ὑπομονή: patient endurance

ὑπομονή (hypomonē) is the virtue of “endurance” or “patient endurance.” It is the subject of this insightful post by Ian Paul, which I found through Alan Jacobs. Paul declares hypomonē the “word for the year,” and compares it with a similar word of greater currency in the present moment—the word resilience.

Resilience has become a very popular word in contemporary reflection. An internet search for the term shows that its use online has rocketed in just the last year or two. This might be a response to the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown response, and the way both these threats have made us realise the importance of withstanding unexpected pressures. I also wonder whether the interest in resilience is a response to a contrary narrative—that life ought to be fair and predictable—which creates something of a shock when we find that it isn’t.

Paul also notes the “physical metaphor” implicit in the word resilience—”the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity”—which comes from its Latin etymon, the verb resilire, which means “to leap or spring back,” “to recoil or rebound.” In both contemporary psychology and discussions of business and management, the ability to “bounce back” (resilire) has taken on new importance and relevance for our present circumstances.

In view of this growing popularity of “resilience” in contemporary thought, Paul reflects on the New Testament virtue of hypomonē citing its definition in BDAG:

1. the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.

2. the act or state of patient waiting for someone or something; expectation.

He also cites BDAG on the related verb ὑπομένω (hypomenō):

1. to stay in a place beyond an expected point of time, remain/stay (behind), while others go away.

2. to maintain a belief or course of action in the face of opposition, stand one’s ground, hold out, endure, remain instead of fleeing.

3. to wait for with persistence, wait for someone.

According to Paul, “the two terms together occur 49 times in the New Testament, in 46 different verses, which suggests their importance.” One of those occurrences is in 1 Corinthians 13:7, in St. Paul’s famous discourse on love or charity: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things [πάντα ὑπομένει, panta hypomenei].” Paul (Ian Paul) wonders if Paul’s listing hypomenei last here suggests that “patient endurance” is the supreme virtue. To illustrate its importance in the life of faith, he refers to its only occurrence in the Gospels, Luke 8:15, the description in the Parable of the Sower of the seed that falls on good soil: “And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience [καρποφοροῦσιν ἐν ὑπομένῇ, karpophorousin en hypomenēi].”

Both Ian Paul and St. Paul connect the virtue of “patient endurance” not just with love but with suffering and the virtue of hope. Ian Paul cites St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (5:3–5):

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces patient endurance [hypomenē], and patient endurance [hypomenē] produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

The word St. Paul uses for suffering in this passage is θλῖψις (thlipsis), which is literally a “pressure” or “crushing.” The noun thlipsis comes from the verb thlibō, which means “to squeeze” or “compress.” The passage thus contains a vivid metaphor, one also present in verses such as John 16:33, “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The word translated “tribulation” in this verse is, again, the word thlipsis, literally “pressure” or “crushing.” All the sufferings, tribulations, hardships, and distress which the world imposes upon us are imagined as the crushing pressure of a tremendous weight. Hypomonē, in turn, is the patient endurance of such crushing or squeezing.

With Ian Paul’s discussion of patient endurance in mind, we can better discern an ambiguity in the word suffering itself. The word suffer now means “to feel pain or distress,” as well as “to undergo or be subjected to (a negative experience or development)”—but suffer also means “to put up with” or “tolerate.” That last sense of suffer is typically found in statements such as, “She does not suffer fools easily.” I.e., she doesn’t have any patience for fools. In these definitions, we can detect both a passive and an active sense of suffering. Passive suffering happens whenever something is done to or happens to us. We ourselves are not acting, but rather being acted upon. But active suffering involves action on our part—the active endurance of a hardship. This active quality in suffering becomes clearer if we consider the original Latin verb, suffero, which literally means “to carry a thing from underneath,” or “to take upon one’s self, undergo, bear, endure.”

Ian Paul concludes his reflection by noting that the verb hypomenō is a compound of the more common verb menō, which simply means “to remain” or “to abide” somewhere. The simple verb is found, for example, in John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”

On this Ian Paul comments,

This patient endurance, being willing to remain in Christ, even when there are pressures to move on, is a lesson of discipleship that we perhaps need to recover. And it might be that, in a strange way, the pressures and challenges of the last year could become God’s gift to us in teaching us the importance of such patient endurance for all of life.

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