Augustine understands the world in a distinctive way. For him, all history is a record of desire. Human beings desire, and history is the story of desire and its objects. The world is a populous field more or less open to our desires. What we desire and the order of our desires are decisive: are our desires ordered to God or are they disordered by neglect of God? History, in other words, is the story of love—ordered and disordered, true and false. Disordered desires and false love never rest. As an illustration, Augustine considers how the circular shape of money is appropriate: “What is as unreliable as something that rolls? … money itself is coined in a rounded shape … it will not stand still” (Expositions on the Psalms, 83). Yet love in its fullness lies at rest. Only God can stabilise creatures and provide the rest they are ordered to. Desire signals this, for it is a divine creative initiative: God creates us for himself (cf. Confessions, 1), and only he satisfies our desire. As “our whole joy,” God summons and waits on our desire (Exp. Ps., 84).
But what has patience to do with the record of desire, then? Here, firstly, we need to consider God’s own patience. We can and should use the language of patience to understand God’s purposes for his creation. Patience specifies God’s love and characterises God’s wisdom. In love, God turns toward his creation as he sustains it and draws it to himself, bringing restoration and healing. The turn is purposeful: God plans and executes his purposes according to his own wise lights. The incarnation is the decisive act of God’s healing plan. It is not fated, written in the stars by Fortune, but determined from eternity by the loving, wise God who wills it. In this decisive act, Jesus Christ incarnates the patience of God’s love and wisdom. Jesus brings God’s purposes to a point and raises the stakes on God’s bid for our love. In the incarnation, God reveals the mystery of his will in the summons that is, simply, Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and ascended. Jesus asks—yes, he calls—for decision, but he gives time and space to us as he waits on our response. The incarnation embodies divine patience and is the condition for the re-orientation of our desire.
In all aspects of his turn to creation, the sovereign God waits on creatures, bidding faith while eschewing coercive power. As Augustine puts it, God endures rejection and scorn for a time. God reserves final judgement, and in fact, insists on it in his own good time. God waits on his creation, and he waits in spite of our inattention, resistance, and defection. God’s patience thus takes the form of letting-be: God gives space and time for his creatures to return to him and flourish in him and in their contexts, so that they might come into the fullness of their God-given creatureliness.
God’s letting-be determines the interplay between patience and power in the incarnation. And this interplay reveals, above all, the unassuming nature of patience in two ways. Firstly, the pattern of Christ’s life redefines power. Christ displays his power in assuming human flesh, entering ministry, and living among humankind as well as in ascending from his earthly ministry. Supremely, Christ wills the sacrifice of his life: in him, power is defined by humility. Secondly, the greater Christ’s patience, the less power is manifest. On the cross, Christ most fully embodies the decisive feature of his patience: he refuses to respond to his agony and shame by a display of power. Christ is pushed out of the world and onto the cross, as one modern theologian puts it. Unlike Peter in Gethsemane the previous night, Christ is patient. Peter sliced off the ear of one come to arrest Jesus, and as Augustine has it (Tractates on John, 112), Christ admonished Peter for his impatience. Peter sought to defend his Lord, but his violence asserted a claim Jesus did not make. Jesus’s power remained hidden, and his kingdom, not of this world, “overcame the proud world not by the ferocity of fighting but by the humbleness of patiently enduring” (Tract. Jn., 116).
Christ’s patient endurance forgoes one form of power while manifesting another form—God’s humble, healing power. Augustine was fond not only of stressing God’s humility in Christ but also of using medical language. We are God’s patients. Christ is our physician. By and through the incarnation, God operates on us and brings healing, even if the operation is far from painless for Christ in his human flesh or for us. Augustine puts it this way:
The Lord comes; he cures with rather bitter and sharp medicines. For he says to the sick man, “Bear it.” He says, “Endure it.” …
You were trembling in fear even though bound; [Christ] was free, that one, and unbound, he drank what he gave to you. He suffered first that he might comfort you, as if saying, “What you fear to suffer for yourself, I first suffer for you.” This is grace, and a great grace. Who praises it worthily? (Tract. Jn., 3)
What is “great grace”? For no other reason than love, the healer without blemish drinks “bitter and sharp medicines” before applying them to us, his diseased patients.
The suffering is ultimately worthwhile, says Augustine. The good end of union with God redeems suffering. In Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine turns again and again to Romans 8:22–25 in speaking of suffering and patience. Here, as in Galatians 6, patience is associated with the work of the Holy Spirit. We long and groan as we live apart from “our whole joy” and, in hope, strain to receive God face to face. In addition to the self-inflicted wounds that are our sin (e.g., Exp. Ps., Ps 85), this life by its very nature demands patience—distance from God is inherently painful for creatures. Augustine in fact reads an exhortation to endurance on every page of Scripture. This, then, is patience’s entry in the record of desire: we hold the line as we strive for God and as the Spirit works patience in us. Patience abets true love in that it orders our desires, despite obstacles, to their proper object in God.
This is to say, in a way, patience is so unassuming that it is almost transparent, even anonymous. It serves, for instance, the more primary Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. Patience supports faith, by which we cleave to Christ in the face of difficulties circumstantial and self-inflicted. It stokes hope by maintaining anticipation, despite adversity, for that face-to-face meet with Christ. It taps the fund of our love for what is, at this point, only hoped for, sustaining love for God and others in spite of obstacles. Patience leaves the field to others.
By contrast, impatience seeks to command space, for the impatient heart’s desire alights upon what is provisional and temporary, treating it as if it were final and enduring. It seeks to own and control. Put another way, the impatient heart is in a hurry—wearied by God’s patience, the heart takes hold of what it can master. In Augustine’s words: “this is what being in a hurry means—paying no heed to what God has promised, because it is a long way off …” (Exp. Ps., 83). Just as God commands no comparable territory—he waits patiently instead—the patient heart seeks no territory of its own. The patient heart is in heaven even while it is fully and bodily present here and now (Exp. Ps., 93): “Let every one of us run until we arrive, for we run not with our feet but with our desire” (Exp. Ps., 83). That is, the patient heart rests in God’s eternity by the power of the Holy Spirit, and specifically, it rests in the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ.