When defined as "waiting without complaint," patience might seem to be a morally insignificant trait. What's so virtuous about not complaining? In itself, not complaining carries no particular virtue. Suppose a person awaits the arrival of a friend from out of town, and he spends the time happily reading or watching television. We wouldn't say that, simply because he's not complaining, he exhibits patience in this case. Something else must be required to make one's lack of complaint virtuous. That something is discomfort. It's because a circumstance is uncomfortable for someone that we find her refusal to complain remarkable and thus regard him as patient. So to improve the initial definition above, to be patient is to endure discomfort without complaint. This calls into play some other virtues, specifically, self-control, humility, and generosity. That is, patience is not a fundamental virtue so much as a complex of other virtues.
What are the different contexts in which patience is demonstrated? One way to distinguish types of patience is based upon the nature of the discomfort involved. The following threefold distinction can be made: first is the patience needed when facing a nuisance of some kind. A person or a set of circumstances really irritates you, and you'd love to complain about it, but you hold your tongue, knowing that such a grievance would be petty or simply compound the problem. That person at the office who is so insufferably annoying doesn't, after all, mean to pester you. And what good will it do to moan about those potholes on your street? So you quietly endure these things. Did you know you were being virtuous in doing so?
A second type of patience is called for when facing boredom. Those who fall into a rut at work or at home often experience discomfort over the uneventful routine. To those who don't struggle with boredom, it might seem absurd to suggest it can be a serious trial. But those who endure the plague of drab routine without complaint exhibit the virtue of patience.
A third type of patience is the most serious and significant. It is the patience required when one suffers in some way, either physically or psychologically. If you're struggling with some disease or mental illness, then patience is required of you. Or if you must assist someone else who suffers, a family member or friend, then you are called upon to be patient. Whether you bear the burden of affliction directly or indirectly, your challenge is to endure that discomfort. This doesn't mean you shouldn't cry out in your distress. Scripture, in fact, advises us to do just that, so it's appropriate because the degree of discomfort in some situations warrants complaint. But this raises some important questions: What is a complaint? And which complaints are worthy?
To complain is to make known one's irritation or frustration about some matter. This doesn't necessarily imply that one says anything out loud. Usually we complain by speaking directly about the circumstance that bothers us. But we also complain in nonverbal ways, with a sigh, a huff, a shake of the head, or a roll of the eyes. Many of us are quite expert at communicating our irritation in subtle ways to those closest to us, through means that most people wouldn't recognize as complaining. But our target complainee (the person we complain to) gets the message, and that's all that matters.
From a personal standpoint, I don't know which is more difficult—exercising patience with God or other human beings. Both can be tremendous challenges, and none of us have perfected the art of being patient with each other or with God. I, in fact, become impatient with myself (a potential third category worth considering) because I struggle in being patient with other people and with God.
It's been said that nothing teaches like experience. To some degree this is true of the virtues. Pain and suffering teach us endurance and empathy. The experience of mercy and forgiveness inclines us to be more merciful and forgiving. We gain moral maturity each day precisely because each day brings some difficulty that we must overcome. Like it or not, we persevere, and we are morally the better for it. This is why James tells us to "consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4). The Stoic philosopher Seneca echoed this theme, noting the moral value of adversity:
Pampered bodies grow sluggish through sloth; not work but movement and their own weight exhausts them. Prosperity unbruised cannot endure a single blow, but a man who has been at a constant feud with misfortunes acquires skin calloused by suffering; he yields to no evil and even if he stumbles carries the fight on upon his knee.
Especially during the holiday season, we need patience. Whether it is the long lines at stores, the crowds of people who always seem to be in the way when you are most in a hurry, the holiday traffic, or your family at a holiday gathering, we need patience to get us through. Patience is a virtue. I have struggled with it in the past, but have largely become a more patient person, and it makes life much less frustrating.