“Godspeed!” we wish each other. And that is a good, old-fashioned blessing to give. Of course, we need to remember that God’s speed is often slow, and may include delays, and problems. Sometimes God’s speed involves no speed at all: it means waiting.
Most of us do not like waiting: waiting on the phone, waiting for our computer to download something, waiting in traffic, waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting for supposedly “fast” food. We want what we want to happen fast.
Then there are things that are just hard to wait for: a medical diagnosis, the results of a job interview, a loved one to come home, an estranged person to be reconciled… Some people I know are waiting to die—not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that they are not well; it is not likely they are going to get better; the next big move is death and they are ready for it and…waiting.
As I write we are all waiting to see what the Corona Virus is going to do to our lives, our livelihoods, our loved ones…to life as we used to know it. Waiting… What else can we do?
We don’t like it, but waiting is clearly part of life. And it is something we need to learn to do well because waiting seems to be one of God’s favorite assignments.
Think of all the Bible stories and heroes who had to wait, who were specifically waiting for God to do something. Abraham received the call of God with the promise that he would father a great nation when he was 75 years old, and Isaac was born when he was 100 years old. Twenty-five years! Hebrews writes of Abraham’s faith saying, “after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.” (Hebrews 6:15). That was a long time to wait.
Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, the one with the coat of many colors, was 17 when his story started. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, served as a slave in Potiphar’s household, and then was unjustly put in prison. He was 30 when he was taken out of prison to serve as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Joseph waited, trusting God, for 12 or 13 years before he was vindicated.
Moses spent 40 years in the desert before God called him to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt. David, the shepherd boy, was anointed to be king over Israel after King Saul, and waited for years while Saul continued to be king and persecuted and pursued David. When Saul finally died, David became king over only half the kingdom for 7 years. He finally became king over the whole country of Israel when he was 30 years old. It’s not clear how many years David waited, but it was more than a decade, and not an easy waiting period either.
Others waited as well: Hannah waited for years before her prayers for a child were answered in the birth of Samuel. The whole nation of Israel waited in slavery in Egypt for 400 years, and later, in various periods of exile, for generations. And Israel waited for centuries for the promised Messiah.
In the New Testament, that promised Messiah lived for 30 years before initiating his public ministry. Paul the Apostle waited 14 years after his conversion before really beginning the ministry to the Gentiles he had been called to. Later in his life he spent years in prison waiting for trials, hearings, sentencing and eventually, martyrdom.
It should not surprise us, then, that God’s Word has a great deal to say about waiting. I count 50 such references in my concordance! God’s people certainly had some things to say about waiting. And God Himself has much to say about waiting.
The psalmists and prophets felt notably free to complain, “How long, O Lord?” How long do we put up with injustice? How long do we wait for you to keep your promises? How long do we pray without answers? Have you forgotten us? How long, O Lord?!
Repeated reading of God’s Word reveals that it is normal and to be expected that we humans wait for God.
“But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always,” wrote the prophet Hosea (Hosea 12:6).
“But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me,” wrote another prophet, Micah (7:7).
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him,” instructs the Psalmist in Psalm 37:7. Other psalmists give testimonials like that in Psalm 40:1, “I waited patiently for the Lord, he turned to me and heard my cry.”
“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,” we are encouraged, “to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3: 25, 26)
Another famous passage promises, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31) A Bible commentary I consulted said that the word “renew” in that verse can also be translated “exchange.” I.e., we can exchange our weakness and fatigue for God’s strength. A friend of mine who worked in Israel and has special insight into the idioms and meanings of the Hebrew language told me that the phrase “wait upon the Lord” in Isaiah 40 has the connotation of a vine wrapping itself around a tree. That is not passive waiting. That means we wrap our hope and trust around the person of the Lord and hang on. That’s how we get strength for our waiting and our journey.
Psalm 147:11 informs us that we please God, when we wait on and hope in Him: “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, those who wait for his lovingkindness.“ If you would like to make God’s day—wait trustingly for Him!
These passages can comfort us when we feel impatient, when we wonder if God is listening, or has forgotten about us. He has not forgotten and doesn’t get upset when we complain, or ask, “How long, O Lord?” He is waiting for us to lean into him for hope and strength while we wait. He gives the “wait assignment” knowing we have things to learn from it and that He will help us with the waiting. And then He will delight in us as we trust Him.
All of us receive our own unique “waiting assignments” from the Lord, but in a very real sense, as God’s children and followers of Jesus, we are always waiting. Ben Patterson says, “to be a believer is, by definition, to be one who waits.” (Waiting, p. 169). We always wait as believers, because although Jesus has died for us, forgiven ours sins, and given us eternal life, we are far from fully transformed into who He wants us to be. Our world is a mess, full of brokenness and evil. We have salvation, but are waiting for the new heaven and the new earth, for when the “dwelling of God is with men …and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” (Revelations 21:3-4). How we long for that!
As Paul put it, “we await eagerly our adoption as sons…for in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8: 23-25) And “By faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” (Galatians 5:5)
So, we wait. We are creatures made of dust, waiting to fully realize what we were made for in the first place. We wait for God to fulfill his promises to make all things whole. And within that larger waiting, as mentioned above, we have many smaller “waiting assignments.”
I have referred to waiting as an assignment given us by God because I truly believe that every time we have to wait for something that waiting is an assignment directly from God.
“All things,” says the Heidelberg Catechism, “even health and sickness, come to us, not by chance, but by God’s hand.” That, continues the catechism, should make us thankful in prosperity, patient in adversity and confident regarding the future. (Patterson, Waiting, p. 27)
Easier said than done. But it is true that viewing a time of waiting as an assignment given by God makes it easier to handle. It helps me do a better job of waiting.
Waiting, in and of itself, reminds me that I am not in control. Viewing the “wait” as an assignment reminds me Who IS in charge and that He has grander purposes than I am aware of. On a human level, the waiting may be due to some kind of incompetence or systemic glitch, but there is no glitch in God’s plans. He has allowed whatever is happening and therefore has things for me to learn and do—and be—within the waiting.
Then, I realize, part of my assignment is to think about what I can be learning, and about what else God may wish me to be doing, besides just waiting. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote many of the New Testament books as letters to churches while he was imprisoned. How grateful I am that he wrote those letters instead of just resenting his jail time!
“If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts, for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for. The waiting itself is beneficial to us: it tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission and endears the blessing when it comes. The Lord’s people have always been a waiting people,” said Charles H. Spurgeon.
“Biblically,” adds John Ortberg, “waiting is not just something we have to do until we get what we want. Waiting is part of the process of becoming what God wants us to be.”
If I think of waiting as an assignment from my Lord, instead of an annoyance, it helps me turn to Him for patience and strength. It helps me claim His promises. My God is the “Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles…” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). It is nice to know that the Greek word translated “comfort” in that verse also means “to come alongside.” “God always comes alongside us in our waiting and suffering. But it is rarely to explain what is happening to us. Rather, he comes to speak of his love for us, to assure us that he is near and to tell us what he requires of us as we wait and hurt.” (Patterson, in Waiting, p. 43)
How then do we wait well? How do we do a good job of our waiting?
When we wait well we are not anxious, for we know who is in charge of the timing, as well as the granting, of what we are waiting for. We are not in despair, for we trust the goodness of our God. While we may not get what we think we are waiting for, nor at the time we wish, we will get what our loving God has promised and what He has in mind.
We try to wait with patience—that virtue so difficult to acquire without actually having to wait for something. “Patience is not simply the ability to wait, it’s how—it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.” (Joyce Meyer)
“Teach us, O Lord, the disciplines of patience, for to wait is often harder than to work.” Peter Marshall’s point is a good one: it is often easier to do something—almost anything—rather than wait.
But we wait without resignation, not annoyed or resentful because our time and energy are God’s to dispose of, after all, and if he wants us to wait, then that is our service of the moment. As John Milton wrote,
“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Sonnet 19 When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
Kings and queens, tsars, sultans, pharaohs…all had servants and soldiers who spent a great deal of time simply waiting until their services were needed. It is entirely possible that many of them spent more time waiting than in action. But that is how they served their sovereign.
Our service to the King of Kings is similar, but more important. Often he gives us tasks to do; we are glad to do them. At other times He has us wait: just wait. Our job at those times is to trustingly do nothing. That is the assignment. We need to carefully do nothing until it is clear that God wants us to do something. George MacDonald wrote: “One of the hardest demands on the obedience of faith is to do nothing; it is often so much easier to do something foolishly.”
My mother had a little saying written in the flyleaf of her Bible: “restfully available—instantly obedient.” That is what I want to be—restfully available and instantly obedient.
So sometimes we are to do nothing but wait peacefully. At other times a waiting assignment includes tasks we can do while we wait. There are the normal tasks of the upkeep of our bodies and our homes. There are family members and friends to encourage and love. There are good deeds of service we can perform: trying to fight injustice, feed the hungry, help others.
Jesus told various parables with the following theme: “It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back.” (Mark 13: 34,35) The servants are always expectant; they look forward to having their master back. But they also know that when their master returns he will expect them to have taken good care of themselves and of his estate.
That is our job as we wait for the return of our Lord and Master as well, and in any of our smaller waiting assignments. We are always watching for Him, longing for Him to return and set everything right, or longing for Him to answer our prayers or act in some way. While we wait we take care of our bodies, and the properties, ministries, tasks and relationships He has entrusted to us.
Sometimes, as we wait, we need to grieve. Grieving can be part of a waiting assignment because as we wait, we miss things: we miss people, places or possessions we lost along the way. Or we are acutely aware of what we long for that and don’t yet have and the longing hurts. When God’s people, Israel, were exiled in a foreign land for decades they were very homesick. They missed their own land, their customs, their freedom to worship God as he had designed. They hated being captives. Many of our Psalms are poignant laments expressing their grief. It is okay for us to grieve, too, for what we don’t have and long for. As long as we remember to hope and trust as we grieve and wait.
I love it that in Spanish, the word for wait is esperar, which can be translated as either “wait,” or “hope.” When God gives us an assignment of waiting, the Spanish double-entendre is perfect because we both wait and hope.
In English, also, the term “waiting on” can have two meanings: it can mean serving another person by doing what they need—as a waiter or waitress does in a restaurant. Or it can mean “to stay in place in expectation of something,” or to “look forward expectantly.” When God gives us waiting assignment, we need to do both: serve well and at the same time, look forward expectantly.
If we look at waiting from a Biblical point of view, if we accept our times of waiting as assignments from our Lord, then we know that waiting is not time wasted, but time well waited.
There is a very interesting translation given in the Message for Lamentations 3:25-27: “God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks. It’s a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from God.”
Wait passionately? Quietly hope? That is an interesting combination of words: wait passionately and hope quietly. That’s the combination for waiting well.
That is our challenge as God’s children: to accept his assignments of “wait,” with patience, while passionately trusting Him. He has given the “wait assignment” often and knows what He is doing through it. He will give us strength as we turn to Him. He delights in us when we wait trustingly. When He finally fulfills our hope and trust, it will be a beautiful fulfillment. That’s the kind of God He is.
I’ll wait on that.