Lost in translation

Psalm 86:15 (New King James)
But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious,
Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth.

1 Timothy 1:16 (New King James)
However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.

Bible translation is a difficult thing to do. Not only are there often no words in English that mean the same thing as what is written in original Hebrew or Greek, but the translator also faces the uphill battle of words changing meanings. Let’s face it, the word “gay” doesn’t mean the same thing today as it did when the Flintstones theme song ended with “We’ll have a gay old time.” With words changing meaning over time, a translator will try to be faithful, but a balance must be reached and then the translator must trust in the Holy Spirit that the original meanings will not be lost in translation.

“Longsuffering” is a word often used in older English Bibles (and kept in the New King James), but in newer Bibles, the same word is translated very differently. The funny thing is that, in both Hebrew and Greek, the original word is essentially the same. In Hebrew, “longsuffering” is two words which mean “long” and “hard-breathing” – as if one were angry and breathing hard for a long time. In Greek the word is “makrothumios,” which means – you guessed it – “long breathing.” So, you see, the idea is the same in both Hebrew and Greek: one is angry and breathing hard but withholding one’s wrath for a long time. The anger is there, but it is withheld.

But what does “longsuffering” mean in English? The word “suffer” is the problem here, because it has changed over time from a word that meant “to undergo, be subjected to, or to endure” to a word that means “to undergo or feel pain or distress.” So we go from God being someone who graciously puts up with our sinfulness to Him being one who is subjected to pain from our sinfulness. But that very idea of God in pain doesn’t fit with the verses I’ve shown above, much less with any of the other dozens of verses where “longsuffering” and “suffers long” are used. But, by the same token, “slow to anger” and “patient” aren’t very good translations, either. Patience is waiting with calm coolness, but longsuffering is waiting with wrath held in check.

So what are we to do? We are to understand that God DOES get angry when we sin, but He puts up with a lot from us for a very long time, withholding His righteous judgment, giving us a chance to accept His Son more fully in our lives. God’s longsuffering is a sign of His love toward us – the same love that we are to show toward others. So when Paul tells us that “Love suffers long” (1 Corinthians 13:4), we are to understand that the perfect love of God helps us to deal with a lot, that His love will give us strength to endure much disappointment and withhold our anger and harsh reactions. God’s longsuffering is so great that… Well, let’s let our Lord Jesus say it:

John 3:16-17
16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

THAT is longsuffering.

Gracious Heavenly Father, I thank You today and every day for your patience AND longsuffering. I thank You that You have withheld judgment upon humanity, that You are not willing that any should be lost, but that all – including ME – should be saved. Let my praises ring out to You, the one true and living and merciful God. Amen.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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