A Neglected Virtue


How We Wait Upon the World

By David Baily Harned.

Wipf & Stock. pp. 234. $26

Review by Andrew M. Harmon

While waiting is central to our human existence, ours is perhaps the least patient generation in history. As David Baily Harned puts it, we perceive waiting as entirely accidental (p. 5). For us, “real life” is the equivalent of doing something, and we are most ourselves, most human, when we are in control of that doing. Our understanding of patience follows suit: the unspoken gumption that helps us through our modern malaise.

Harned wants to argue that this a mistaken take on “real life,” which props up only a semblance of the virtue. The results are jarring: we have become increasingly impatient, and yet we have failed to understand what precisely patience means or looks like (p. 18). The remedy, by Harned’s lights, is a

thicker description of patience as a virtue buttressed by historical reflection from some of the past’s most capable thinkers.

Patience’s roots can be found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, wherein we witness God’s incredible forbearance, mercy, and promise for his people (p. 29). Jesus more fully exemplifies and embodies the divine patience revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures (pp. 32-40). Perhaps most acutely, the early Church sensed that learning to welcome suffering’s many forms simply was the Christian lot. Versed in Stoic thought and rhetoric, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine crafted a distinct moral vision with patience as its hallmark. While these North African thinkers owe much of their development to Stoic reflection, theirs is a posture not free from emotion and passion (p. 43) but ordered in disposition and effusive in thanksgiving.

Still, Harned thinks these (and other) early Christians run into trouble because of their uncritical debts

to Stoic equanimity (pp. 44-45). Echoing the Stoic clarion call to self-control, Tertullian contended the greatest and first sin was one of impatience, of Adam’s impetuous affect. Cyprian shows signs of shaking the Stoic hangover, assigning patience to God as a divine perfection. Augustine too builds out from this tradition by emphasizing the important of perseverance in the face of uncertainty or adversity.

Marking the transition from patristic to medieval reflection is Gregory the Great’s commentary on the book of Job. Filled with aphorisms and illustrations for everyday use, Gregory’s text named the driving importance of patience as suffering through misfortune. In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, patience goes from atop the hierarchy of moral excellences to each excellence’s infused core. Thomas à Kempis marked yet another shift in language and tone: moving from the academy to the prayer bench and describing the virtues through the personal language of friendship and love.

John Calvin, perhaps more than any other, indicated that divine sovereignty shaped patience (p. 83). That

God knows and rules all implied that human beings were to trust God, exemplifying forbearance and enduring hardships along the way. Calvin also introduced the concept of mortification, constituted by self-denial and bearing the cross, as constitutive of godlikeness.

Jeremiah Burroughs, representative of Puritan reflection on patience, examined adversities in the grand narrative of God’s saving works in hopes of engendering humility. Søren Kierkegaard, who rounds out Harned’s narrative, stressed the patience to will one thing; this was primarily to understand the “slowness of the Good” (pp. 98-106).

Chapter six marks the turning point in Patience; Harned begins to define what does and does not

constitute the virtue. He weaves together myriad Christian witnesses in hopes of supplementing the thin, fourfold dictionary definition of patience: endurance of hardship, forbearance, willingness to wait, and perseverance (pp. 111-12). In Harned’s moral vision, faith knits these aspects together. He names patience a divine perfection given by grace that must be nourished and enacted in public; still its root, like all Christian virtues, is gift rather than achievement (p. 113).

Only time, marked by deep attention and care, can reveal the world as it truly is (p. 128) and begin to combat patience’s rivals: impatience, apathy, boredom, and displacement (p. 148). And while some might disparage patience as unduly resigned, Harned argues the unity of the virtues bucks against the claim. True patience for Harned comes packaged with the other virtues, cardinal and theological, knowing how and when and where to act justly, prudently, temperately, and courageously. In fact, he insists that the converse is true too: none of the virtues exist outside of patience (p. 160).

If Harned’s main hunch is right, that to be human is to wait and even to suffer, then it is through that waiting and suffering that we discern our capacities for acting freely and fully. This is not the way of the unaffected sage, Harned contends, but the way of Christ, who for the world’s sake patiently endured the road set before him, even to the point of death (p. 179).

For all of Patience’s artfulness, some nuance would be helpful. In seeking to offer a uniquely Christian proposal for virtue, Harned cleanly pits classical or philosophical outlooks against their biblical or theological perfections (pp. 69, 107, 109, 113), presenting the reader with neat dichotomies sometimes more apparent than real. Along similar lines, Harned will speak in general of our culture, or our age, or “the modern world” in a way that seems too facile (p. 116). Neither of these quibbles is damning and is not meant to take away from a fine meditation on a virtue long in need of recovery.

Unsurprisingly, Patience is best slowly digested. While it will likely be of interest to moral theologians and some historians, Harned’s book is accessible to a broad audience and, given its organization, would be especially suited to book groups.

Andrew M. Harmon is a doctoral candidate in theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee.


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