The patient endurance of wrong or provocation, combined with a refusal to give up hope for improvement in the disturbed relationship. Long-suffering therefore has a purpose, looking particularly to the welfare of the one causing the disagreeable situation. It does not mean the condoning of wrong, however. When the purpose for long-suffering is accomplished, or when there is no point in further putting up with the situation, long-suffering ends. It ends either with good to those giving provocation or with action against the wrongdoers. In any case the one exercising long-suffering is not harmed in spirit.
The literal meaning of the Hebrew expression translated “slow to anger” (“long-suffering” in some translations) is “length of nostrils [where anger flares up].” (Ex 34:6; Nu 14:18; see ANGER.) The Greek word ma·kro·thy·miʹa (long-suffering) literally means “longness of spirit.” (Ro 2:4, Int) Both the Hebrew and Greek expressions denote patience, forbearance, slowness to anger. The English word “suffering” in the word “long-suffering” has the sense of “putting up with, permitting, tolerating, holding up, or delaying.” “Long-suffering” means more than merely enduring pain or trouble. It does not mean merely “suffering long” but involves deliberate restraint.
The Scriptures reveal God’s evaluation of long-suffering and point out the foolishness and bad results of not maintaining “longness of spirit.” The long-suffering person may seem weak, but he actually is using discernment. “He that is slow to anger is abundant in discernment, but one that is impatient is exalting foolishness.” (Pr 14:29) Long-suffering is better than physical mightiness, and it will accomplish more. “He that is slow to anger is better than a mighty man, and he that is controlling his spirit than the one capturing a city.”—Pr 16:32.
The man who is not ‘long in spirit,’ but who bursts forth without restraint, is open to the invasion of any and all improper thoughts and actions, for: “As a city broken through, without a wall, is the man that has no restraint for his spirit.” (Pr 25:28) “All his spirit is what a stupid one lets out, but he that is wise keeps it calm to the last.” (Pr 29:11) For these reasons, the wise man counsels not to be ‘short in spirit’: “Do not hurry yourself in your spirit to become offended, for the taking of offense is what rests in the bosom of the stupid ones.”—Ec 7:9.
Jehovah’s Long-Suffering. When Jehovah took Moses up into Mount Horeb and showed him some of his glory, he declared before Moses: “Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, preserving loving-kindness for thousands, pardoning error and transgression and sin, but by no means will he give exemption from punishment.” (Ex 34:5-7) This truth about Jehovah’s slowness to anger was repeated by Moses, David, Nahum, and others.—Nu 14:18; Ne 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; Joe 2:13; Jon 4:2; Na 1:3.
While long-suffering is an attribute of Jehovah, it is always expressed in harmony with his primary attributes of love, justice, wisdom, and power. (1Jo 4:8; De 32:4; Pr 2:6; Ps 62:11; Isa 40:26, 29) Justice is due, first of all, to God’s own name. That name must be exalted above all others in the universe; and this is essential for the well-being of all his creatures. The magnifying of his name is one of his chief reasons for long-suffering, as the apostle Paul explains: “If, now, God, although having the will to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, tolerated with much long-suffering vessels of wrath made fit for destruction, in order that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory, namely, us, whom he called not only from among Jews but also from among nations, what of it?” (Ro 9:22-24) God, in exercising long-suffering, is taking out a people for his name. And by means of them he is magnifying himself in all the earth.—Ac 15:14; 1Co 3:9, 16, 17; 2Co 6:16.
God exhibited his long-suffering in the very early part of man’s history. Rebellion of the first human couple had brought violation of his law. But instead of executing them immediately, as God could have justly done, in love he displayed long-suffering. This was for their as-yet-unborn descendants, to whom such long-suffering meant everything (his patience means salvation for many [2Pe 3:15]). More important, God also had in view the magnifying of his glory by means of the Seed of promise. (Ge 3:15; Joh 3:16; Ga 3:16) And God not only was long-suffering at that time but he knew that he would have to put up with imperfect mankind for several thousand years of history, delaying punishment against a world at enmity with him. (Jas 4:4) Some have misunderstood and misused God’s long-suffering toward them, missing its purpose by viewing it as slowness rather than as loving patience.—Ro 2:4; 2Pe 3:9.
Nowhere is the long-suffering of God more evident than in his dealings with the ancient nation of Israel. (Ro 10:21) Time and again he received them back after they had fallen away, were punished, and repented. They killed his prophets and finally his own Son. They fought the preaching of the good news by Jesus and his apostles. But God’s long-suffering was not wasted. There was a remnant that proved faithful. (Isa 6:8-13; Ro 9:27-29; 11:5) He used some of such faithful ones to write his Word under inspiration. (Ro 3:1, 2) The Law he gave showed that all mankind are sinners and need a redeemer, and it pointed to that One who would give his life as a ransom price and who would be exalted to the high position of King. (Ga 3:19, 24) Patterns of that Kingdom and of Christ’s priesthood were provided (Col 2:16, 17; Heb 10:1), and examples for us to follow or avoid were set forth. (1Co 10:11; Heb 6:12; Jas 5:10) All these things are essential to mankind for the gaining of everlasting life.—Ro 15:4; 2Ti 3:16, 17.
Jehovah not long-suffering forever. On the other hand, God is long-suffering only as long as it is in harmony with justice, righteousness, and wisdom. The fact that long-suffering is exercised when a bad or provocative situation exists shows that it is meant to give opportunity for those involved in the bad situation to change, to straighten up. When matters come to a point where it is seen that there is no hope of such change, justice and righteousness would be violated if long-suffering should continue. Then God acts in wisdom to remove the bad situation. His patience comes to an end.
An example of this forbearance on God’s part and of its coming to an end is found in God’s dealing with men before the Flood. A deplorable condition existed, and God said: “My spirit shall not act toward man indefinitely in that he is also flesh. Accordingly his days shall amount to a hundred and twenty years.” (Ge 6:3) Later, regarding Israel’s misuse of Jehovah’s long-suffering, Isaiah said: “But they themselves rebelled and made his holy spirit feel hurt. He now was changed into an enemy of theirs; he himself warred against them.”—Isa 63:10; compare Ac 7:51.
For these reasons Christians are entreated not to “accept the undeserved kindness of God and miss its purpose.” (2Co 6:1) They are counseled: “Do not be grieving [saddening] God’s holy spirit.” (Eph 4:30, Int) Also, “Do not put out the fire of the spirit.” (1Th 5:19) Otherwise they may continue to the point of sin and blasphemy against God’s spirit, in effect outraging it, in which case there is no repentance or forgiveness, only destruction.—Mt 12:31, 32; Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-31.
Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ exemplified long-suffering among humans. Of him, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He was hard pressed, and he was letting himself be afflicted; yet he would not open his mouth. He was being brought just like a sheep to the slaughtering; and like a ewe that before her shearers has become mute, he also would not open his mouth.” (Isa 53:7) He put up with the weaknesses of his apostles and the insults and discourtesies heaped upon him by bitter, vicious enemies. Yet he did not retaliate in kind, by word or action. (Ro 15:3) When the apostle Peter acted injudiciously in cutting off the ear of Malchus, Jesus reproved him with the words: “Return your sword to its place, . . . do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father to supply me at this moment more than twelve legions of angels? In that case, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that it must take place this way?”—Mt 26:51-54; Joh 18:10, 11.
Why is it important for Christians to cultivate long-suffering?
From the foregoing it is evident that long-suffering originates with Jehovah God. It is a fruit of his spirit. (Ga 5:22) Man, made in the image and likeness of God, has a measure of this quality and can develop it by following God’s Word and the direction of his holy spirit. (Ge 1:26, 27) Christians are therefore commanded to cultivate and display this quality. (Col 3:12) It is an identifying mark of a minister of God. (2Co 6:4-6) The apostle Paul says: “Be long-suffering toward all.” (1Th 5:14) He indicates that it is essential to exercise this quality in order to be pleasing to God. But one’s long-suffering is not genuine if it is accompanied by grumbling and complaining. Paul shows that the commendable thing is to “be long-suffering with joy.”—Col 1:9-12.
Aside from the joy that one gets through the practice of long-suffering, the rewards are great. Jehovah is rewarded by having his name glorified. The challenge against the righteousness and rightfulness of God’s sovereignty is proved wrong, and he is vindicated. (Ge 3:1-5; Job 1:7-11; 2:3-5) What if he had put Adam, Eve, and Satan to death at the time of the rebellion? Some might have concluded that Satan had a point in his challenge. But by long-suffering, Jehovah gave men the opportunity to prove under test that they prefer his sovereignty over them and that they want to serve him because of his fine qualities, yes, to demonstrate that they prefer Jehovah’s sovereignty to complete independence, knowing that it is far better.—Ps 84:10.
Jesus Christ, because of long-suffering in obedience to God, received a most marvelous reward, being exalted to the superior position of kingship and being given “the name that is above every other name,” by his Father. (Php 2:5-11) Besides this, he receives a “bride” made up of his spiritual brothers, the New Jerusalem, which is represented as a city, the foundation stones of which have on them the names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb.—2Co 11:2; Re 21:2, 9, 10, 14.
Likewise, the reward is rich for all persons cultivating long-suffering and maintaining it in harmony with God’s purpose. (Heb 6:11-15) They have the satisfaction of copying God’s quality, of doing God’s will, and of having God’s approval. Additionally, their long-suffering will bring accomplishment in helping others to know God and to gain everlasting life.—1Ti 4:16.