Patience vs. Desperation

“We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” – (Hebrews 6:12)

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning” – (Psalm 130:5-6)

Patience (Greek – μακροθυμια – pronounced mah-krow-thew-me-ah):  The word in Greek combines μακρός (pronounced makros) meaning “long” with θυμός (pronounced thumos) meaning “anger” or “an outburst of passion”.  A transliteral definition would be slow to anger.  Patience also includesthe quality of endurance, steadfastness, perseverance, forbearance, and longsuffering.  It involves bearing annoyance or misfortune without an immediate desire for revenge.  In Spanish, the word esperar means to both hope and to wait.  Patience also involves both hoping and waiting.

The Habit of Patience

Being patient involves maintaining self-control despite our circumstances.  It involves maintaining love and forgiveness even under challenging situations.  Patience has much to do with not letting ourselves be overcome by anger or fear. Patience is how we maintain our faith in the face of adversity.  When we have the impulse to respond in anger and judgment, and instead refrain, this is patience at work.  Being patient in adversity helps us break the cycle of revenge.  Jesus said that by the same standard we judge, so too will we be judged.  The example of the men judging the woman who had committed adultery reveals how each of us has the power to throw a stone.  If we do not practice patience, we will all end up throwing stones at each other.  Sometimes that is exactly how it feels in today’s day and age.  

When we think of patience, we also generally think of being patient in relationship to a specific result or desire.  We can wait patiently for a loved one to return.  We can be patient in the fulfillment of a goal.  Being patient is a way of life, but it ought not to be completely separated from our goals and desires.  To be patient without any ultimate goals in mind is to be idle.  Remaining tranquil and unmoved even amid our hopes and dreams being dashed can be submission and capitulation.  Letting others act in evil ways without challenging them is enabling. Patience calls us to respond in love rather than retaliation.  Laziness or sloth are generally considered sinful.  It is with purpose that our hopes and longsuffering become powerful. Waiting is part and parcel with hope. Scripture reminds us to wait on the Lord.  Our hopes, dreams, and prayers will be challenged in many ways, but we can retain hope.  We can respond in love rather than continue the cycle of revenge.  Challenges may cause us to modify what we hope for and how we respond, but our hope and response of love can remain else we fall into despair or hatred.

The Neuroscience of Patience

The engineering definition of resilience is quite helpful in clarifying its meaning.  Resilience is the ability to absorb or release tension without fracture or distortion. When we crack, we can become irritable or even hateful rather than keep our composure and steadfastness.  We can also fall into complete hopelessness.  Richard Davidson’s research has shown that increased neuronal connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala help us bounce back from adversity.[i]  This is because the prefrontal cortex can help dampen fear or anger being processed in the amygdala.  The stronger conception of self and executive function you have, the more you can overcome fear, and anger-inducing distraction.  Also, the more goal-oriented mindset you have the stronger your resilience.

When we are able to feel safe and calm, the autonomic system operates through integration of the ventral vagus branch of the vagus nerve.  We have relaxed muscles, we’re able to be social and engage others, blood flows to the skin, and we are capable of pleasurable emotions.  We have access to our prefrontal cortex when we feel safe and calm.    

The prefrontal cortex has distinct areas with distinct roles.  The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is an area involved in planning and goal setting.  Additionally, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) helps inhibit impulsive and emotional reaction in coordination with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). There is much research available that demonstrates that what we pay attention to will determine how our brain structures and restructures.  Remember Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together wire together. The prefrontal cortex, where executive function largely resides helps override the emotional centers of the brain such as the amygdala.  Visualizing our goals, taking time to breathe, filtering out distractions, and controlling our anxiety are all ways that our brain will wire to watch and wait for our goals and desires.  The more practice we make at enduring the longsuffering of waiting and watching for our goals, the stronger our neural connections of patience will become.  It might seem strange to attach goal setting with patience.  But neurologically speaking, what we wait and watch for is what helps us focus to overcome the amygdala’s perception of threats, dangers, and worries that might derail our prefrontal cortex.  If we are unable to watch and wait, we will instead act on impulse and anxiety.  Our Lord reminds us that those who seek shall find. This encourages us to wait and hope. Despite any setbacks or failures, we can maintain our hope.

Responding in love rather than retaliation also strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex. Responding with hate or worry will diminish the strength of our circuitry that draws us toward love. Because we are wired for love, we are wired to respond without revenge.  When we look at history, we can easily see that revenge never ultimately is the best option.  

The Theology of Patience

When we are patient, we maintain our hope, expectation, and anticipation despite setbacks and failures.  God is our model for patience:“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 85:16).  Despite adversity, we can be gracious, merciful, and kind.  In Hebrew anger is literally tied with our physiology.  The Hebrew word for anger also means nostril (אַ֝פַּ֗יִם).  If you can think of a time when you or someone else was angry you might also remember nostrils flaring.

An inherent part of patience is being able to surrender in the face of uncertainty.  It is not a letting go, but the strength to endure until our hopes are met.  As much as we may want something, there is always going to be some element that is out of our control.  It is by faith and with perseverance that we keep our eyes on the prize.  It is our trust in God and our response to act in the face of that waiting that brings us closer and closer to reaching our destination. Job is an excellent Biblical example. Despite persistent and intense hardships, he was ultimately able to keep his eyes on God’s sovereignty.  Often, situations look dismal or uncertain.  It is our hope and faith in God that pulls us through.  It is God’s grace. 

God is patient with us just as we are to be patient with others.  Patience is forgiveness in action.  Each one of us is a work in progress.  Despite our personal setbacks and failures, God works in our hearts drawing us closer to love and goodness.  We are not condemned by God, but encouraged to be a fuller human being. Condemning others is not helpful. We can be patient with them.  When we pray to God to forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive others who trespass against us, we are reminding ourselves to be patient and not condemn others.  We are reminding ourselves to keep working toward our common good without falling into the cycle of revenge.

The Neuroscience of Desperation 

In our patience we wait and hope in the Lord.  But without our eyes and heart fixed on our Lord, hope is easily lost. Being hopeless often involves losing confidence, belief in the fulfillment of expectation, or the loss of trust.  The Latin root of desperation means to be without hope.[ii]  

Desperation is usually characterized by sadness or despair.  It can be accompanied by feelings of anguish, pain, and agony.  The sense of hopelessness can lead to a wild, reckless, pessimism that can move toward wrath and anger.  Desperation can be both extremes of the flight or fight response.  Hopeless desperation can also cause us to freeze and collapse.

Mentioned earlier was the calming role of the ventral branch of the vagus nerve.  Especially in the event of trauma, the other branch of the vagus nerve, the dorsal branch gets activated.  When an event either is or seems so threatening that we become overwhelmed, it can cause the body to freeze and go into collapse.  The body becomes flaccid, heart rate slows, breathing is shallow, and we become disassociated with our executive function.  It is a state that can mimic death.  These two branches of the vagus nerve create what is known as the polyvagal theory developed by Steven Porges.  The ventral branch (at the front of the body) is activated when we are calm.  The dorsal branch (at the back of the body) is activated when we are so overwhelmed that the body freezes and collapses.  

Desperation has negative effects not only for us, but for our children. According to a 2018 review be psychologist Maria Gartstein and biochemist Michael Skinner, “when pregnant women feel more stress and adversity (as well as increased exposure to toxic elements like endocrine disruptors, alcohol, and tobacco), their children have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and negative emotions related to aggression.”[iii] This phenomenon is known as epigenetics.  Genes can literally be turned on or off in utero as the baby develops.  Trauma can be passed on from one generation to the next even before birth.  

Another area that prevents us from the hopeful expectation of our desires is constant busyness.  Busyness is of enormous opposition to patience.  Our world is extremely hasty.  We are invited to more, more, MORE in an ever louder drum beat.  The mantra that is screamed at us is that bigger and faster are better.  But in this state, we are constantly running on adrenaline.  This is the stress response.  Our body is made ready for fight or flight.  When we are constantly busy, we do not give our bodies the proper time to rest and recuperate.  We need to rest and recuperate.  Being amped up and loaded with cortisol is truly killing many of us.

Irritability also leads to desperation.  Being annoyed or agitated are generally states where the prefrontal cortex loses over to emotional threat and an unhindered limbic system.  Rather than focusing on a larger or more helpful outcome, the passion of the moment can take control.  It can be a vicious cycle.  Remembering to turn down our stress response helps the prefrontal cortex and executive function regain control.  Irritability, annoyance, and impetuousness can also turn to hatred.  Impetuousness often implies hostility or hatred.  Hatred dampens our brain’s circuitry that allows for tolerance.  It also ramps up the motor circuitry of the brain as if to respond in swift action of retaliation.  The hatred and wrath of desperation can also turn inward including a sense of shame that manifests as real pain in the body. 

According to the National Center for PTSD, in our country, about half of men and women face traumas.[iv]  Many adverse childhood experiences can also cripple people into adulthood.  In addition to personal trauma, there is much societal injustice. People are born into hardship and adversity.  People are born into poverty.  People are born into the cycle of trauma and often traumatize themselves and others without even knowing the full extent of it.

Without help from many others, we can be tossed on the waves of the ocean where stressors keep us from utilizing our prefrontal cortex.  Without turning toward love, we can practice hatred and revenge.  If we do not practice the Way of Love then the cycle of revenge will never stop.  Sometimes not knowing why the world is as broken as it is can be difficult.  It can cause us to freeze and collapse.  Sometimes our expectations of God’s goodness do not match with the reality of what we see in the world.  This can be challenging, but ultimately, we can trust that our help and our strength is in God.  It is God’s will for us to respond patiently and with love.  We can be part of the change in the world.  This is God’s will for us.  And if God is with us, who can be against us?  If we rely on the precariousness of the world, we do not keep ourselves open to God’s steadfast assurance.  The world and the many things in our lives often seem against us.  If our minds are attuned to solely looking for reassurance from the world about us, we will be sorely disappointed.  

Brené Brownin her bookRising Strongspeaks to how when we are missing data points, we often fill them in with belief and fear to create a story in our minds.  A story based on fear and false belief is a conspiracy.  Many of us operate within our own conspiracies. These can be against ourselves or against others.  And these are partly what lead us into desperation.  When we lose hope, it robs us of our joy.  When we lose hope, we often work to rob others of their joy.  There is always room for some sense of hope no matter how dismal the situation.  

Strengthening the Habit of Patience

Habits of Patience

In his book The Fruitful Life, Jerry Bridges details some very important aspect of patience.  They include: 

Suffering Mistreatment:Rather than retaliating or giving up, we can be steadfast.

Responding to Provocation:We can respond with love rather than revenge.

Tolerating Shortcomings:We can forgive ourselves and others rather than seek perfection.

Waiting on God: When our expectations do not meet with reality, we can maintain hope.

Persevering Through Adversity:Through endurance, we can gain perseverance and character.[v]

Being Steadfast Toward Our Goals

Patience without an end in mind is really just idleness.  Without a goal, then patience has no meaning.  Well-defined goals also strengthen the executive function of your prefrontal cortex. Whether it’s returning to good health, working toward something or making some improvement, patience is always at work.  If we are sabotaged in a goal, then we can exercise not wanting immediate revenge. If we face a setback, we can practice our patient perseverance. Being patient in our advance to a goal can also be witness to God.  We can watch and wait patiently as the resources become available to achieve our goal. If success does not seem to come, we can reassess our goal patiently as well as how we are achieving it.  An excellent way of practicing our patience, is by having something to be patient for.  Using the guidance below, set a goal for yourself and see how you work patiently to achieve it.  Here are several questions that can get to the heart of your hopes and desires for yourself.  What do you love most about your life?  How can you enhance it or relish it more?  What do you dislike most about your life?  How can you change it?  What groups or people give you joy?  How can you include them more in your life?[vi]  

Setting SMART Goals

SMART Goals are goals set with purpose.  They consist of five segments.  They are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time-related.  Use the below table to think of a goal for yourself to grow in love and one of the fruits of the Spirit.  

Goal:________________________________________________

Specific: What actions will I take to achieve my goal?   
Measurable: What does progress look like? 
Achievable: Who will help me be accountable?  How will I persevere in the face of challenge?    
Relevant: How can I make extra efforts not just feel like more work?   
Time-bound: What is the time frame I will accomplish the goal?  How will I celebrate my victories?    

For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:

Seeing our Lives in the Context of our Death: To go even deeper with our goals, desires, and motivation, we can begin with the end in mind.  This may seem morbid, but it can also be extremely life-giving and liberating to confront what we are most afraid of.  Each of us will one day die.  The petty grievances of today’s world will all one day be very small when seen against the backdrop of eternity.  Take a moment to think about the following questions.  What would I be most proud to have included in my obituary?  How will I be remembered 100 years from now?  When I come before God at my death, will my life be a testimony of love?  

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Palliative Care Nurse Bronnie Ware worked with dying patients for many years.  What she found was that at the end of life, what people regretted more than their mistakes were the risks and opportunities that they did not take.[vii]  Our deepest desires and hopes for our lives often get shelved because of busy-ness or habit.  But we are alive today and can start toward God’s dream of love and joy for our lives today.

Try this:  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Think of a time when you most felt enveloped in God’s patience. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind.  Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience.  Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels.  Perhaps you feel a sense of warmth, consolation, security, stillness, or focus. Perhaps you feel awe and wonder? Where in your body do your feel these sensations?  Describe below how it feels in your body to abide in God’s peace. 

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Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s patience working in and through your body?

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Try this with caution.  Do not retraumatize yourself.  If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory:  Close your eyes and take a deep breath.  Think of a time when you most felt desperation.  If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind.  Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience.  After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels.  Perhaps you feel a sense of being lost, dizzy, disoriented, angry, or afraid?  Perhaps you feel like you’re dizzy and spiraling down?  Describe below how it feels in your body to be in desperation.

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Where in my life is there a sense of desperation?  What scripture, resources or tools from this book will I use to overcome it?

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What habitual and settled tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community is stuck in a cycle of hopelessness and what specific changes would create more systemic patience, steadfastness, and hope?

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What one specific and measurable goal to create more patience and steadfastness do I have that will help overcome a sense of hopelessness at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to? (Think with the end in mind: how will the lasting contributions of this organization, church or political group be seen 100 years from now?)

Goal:____________________________________________

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~ Pray ~

God, I am Yours.  I say yes to patience, steadfastness, and hope.  

I will challenge and overcome hopelessness and irritability.           

 I surrender to Your patience.  


[i]Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2010),72.

[ii]“Desperation,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed February 20, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=desperation.

[iii]Tula Karras,Your Emotions: The Science of How You Feel.” Special Issue, National Geographic, (2020): 65.

[iv]“’How Common is PTSD in Adults?’,” National Center for PTSD, accessed January 2, 2019, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp.

[v]Jerry Bridges, The Fruitful Life, (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2006), 85.

[vi]David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism, (New York: Church Publishing, 2008), 136.

[vii]“Regrets of the Dying,” Bronnie Ware, accessed September 13, 2019, https://bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying/.