The Price of Patience, Part I

“You are too tolerant.”

Those words, written on my first teaching evaluation, were probably well-intentioned, and likely a valid statement, but they remain, for better or worse, anchored in my consciousness to this day. For what I heard in my head when I read those words sounded more like this:

“Tolerance will not be tolerated.”

I was an intern music teacher in my first assignment in an elementary school, having just been manhandled by a group of twitchy 4th graders that read my fresh-faced demeanor as an excuse to tune out of my fun lesson on quarter notes. After all, I’m sure they were aware that for once, they were not the ones being graded – the teacher was. How much fun that must have been to know this collegiate wanna-be teacher was at their mercy, like a laboratory where the mice are in charge, and gleefully drop the scientist in the maze. I’m not sure whether the problem was that I didn’t recognize the rambunctious nature of the children, or that I tried to soldier on through the lesson without using the “Classroom Management Techniques” drilled into me by my teaching textbooks – names on the board, positive reinforcement, eye contact, redirection – all given for the express purpose that I should exert my will over the classroom. Whatever my reasoning or judgement, my supervisor was clear in her assessment. I had let the kids get away with too much.  I had not, in her view, provided the proper amount of consequence for the perceived offenses of the group.

To which charge, if carried over the 14 years since, I must plead guilty in more than one case of educational anarchy. Most of my life, I’ve been either blessed or cursed, depending on ones view, with a propensity for giving people a second, or third, or fourth chance. My children, of course, would beg to differ with this assessment. They see a dad that makes decisions and judgments long before they have finished their appeals, and I’m sure they chalk that up to a lack of patience on my part. If only they knew (and now obviously know if they are reading this confessional themed section) that I agonized over each and every decision and always felt a sense that a punishment or decree could warrant another look. I’m very aware that this sometimes has been a negative factor in my adult life. No matter how many books and websites I’ve researched on assertiveness and leadership, it hasn’t made it any easier for me to draw a line in the sand.

Therein lies my dilemma. I know that tolerance can, in the extreme, be a cowardly decision to avoid confrontation and excuse wrong behavior. However, on the opposite side, I’ve seen where a long-suffering and patient attitude toward people has been a beneficial asset. I feel many of the relationships I’ve forged with friends have stood through difficult seasons because I simply refused to take the final offense. Although it hurt deeply at times, I chose to believe that the good in the person would always shine through the bad choices, and except in some extreme circumstances, I made an effort to provide a place of reconciliation. I’m sure I was not always correct in my judgment of when that was the proper course to take, but that’s where the real crucible of friendship and relationship is – in the choice whether to use the torch of compromise to lead the way to a bridge between two seemingly incompatible views, or to use the torch of decision to burn the bridge.

Of course, not all issues of patience have to do with putting up with people. However, in this essay I’m deliberately not speaking about the patience needed to see a goal through, or to endure a trial or season of testing. I’ll refer to that type in a future post. (Thus the Part I addendum to the post title.)  To be patient with people is more difficult, because I believe we view relationships more as commodities than companionships. We hear regularly about the need to cut ties with those that disappoint us, as if a person is a faulty piece of equipment to be discarded when it malfunctions. Because of this perception, I feel the price of being ‘too patient’ with people has been the appearance of weakness –  of a sense that I’m unwilling to call out and hold people accountable. However, while I readily accept the fact that sometimes boundaries must be set and standards upheld, I look to another example for comfort when I feel I’m doomed by my tolerant disposition.

Picture God watching mankind, His most precious and greatest creation, utterly forsaking Him for alternative gods and denying that He ever had anything to do with bringing them into existence.  Imagine the disappointment. Now, we acknowledge readily that God reaches a point of finality where judgment is enacted – the Flood for example – and no one is accusing God of not enforcing the standards He demands. However, the patience of God ends up having a high price – the price that people begin to think that He isn’t serious. Those people alive at the time of the Flood might have been more prone to believe Noah’s warnings had God allowed a river to burst forth somewhere. Even now, in this post – modern world, a common view from skeptics about God is that if He were real, He wouldn’t put up with people not recognizing Him. Still,  He exhibits patience and seems to allow things to get worse even as time seems to be growing short. So is God too tolerant? Should He put up with as much as He did, and continues to put up with? I doubt anyone, no matter how desirous of seeing the complete vindication of good over evil, would accuse God of being too patient. In truth, the full price of His patience was exemplified in the sacrifice of His Son, because a patient God decided losing a Son was better than losing any sinner that had a chance of repentance.

So is it dangerous to be patient with people? Yes. Is it worth the price of the appearance of weakness and excessive tolerance? In my theological example, I would have to say yes. However, it is harder for me to accept that answer as a father and man who deals with the dilemmas that patience brings. There is no easy answer, no one magic bullet that solves the patience problem. Patience has its perfect work, James claims in his epistle. I don’t think for a moment that means we perfectly understand why certain people require more patience, but I do believe that when we look back from the other side of heaven, we’ll see a complete picture of how God has been patient with us, and how that patience has been transmitted through us to others.

I’ll continue wrestling with this perception for the rest of my life. What I don’t have to wrestle with, however, is the fact that I know while I may give too many chances at times to students, children, or colleagues, God has never felt like He gave me one too many chances. I appreciate that, and I’ll pass it on as best I can. And to that student in the 2nd row in Ms. Buddy’s 4th grade music class that talked out of turn and wouldn’t keep your hands to yourself – I saw you. And you’re welcome.

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