Forbearance: A Forgotten Virtue
As Christians, our toolbox for addressing conflict well is filled with Christian virtues–things like humility, patience, and kindness. These ancient practices of the church are the foundation of how we live out the incarnation and give us hope as we lean into messy situations and transform conflict into opportunity.
One of the Christian virtues is forbearance, which is not one of the more well-known virtues. This book review, from our friends at Cardus, is a great introduction to this virtue and how it can be helpful in both addressing conflict productively and living in “productive discomfort”.
Dusting off a virtue we’ve forgotten, and need more than ever.
I don’t much like the people I “put up” with, though, I piously tell myself, I’d like to like them. When I’m in the company of people whose views strike me as narrow, obnoxious, ill-informed, or dangerous, I struggle to hang onto some notion of neighbourly love that can quell my impatience and hasty judgments. Aware of how often I face that struggle, and how commonly political and social antagonisms divide churches full of people more or less like me—people with general goodwill and an assortment of strong opinions—I found James Calvin Davis’s reflections on forbearance deeply refreshing. They offer exactly the reminders we need of what life in beloved community requires.
I imagine it took a certain courage to title the book Forbearance. It’s not one of the more celebrated virtues. Indeed, as Davis acknowledges, the word has a slightly dusty, antique ring and is easily confused with condescension, grudging acceptance, or veiled judgment. Or the self-satisfied “putting up with” that completely discredits the one who prides herself on suffering fools, if not gladly, at least without unseemly violence. (See above.)
Escaping the centrifugal force of these oppositions requires a force more powerful.
But forbearance, we learn as we read these rich reflections on biblical ethics, Christian history, and contemporary church conflicts, is a broad, generous, discerning, wise, complex virtue—arguably foundational for Christian life. “In the practice of forbearance,” Davis writes, “Christians do not create unity; we confess it.” I paused over that sentence. It offers a timely corrective to one of the more popular and persistent heresies: that somehow the church is a function of human planning and governance rather than a living body whose breath and being come from the one who breathed on the small group of followers he called friends, telling them to “receive the Holy Spirit.”
“We are one in the Spirit,” we sing—not “May we one day become one in the Spirit,” though that prayer has its place. The fact of unity and the hope of unity are both real experiences of Christians in community; like so many other truths about the life of faith, they coexist in paradox. But it may be that at this historical moment, we need to be called back to the fact in order to sustain the hope. What unites us is God’s own infinitely merciful will. What divides us are digressions and misunderstandings, competing alliances, and political and theological arguments that can be resolved rightly only by a generous, patient, humble, wise, deliberative commitment to continue living with the quarrelsome, myopic lot who are our brothers and sisters, and among whom we must count ourselves.
Exhibiting the patience that is the first of the virtues he identifies as facets of forbearance, Davis guides us unhurriedly through reflections on humility, hope, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship. Forbearance requires and teaches humility; it fosters authentic hope rather than self-interested expectations; in practicing it we develop discernment, which “sees disagreement not as a problem to be solved but as an opportunity for maturation in the faith”; it encourages faithfulness not primarily to tenets or doctrinal specifics but to the pilgrim path we travel in relationship to those members of Christ’s body among whom we happen to find ourselves. In that body—the beloved community we know as church—we find friendships that don’t arise solely from our predilections and affections, but from deep recognition of what we hold closest and dearest, and in common.
Davis’s writing is striking in what I would call its pastoral clarity; he writes as to brothers and sisters in faith, acknowledging that he has been privy to and part of the pullings and tuggings as his own church has attempted to work out its salvation, and its positions on public issues, in anxiety and bumbling—which isn’t quite the same as fear and trembling. He points the way to the grey area between the icy poles of argument where we are called find our way together, even in a fog of misinformation, misunderstanding, and media wars, reminding us that we need forbearance to “see past the binaries in which most of our ecclesial and civic debates are stuck” because a dismaying range of public media reduce social and moral differences to black and white, either/or alternatives. His wry list of current antagonisms that have run too often to extremes makes its own point about the need for more nuance, discernment, intelligent, gracious listening, and civility:
You either hate women or like to kill babies. You are either a hawk or a peacenik. You are either homophobic or a fan of bestiality. You either prefer owls to people or condone raping the environment. You are either a socialist or a one-percent. You are either for law enforcement or for African-American rights. This is what most of our public debate looks like these days.