Chasing Down Patience
Is it just me, or has anyone else begged God for patience and then regretted getting what you asked for?
When someone remarks “I need patience,” we look at them and say, “You know what that means, right? Your situation is just about to get more frustrating, because there’s no way to grow in patience except through more trial and error. Or so I’ve been told...”
And oh boy, have I done the “trial and error” part, again and again. How many times do we have to go through the same thing before we learn? And how are we supposed to even want to chase that virtue down, if it’s just going to mean more frustration in the process?
It turns out there is a powerful physical and spiritual interplay within us, each time we experience frustration. It’s a dynamic that can actually help us grow in patience.
The HijackBefore we get into what that means, I want to share some facts about how our brains function. Different parts of our brains affect different behaviors and choices. The amygdala, for example, helps to trigger a quick “fight or flight response” when we sense danger. It causes us to react. The frontal lobes handle rational behaviors, thinking, and decision-making. They help us to figure out whether the danger or stress we feel is actually a real threat—to help us to respond. In times of high stress, our amygdala can overtake the frontal lobes, causing what is often called an “amygdala hijack.”
So when you react in anger to something, your brain marks it as an appropriate response to that specific stressor over time. If this process goes unchecked, your brain essentially bookmarks that reaction and makes it the go-to response for most, if not all, stressors.
That means something minor like your office not restocking your favorite creamer becomes (to your freshly “bookmarked” brain) a completely legitimate reason to lose your ever-loving mind. For any of us out there with a short fuse, sheepishly side-eyeing our spouse or child, we know this feeling all too well. We live with this uneasy equation, where a stressor + overreaction = the humbling, uphill trek of picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
I’m not a Bible scholar, but I have a feeling this isn’t how we are meant to be living our lives: tense, frustrated, caught in a loop of stress, anger, overreaction, guilt, then forgiveness until the next trigger.A Healthline article about this process suggests, “When you feel this response again, acknowledge it, and work to regain control…review what happened. Consider the triggers that led to the fight or flight response.”
Retraining the Mind
Guess what? Rerouting your brain isn't a new concept, but it is a biblical one:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)When you take the time to examine your reactions and be aware of your triggers, you teach your brain what is worth being upset about and what is not.
I should add that not all anger is bad. God Himself experiences anger. But not all anger is created equal, and the Lord is unlike you and me. He is incapable of having a flawed perspective, or being myopic or petty. So when He expresses anger, it is always righteous anger.
We can experience righteous anger too. If we’re honest, though, when we boil down our anxiety, frustration, and anger, doesn’t it tend to lead to the same place? We want things to go our way, and when the situation or the people around us don’t comply with what we want, we fall apart. So how do we react in the moment with patience instead of frustration when we are facing an amygdala hijack?
Stepping Toward Patience
We can take time to recognize who or what is frustrating us, and remind ourselves that no one can make us lose our patience. That choice is ultimately up to us. And we can reaffirm that God is in control of what we wish we had figured out.
This isn’t a simple quick fix (because no heart change ever is!) but we can invite God in, repeat the truth to ourselves, and work to reset those brain patterns. The next time you feel the hijack happening, try
- Doing a quick math problem in your head (Simple addition will do; this helps put you back in the rational side of your brain)
- Refocusing on your physical body (for example, lifting each toe in your shoe or writing your name in the palm of your hand with your forefinger)
- Meditating on the truth, using a simple phrase like,
“God is in control of the outcome, not me” or “Just because this person is _______does not mean I need to be. Their actions are not my responsibility. I will not be held accountable for others' poor behavior.”
You can also meditate on some key scripture verses, like this one:
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him: do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret; it only leads to evil for those who are evil will be destroyed but those who hope in the lord will inherit the land… The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” (Psalm 37:7-11)
We don’t have to go far to find opportunities to work on patience. They're all around us: the slow checker in the grocery store, crawling traffic, potty training, the braggy coworker…you get the idea. Hopefully whatever our situation, we can see these stressors as opportunities to chase down patience. In the process, we can give the same love and grace that God has extended to us.