The Difference Between Forbearance and Patience

Learning to forbear is learning to be merciful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, “Jesus On His Way to Calvary” (1769)
Anton Raphael Mengs, “Jesus On His Way to Calvary” (1769) (photo: Public Domain)

About six months ago I took it upon myself to organize and host a women’s Bible study in my home. I emailed a large group of women whom I thought might be interested and received a very positive response. Since we started meeting, we have had many spiritually fruitful discussions. One that I found to be particularly helpful was the hour we spent discussing the difference between forbearance and patience as presented in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

It all started with a footnote in the New Testament Ignatius Catholic Study Bible on Romans 2:4. The verse states: “Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” The footnote differentiated between forbearance and patience. The distinction between the two is significant, yet subtle, and one could say that forbearance is a kind of patience. God forbears with us when he bears with our faults done out of weakness, such as our habitual sins or those which we do without thinking. Often we do not even realize that we are doing these things until we do a thorough examination of conscience. We are not deliberately wronging God, but our failings are still offences against him. Though when we become aware of these acts done in weakness, we must repent, try to change, and ask for the grace to not do them anymore.

God is patient when he bears with the wrongs that we purposefully do, those deliberate and often serious sins that we are perfectly aware of committing. These too, God endures out of his love for us desiring to lead us to repentance. Our negligent acts and our purposeful acts are both those that must be born through, but the offense they give is different.

We could also look at this differentiation on the level of human relationships. One of the things I realized while studying this text was that I very often fail to distinguish between others’ purposeful faults and the faults that they do out of weakness, and I react to both in a very impatient manner. What should my reaction be when I am the one who left the vase of flowers on a table which I knew my toddler could easily reach? Or when a child asks one more time for a glass of milk when she sees that I have my hands full and I have already asked her to wait? Or when the other children yell in the hallway and wake the napping toddler? Or when we are just trying to get out the door in jackets, shoes, and with a snack for a long morning out? The chaos that happens in a home with small children often drives me to angry outbursts as I attempt to reign it all in. But I forget that the things for which I take offense are not my children purposefully defying me, but they do them because they are children who cannot do differently, due to their own weaknesses.

The same thing happens with other adults in my life. I take offense at things that they may not even realize they are doing. The dish rag left in the wrong spot or the dishwasher loaded the wrong way might be enough to make me upset. Or maybe it is something that seems more purposeful, like not taking their fair turn at a stop sign. Learning to forbear with these small offenses, which are not even purposeful is a way in which I can mortify my own sinful inclinations.

When we pray in the “Our Father” for God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we need to look at how we forgive the small, unthinking faults of others as well as the larger ones. The truth of the matter is that God also forgives the deliberate sins, if we repent and ask for his forgiveness. If I cannot forbear calmly with my child when I ask her for the umpteenth time to put her toys away, how can I have the grace to forgive her the purposeful acts of disobedience she commits. But I need to ask God for the grace to do both, and practice both in my heart and my actions everyday.

As I reflect on my own inability to forbear and have patience with others, I realize that I am like the Unmerciful Servant in the parable (Matthew 18:23-35) who upon receiving forgiveness from his master for a very large debt went out and demanded of a fellow servant a much smaller sum that was owed to him. When the fellow servant was unable to pay, the Unmerciful Servant had him thrown into prison. When the master heard what had happened he found the Unmerciful Servant and said:

`You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;

and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?'

And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:32-35).

I am like the one who looks at the speck in my neighbor’s eye, ignoring the plank in my own. I spend so much time being impatient with others, losing my temper with others, that I overlook my own weaknesses and deliberately sinful acts. If I were to focus more on overcoming my own weaknesses, I would not be so impatient with others. If I were to even take a moment to reflect on how God, in his great mercy, shows us kindness, forbears with us, has patience with us, and if I were to actually take the opportunity to repent, I would be doing so much better than wallowing in my impatient weakness. Learning to forbear is learning to be merciful. I want to learn to be merciful towards every little weakness I notice in those around me. The Year of Mercy is coming to an end and I am still learning this lesson of mercy, which I am still such a novice in. It is a great thing that I have such a patient teacher, who in his steady workings of grace has not given up on me yet.