Longsuffering ארך אפים
“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” (Exodus 34:6)
What a beautiful proclamation God made to Moses at the height of His intimate fellowship with him on Mount Sinai. Longsuffering is God’s nature. Rav Shaul of Tarsus (apostle Paul) recognized how great a gift God’s longsuffering is for humankind. He wrote to the Romans: “What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction.” (Romans 9:22) Surely, none of us would survive if God decided not to endure patience at every turn of sinfulness in our lives.
Rav Shaul listed longsuffering as one of the Fruit of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22). The Hebrew Bible termed longsuffering as “erekh apayim” (א֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם) which literally means “long of nose”. It’s an idiom connoting long venting of air through the nostrils suggesting slowness to anger. A related word is “erekh ruach” (אֹרֶךְ רוּחַ) or “long breath”. Anger causes short rapid irregular breathing as opposed to erekh ruach having long and calm breathing patterns. Another explanation is "long of mind or soul", where the mind and soul are regarded as the seat of emotions. The Greek word used in the verse is makrothumia (μακροθυμία) from the root “macros”, which means “great”, and “thuo”, “sacrifice”. Hence, longsuffering is opposed to shortness of breath or of mind that could bring about irascibility, impatience, intolerance. It benefits us that God has “long nose” i.e., He has long calm breath. And His longsuffering is for the purpose of salvation.
Such longsuffering is what the Lord expects his people to practice. Looking past our own into the concerns of others even if it meant our own suffering and silently enduring it for the Lord is longsuffering. It’s being thick-skinned and not easily offended by people’s offensive idiosyncrasies, annoying behaviours, and careless mistakes. It’s about not being easily angered by people’s deliberate insults or persecutions. These are hard to do, and we need to faithfully attach ourselves to the Lord who could help us. As the Lord said, “without Me, you can do nothing”. (Yochanan (John) 15:5)
Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) teach: Despise no man and deem nothing impossible; for there is no man who does not have his day and there is no thing that does not have its place. (Pirkei Avot 4:3) God is in control. He strategically places people and situations at certain times in our lives in order to build us up strong in character and develop erekh apayim. He may allow offensive or even oppressive people and situations to come our way. Rabbi Yeshua taught: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39) In like manner as Job, in humility, in submission to the will of God, and with the help of the Spirit, we bear erekh apayim. When evil is directed at us, we endure with patience, knowing that it is also for the good (gam zu l'tovah גם זו לטובה) because we trust God is in control; He will send help. On the other hand, when evil is targetted against others, we are not supposed to be patient, stand by, and watch them suffer. Instead, we rush in with all in our power to rescue and do tikkun olam (repair the world).
How long can God’s “longsuffering” last? Surely, it’s not forever. Only He knows when He would stop breathing long and be done with putting up with humanity’s sin. A holy and righteous God can never tolerate wickedness and sin. For these He allowed flood to fill the earth and purge evil from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 6) On the other hand, humans can do teshuvah (repentance) to stop His wrath when the time is up for longsuffering. Nineveh repented in sackcloth, and God relented from judging it. (Jonah 3:10) The prophets of Israel called out to the people to repent before it’s too late for God’s longsuffering to run out and He executes His righteous judgement upon the land. But they didn’t, and it cost them the Temple in Jerusalem and their dispersion to the world in 70 AD. We can be sure God’s longsuffering is long enough for people to turn around and repent. The prophet Isaiah declares:
Seek the Lord while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6) Rabbi Yeshua concluded: “... unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5)
Patience is another word commonly used for longsuffering. The Hebrew for patience is savlanut (סבלנות) from the root word sevel that means “to bear” or “to suffer”. Savlanut is considered a modern word as it isn’t found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. But it conveys a nuance of meaning with erekh apayim and erekh ruach. It speaks of enduring something unpleasant or painful.
The process of waiting causes pain and unpleasant feeling, whether it’s the kind of waiting out of determination of will or out of necessity. The lack of savlanut--that lack of ability to wait calmly upon the Lord--had caused tragic results for Israel throughout her history. Saul, the first king of Israel, failed to wait for the Prophet Samuel’s arrival, and it cost him his kingship that could have been established forever (1 Samuel 13); the children of Israel couldn’t wait for Moses’ return from atop Mount Sinai and so formed a golden calf and fell to idolatry; Sarah couldn’t wait for the promised son and so had her handmaid Hagar bear a child for her. Failing on savlanut can surely have eternal consequences!
God’s people often suffer when they bar themselves from doing what they feel and want rather than choosing to wait and follow what God desires for them. Because of our evil inclination (יֵצֶר הַרַע yetzer hara) it's often very difficult to say "no" to self and "yes" to God. As we experience erekh apayim, we actually un-learn all that we have learned by the flesh and, through the Word of God, re-learn everything all over again by the Spirit.
Erek apayim and savlanut are associated with hope—we endure unpleasant situations because of our anticipation and hope for the coming of Messiah who will vindicate us and judge righteously in our favor. The apostle James gave an illustrative example: “The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” (James 5:7-8) “Strengthening of the heart” means to be steadfast and fully convinced that the Lord will surely come (with His reward): “Behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to pay back each one according to his deeds.” (Revelation 22: 12)
Are you exercising longsuffering and patience in order to do good and fulfill God’s will in your life? The apostle Kefa (Peter) taught: “But if you also suffer for righteousness' sake, you are blessed.” (1 Peter 3:14) You can be sure, God sees all your efforts and won’t miss to vindicate and reward you.
Hebrew and Greek word references are taken from https://biblehub.com/ and https://jewishjournal.com/