Time Unbearable: On Impatience and the Fall (Guest Post)

This morning I have the distinct pleasure of welcoming my colleague, Dr. Daniel G. Opperwall, to the Time Eternal blog! As you’ll find in his bio at the end of this post, Daniel and I both teach at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto and have both published books through Ancient Faith. 

Today, he has written on something most of us struggle with: impatience. The post re-examines what the Fall actually consisted of through St. Gregory’s observations of impatience and the human experience of time. It is a valuable reminder of how crucial the struggle for patience truly is. Welcome to the blog, Daniel!

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In a famous passage from his sermon on Theophany, St. Gregory the Theologian explains the cause of the Fall primarily in terms of a distortion of the human relationship to time:

[God’s original] Law was a Commandment as to what plants [Adam] might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge; not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted; nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us…. But it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time, for the tree was, according to my theory, Contemplation, upon which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter. (Or. 38.12, emphasis mine)

For St. Gregory, human beings were always meant to eat of the Tree of Knowledge eventually, and thus to rise to the heights of contemplation that our minds have been created for. Yet we ate of it (and continue to do so) too soon. Unable to bear our way of experiencing time—unable simply to wait for something good. Impatience in the face of time is, in St. Gregory’s exegesis, the primary cause of the Fall.

Upon reflection, it is striking how true to our experience this is. Nearly all human sin is rooted not in a love of evil, but rather in distortions of our innate sense of the Good—of God’s Kingdom. We have, within us, a deep eschatological intuition of a world in which bodily and spiritual blessings are inexhaustible, justice and truth utterly supreme, and loving union with all people total and complete. This innate vision inspires our greatest acts of virtue. Yet, ironically, it is out of a desire to inhabit such a Kingdom already, right here and right now, that we commit nearly every act of sin we can imagine, plunging our world further from its ideal state from a sheer inability to wait.

Rarely are our deep desires directed toward something fundamentally ugly. Much more often, it is our refusal to accept the reality of time that transforms these desires into sin, for in this refusal we fail to accept that we can and will enjoy the true and beautiful form of what we desire, only not right now. (Daniel G. Opperwall)

A few examples suffice. Think of the thief who wishes for the bodily blessings of the Kingdom but cannot wait any longer for material good things. Or consider the murderer who kills out of rage at some perceived or real injustice, unable to wait patiently for God (or at least, the civil authorities) to judge it rightly. Or recall the myriad forms of sexual immorality in which we impulsively seek a momentary feeling of unity with someone else, unable to hold back even for an ordered earthly marriage, to say nothing of waiting for the Kingdom—the only place where our union with other human beings will be fully beautiful, rather than partial and distorted. Rarely, if ever, are our deep desires directed toward something fundamentally ugly. Much more often, it is our refusal to accept the reality of time that transforms these desires into sin, for in this refusal we fail to accept that we can and will enjoy the true and beautiful form of what we desire, only not right now.

Impatience is, in effect, human pride when expressed in the face of temporal finitude. Impatience amounts to the claim that we know better than our creator when we should be given the good things that he has set aside for us. Our finite experience of time is a law baked into the human consciousness. Like death, it is one of the few laws of existence that God has seen fit to force upon us, not (as with most of His statutes) granting us the choice whether to follow it or not. Yet, just as with death, we resist anyway, impatiently trying to take control of time and to grab for every blessing when we see fit.

Thus did our first ancestors grab greedily and too soon for a food that was good to eat but not to be eaten yet, ignoring the patience required of them by the One who had made them. The moment of the Fall was the moment in which we declared to our maker that dominion over the Garden, over animals, over ideas, and over our own bodies was not enough. We would not settle until we had dominion, too, over time, to decide for ourselves not just whether, but also when to learn the deepest mysteries of creation.

In Christ, patience becomes possible for human creatures once again. Yet, we spend precious little time contemplating the raw existential profundity of the sin of impatience and thus fail to notice the astonishing transforming power of its attendant opposite virtue. To be able to wait, to sit with things incomplete, to accept that things are not yet perfect and will not be perfect until God’s Kingdom comes in fullness—in short, to embrace patience—is at the very core of the work of accepting Christ’s redemption. For just as a disordered relationship to time through impatience is at the root of the Fall, so the reordering of that relationship through patience in Christ must be at the root of our acceptance of salvation.

Through patience, we begin the work of submitting to God’s intention for our experience of time. We set aside our ancestors’ desire to skip to the end, and thus we enter into the work of discovering why and how it is good for us to live in a world where so many things are promised but have not yet come. In patience we are invited by our Saviour to go back to where we should have started, to accept our finitude, to accept the way that God has oriented our consciousness with respect to time, and thus to learn to see time not as an impediment and a prison, but rather as something beautiful, liberating, salvific, and free. Indeed, the work of learning to see time this way is perhaps the one place where we ought to be much more impatient—for patience, at least, is something worth reaching for right away.

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Daniel G. Opperwall

Dr. Daniel G Opperwall teaches patristics and Church history at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, Toronto. He is the author of two books: A Layman in the Desert: Monastic Wisdom for a Life in the World available from SVS Press, and We Pray, a children’s book available from Ancient Faith Publishing.

Visit him at: www.dgopperwall.com

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