As with many aspects of the Christian life, there is sometimes a place for impatience as well as patience, just as there is a place for both mercy and judgment, “a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking” (Ecclesiastes 3:7), and so on. We might say that right impatience can be the “other side of the coin” of patience, but it’s just as real and can be just as necessary.
To understand this, we must first see that impatience can be an attribute of God. The Book of Judges tells us that after suffering affliction for some time, the ancient Israelites: “… put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16 ESV). The Hebrew expression translated “impatient” in this verse is literally to become “short of soul” in the way we would say “short tempered” or “running short of patience” – in other words, impatient – not with Israel, but with its suffering. This verse is unequivocal in telling us that God can express the trait of impatience when he views human-caused suffering and he wants to end it.
God can be impatient with other things, also – especially sin. He is patient almost beyond belief when it comes to working with us to help us toward repentance, but his patience with sin can run out, as we see in the narrative of the Flood where we are told: “Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever …’” (Genesis 6:3). The apostle Paul also stresses the limits to God’s patience (Romans 2:4-5, etc.).
We find other examples of righteous impatience in the New Testament. Jesus himself displayed impatience with the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12–17) and on occasions such as when his disciples (who had been given the power to do so – Luke 9:1) could not heal a spirit-tormented child (Luke 9:38-40). Luke tells us that Jesus’ response to his disciples and the boy’s father was clearly an impatient one in this situation: “You unbelieving and perverse generation… how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41). Notice that the object of Jesus’ impatience was not so much the people themselves, but their unbelief despite having already witnessed many miracles.
Putting the various scriptures together that show godly impatience, we see a definite pattern. God is clearly said to express impatience, and it is usually with human-caused suffering, sin, and disbelief. How does all this apply to us? We are certainly called to be patient, and we are not called to express impatience with others, but a right response to all three of the factors of sin, disbelief and avoidable suffering should increase our impatience with ourselves.
Sometimes we need to become more impatient with our own sins and failings in order to make more progress in overcoming them (Romans 7:24-25). Sometimes we need to be impatient with our own disbelief when it is holding us back from spiritual growth (Mark 9:24). And we need real impatience with ourselves when we cause any kind of avoidable suffering – even in situations where we think we are in the right (Acts 8:3). We certainly need impatience when we view much of the suffering that fills the world in which we live – and that impatience sometimes needs to be expressed in more fervent prayer for the kingdom of God and more active involvement in doing what we can to help alleviate suffering (Matthew 6:10). But in any situation, the right kind of impatience is always aimed at ourselves, whether to spur us to do more to help others or to further propel us in the growth for which we all should be aiming.
So if we are on the way to mastering the quality of patience, we should keep up the good work – but we should not forget to work on righteous impatience also where that is appropriate!