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Patience of Christ’s Passion: Karl Barth on Patience and Wrath

Adam Johnson

A theologian Karl Barth's ideas on the centrality of God's patience, and reflects on the relationship of patience and wrath, and implications of patience and impatience in our lives.

Associate Professor of Theology, Biola University
August 22, 2016

German theologian Karl Barth weaves patience into the very heart of God: “God acts [patiently]…. That He does so lies in His very being. Indeed, it is His being. Everything that God is, is implied and included in the statement that He is patient.”[1]

Karl Barth on God’s Patience

Barth then defines God’s patience as:

His will… to allow another… space and time for the development of its own existence, thus conceding to this existence a reality side by side with His own, and fulfilling His will towards this other in such a way that He does not suspend or destroy it as this other but accompanies and sustains it and allows it to develop in freedom.[2]

In other words, God is one who gives another time and space alongside his own self. Put negatively, his is not a life of competition or conflict in which others must be defeated, consumed, or anything of the sort. Rather, in his patience, God can and does give the other time and space to be who they are, to live and develop with and in relation to himself.

How do Patience and Wrath Fit Together? The Higher Order of Divine Patience

But if God is so patient, why does his anger burst forth against countless people in the Scriptures, and even, at times, against ourselves? Barth’s rejoinder is that these “are not the outbreak of the genuine wrath and judgment of God. They are not the eternal death, the abandonment and precipitation into nothingness, which Israel and… all humanity deserved…. That which we all deserved has been suffered in our place and in Israel’s place by the only righteous One.”[3] The tension throughout Scripture between God’s patience and these manifestations of his wrath is ultimately a tension that takes place in a higher order of patience—the patience of God directed towards the work of Christ when he justifies himself passing “over former sins” (Romans 3:25-6) through Christ’s crucifixion.

“But does the divine patience come to an end in the passion of Jesus Christ?”

But does the divine patience come to an end in the passion of Jesus Christ? Has the divine patience held back the wrath and righteousness of God all this time, only now to relinquish its duty?

Divine Patience Continued in Jesus’s Passion

As we saw, God’s patience is “His will… to allow another… space and time for the development of its own existence, thus conceding to this existence a reality side by side with His own.”[4] It is natural to think of ourselves as the “other” in this passage—God gives us space in time, without suspending or destroying us, in anticipation of the saving work of Christ. But Barth’s theology demands that we always think first in terms of Jesus Christ, and only second in terms of humankind (which has its existence and identity in him). What happens if we rethink the above definition of patience in terms of the incarnate Son of God bearing our sins?

In this line of thought, God continues to manifest his patience—in fact, manifests it here as nowhere else—in his will to allow Jesus Christ space and time for the development of his own existence as “the bearer and Representative of sin,”[5] as one who is dead in our place, fulfilling His will towards him by giving him over to eternal death and abandonment.[6] The patience of God is thus fully enacted not in forbearance from punishment—merely holding himself back. It is enacted not in the tension between forgiveness and wrath throughout the Old Testament, but in the death of Christ in God-forsakenness. As John Goldingay puts it, “Only if God is as steadfast as Jesus in accepting the terrible pain of this moment of holding back can God carry human sin to the uttermost.”[7] Adapting Barth’s thought, we can affirm “it was to His being in death that he had gone as the goal of His way, in fulfillment of His patience in our place.”[8]

Jesus Suffers the Patience of God

That is to say: In the work of Christ, God does not cease to be patient but manifests the depth, the full extent of his patience. As Alan Lewis puts it, Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s experience of death between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, “is precisely a day of waiting, a hiatus and a barrier…. And it is across this motionless, unhurried interstice between yesterday and tomorrow, this deadly stasis of inertia which faith has been constrained to speak of as descent into hell, that God’s own self is suspended on Holy Saturday.”[9] In the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus Christ suffers the patience of God in the outworking of his being as the one who bears our sins in our place—as the one who dies in abandonment from the Father.[10]

“Only if God is as steadfast as Jesus in accepting the terrible pain of this moment of holding back can God carry human sin to the uttermost.” – John Goldingay

Jesus Christ suffers under the patience of God as the one who is truly patient in our place. He bore the wrath and abandonment of the Father, and was raised on the third day as God’s decisive verdict that he was in fact sinless, was in fact the patient one for us and in our place—the one who bore in himself our impatience and its fruits in all the fullness of its demonic power. He who was perfectly patient took the place of all us impatient sinners, by offering Himself, by substituting a perfect patience for us. But in this, a new time of divine patience opens, not in the form of forbearance or mere holding back but in the form of hope, as “in His Word He waits for us to give Him the glory in faith….”[11] Barth explains, “If we suffer with Him in this hope, and we believe according to God’s Word that we have to suffer with Christ in this hope, we can and may and must suffer in patience: answering His patience with our patience… with our waiting for redemption.”[12]

The Sin of Impatience Brings Destruction

But how is this relevant? Why proclaim Christ’s work as a work of patience? Though the act of rejoicing in Christ’s work suffices in itself, there are nevertheless implications we do well to appreciate, only one of which I mention here. Sin is impatience and the mutilation it brings upon itself. We seek divinity when we determine for ourselves when God’s kingdom or our own should come—when the time for our wishes to be fulfilled or our sufferings to end has arrived. We constantly refuse to give “space and time” to God and others “for the development of [their] existence [and plans],” bringing upon ourselves and others the destruction and mutilation which follow from burdening immaturity with what it cannot handle, forcefully implementing plans before they are ready, or coming up with our own perverse alternatives when too much remains outside our control.

“Jesus Christ suffers under the patience of God as the one who is truly patient in our place.”

Eve’s impatience for the god-likeness God later proved to be so willing to give (Genesis 3:5; 2 Peter 1:4)… Abram taking Sarai’s slave to beget the children of the covenant (Genesis 16:1-2) which God later miraculously provided… the accident we cause by driving impatiently… the rushed marriage regretted for decades… pushing our kids into competitive sports and advanced classes before they are ready…. Christ bears these acts of impatience and the destruction they cause in himself, freeing us to relinquish our impatience. In so doing, he establishes us in lives of hopeful, active and life-giving patience, as we eagerly await his return, giving room for ourselves and others to grow and develop in him.

* This is an abridged form of a passage from Adam Johnson’s book, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth.