Patience: a divine virtue

Patience: a divine virtue Zechariah and Elizabeth: virtues of faith and patience.
Faith means taking the long view, writes David Quinn


When you read the Bible it is easy to miss important ideas when you are not concentrating. How many times have I read, or listened to someone else reading, the opening chapter of St Luke’s Gospel where the Angel declares to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, is to have a child?

The Angel says to him: “Zechariah, do not be afraid, your prayer has been heard.” But think of how old Zechariah and Elizabeth are at this point. We are told “they were both getting on in years”.

Maybe they were in their 50s or 60s. Back in those days, that would have been considered rather old, and obviously well past the point of having children, especially in Elizabeth’s case, who is described as “barren” in any case.

So, they must have been praying for a long time to have a child, for decades in fact. They could have been married for 40 years at this point. Most people would have given up and assumed their prayer would never be answered. Maybe they had given up in a certain sense, and left it entirely up to God how, when and if to answer it.

But answer it he did, in his own way, and in his own time and to fulfil his divine purpose through them and through their son, John, who was to help prepare the way for Jesus.


The point here is that when we pray, we need to be extremely patient and when the prayer is answered, if it is answered (we might be praying for the wrong thing), God may answer after many years pass and in a way that is part of a bigger picture we cannot see.

Think back to Abraham and Sarah. Like Elizabeth, Sarah was unable to have a child and she was past child-bearing years when God decided to answer Abraham and Sarah’s prayer to have a child together.

Indeed, when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky, years still had to pass before he and Sarah had a child of their own, namely Isaac.

And when God finally fulfilled his promise in full, namely that Abraham would have descendants too many to count, God did not mean only physical descendants, but spiritual ones as well, including us Christians, and that was to happen long centuries after the death of Abraham and in ways he could never have dreamt of.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the long promised, long prayed-for Messiah. In Jesus’s own day, and to this day, not everyone recognises him as such. Jews still await the Messiah, two thousand years after the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

After the Romans scattered the Jews to the four corners of the known world following the rebellion that led to the destruction of the Temple, Jews began saying to themselves, “Next year in Jerusalem”, in hope of finally returning to their homeland, their Promised Land. This did not fully happen until 1948. In other words, they took the long view. It took 19 centuries for a Jewish homeland to be founded again, and it is still fiercely contested. Most peoples do not even survive that long as a cohesive nation through time.

The Catholic Church is now 2,000 years old, so Catholics are also used to taking the long view and when we pray to God, we know that the things we pray for might not be granted in our lifetimes, or in many lifetimes.

When we pray “your Kingdom come”, we know this will never be fully achieved short of the Second Coming, and that also requires taking the long view. I once read a theologian who remarked that for all we know, we are still the early Church because aeons of time may have to pass before Jesus finally comes again in glory.

In our own personal lives when we pray for ourselves and our loved ones, we hope that our prayers will be answered within our lifetimes. But in the case of our children, that might not happen until we are dead and gone. In other words, our prayers might not be answered until after we pass on.

What God expects from us is patience. Patience is a sign of fidelity. Faith is not simply belief in certain doctrines. Faith in God is much more like the faith a couple show in their marriages. Faith is a form of commitment. It is a statement that “I believe in this and will stick at it for better or for worse”. We do this because everything in life offers the rough with the smooth and there is no getting away from that.

If all prayers were answered straight away, then God would be reduced to an ATM who answers us on call and our Faith would be dependent on instant responses.


Advent itself is about waiting. Christmas comes after the long period of waiting.

In our lives and in the life of the Church, we learn to wait, to be patient, to pray constantly for the purpose we have in mind, hoping that purpose finds favour with God.

Even Jesus waited for 30 years before embarking on his public mission. He also took the long view.