is the very first quality Paul tells us love consists of – the patience of those who are provoked, but who choose restraint. It is a primary quality without which love for others cannot exist, and one that we must always remember is foundational to love itself.
Patience with circumstances
Paul ends his list of the characteristics of love with the second form of patience. The word he uses to close his list is hypomonē which fuses hypo (“under”) with monē (“remaining” or “enduring”) and connotes the idea of “remaining under” suffering or difficult circumstances. In the New Testament the word is often translated “persevering” (Romans 5:3-4, etc.), but it is a particularly rich word with a wide range of meaning. In Luke 21:19, for example, we find it translated “Stand firm, and you will win life” (NIV, emphasis added), though the King James translates this verse a little less clearly as “In your patience, possess ye your souls.”
This kind of patience represents the attitude of those who are not in a position of strength, but of weakness – a position of being unable to do anything to change the situation they are enduring. This is the patience of the Christian undergoing persecution for his or her faith – whether the persecution comes from the individual’s government, job, neighbors, or even their own family. It is the patience of those dealing with long-term illnesses, injuries, poverty, loneliness, depression, or any other kind of suffering.
If it is not coincidental that Paul begins his list of love’s qualities with makrothymia, the patience we must have with individuals, it is equally likely that he intentionally ends his list with hypomonē, the patience we must have with situations. If we cannot love others without the first type of patience, it is probable that we cannot love God without the second kind – and we certainly will not be able to continue in the way of love without the perseverance that hypomonē connotes. That is why the word is found in Jesus’ parable of the seed, in which “… the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15, emphasis added).
It begins and ends with patience.
All too often we think of patience as a virtue, but perhaps only a minor one - a distant cousin of the great spiritual virtues such as faith and love. Yet careful consideration of the structure of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 shows us that love itself begins and ends in patience and that this quality is pivotal to effectively loving others and loving God. Romans 15:5 tells us that God is a God of patience and if we are to become like him, patience – in its two forms – is a quality we must strive to develop with his help. As Paul himself wrote in his letter to the Colossians, we must live: “… being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance (hypomonē) and patience (makrothymia)” (Colossians 1:11).