I was considering what to write about today, in the light of the renewed and escalating COVID concerns we’re all facing. The word that came to me was longsuffering, because that seems to be what we’re all feeling right now. COVID has severely limited our lives for more than a year, and it was beginning to really get to us. Just when we thought the worst was over, we find we’re going to have to face a new wave of restrictions, probably for several more months. How much can we take?

Longsuffering: That seems to be a very appropriate word. You can feel it while you’re saying it –“Loooongsufffffering.” I just had to look it up in the Bible and read it in the context of salvation history. That took me on a surprising journey.

First, I found that in the Old Testament the Hebrew idiom translated “longsuffering” is used mainly of God. His classic description of himself in the vision Moses experienced is

“The LORD, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, King James Version)

and this is repeated as a worship formula in Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15 and Jeremiah 15:15. Longsuffering is, evidently, one of the main things God wants his people to know about him.

The only Old Testament usage of this Hebrew term as a quality describing humans is in the Book of Proverbs, where it is used four times and each time is translated “slow to anger” (Proverbs 14:29, 15:18, 16:32 and 19:11).

Longsuffering / Slow to Anger — there’s a significant difference between those two translations. The first emphasizes the cause of discomfort, while the second stresses the reaction to discomfort. Is the problem the increase in suffering or the person’s ability to put up with it?

Of course, I had to study the Hebrew to find out the most accurate meaning. What a surprise! The Hebrew literally means “long of nose.” It seems to have originated in the observation that when a person holds in anger or frustration, their nostrils may flare and make their nose look longer. Maybe we’re describing the same phenomenon when we say to someone who seems angry or sad, “Why the long face?” (See the guy in the image above.)

Actually, the modern versions all use “slow to anger” in Exodus 34:6 and the other passages referring to God. Even the thought of the literal Hebrew makes more sense than longsuffering does. It’s understandable if God’s nostrils flare at my self absorption and easy slide into sin, but it’s reassuring for him to describe himself as, at the same time, merciful and gracious, so that he doesn’t always act out in judgment from the righteous anger he has. I’m good with him being “slow to anger.”

So, here’s how this relates to our COVID journey. We may think of ourselves as longsuffering, focusing on how much discomfort and inconvenience we are having to bear. But it would be better to focus our response to the negativity, trying to be more slow to anger. We tend to emphasize what we have to put up with (“long suffering”). Actually, the major variable factor is not what happens to us, but how we react to it (“slow to anger“)!

The best prescription for us right now may be a refresher course in Anger Management.

– Pastor George Van Alstine