(An opening gambit of questions and reflections to mark an exciting new book by Tanya Marlow!)
A meal to cook,
A kettle to boil,
Christmas to come,
Your crush to notice you,
Enough money for a house deposit,
That career opportunity to magically coincide with personal circumstances,
Exam results and new steps to take,
Recovery from ill-health… Or divorce… Or grief… Or just, well, recovery.
It seems to be as much of our human story as breathing and sleeping and piles of dirty washing.
And as certain as waiting will come, so too will the clichés:
“God’s mystery is part of his majesty” – all we need to do is trust and obey and our path will be easier.
“God has a plan” – Missed out on a promotion? It’s clearly a timing thing. God will make obvious the perfect role for you at His appointed time.
“True love waits” – we school our teenagers to wait for the right “one”, not to sell out in the meantime and to trust God that the sacrifices will be worth it.
“Everything happens for a reason” – yuk! I hate this one! (FYI: Suffering is never what God wants for us. His perfect will is for wholeness.)
Even in scripture we are implored to “delight in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37 v 4) – This one probably deserves a whole blog post to itself because like all great theological mysteries, it’s sort of overwhelmingly true and not quite the whole story either. But back to waiting…
The Bible reveals countless people who waited and when God did His thing, it happened to result, (eventually) in what was being waited for. The message is that His timing really is perfect and that our God really does provide:
Abraham and Sarah waited for their son – a long time admittedly, but it did happen (Genesis 12-21).
Joseph waited to be remembered and released – again, longer than he would have liked, but eventually it worked out wonderfully (Genesis 39-41).
Job waited for restoration of health, wealth and family – the journey of suffering was immense and his losses were real, but the prizes at the end weren’t too shabby, Job was taken deeper into his relationship with God and God Himself proved faithful (Job).
Simeon waited for the Messiah – a whole lifetime it seems, but he was ultimately rewarded for his patience (Luke 2).
The disciples waited for the Holy Spirit – and what a gift that turned out to be! (Acts 2)
There are people I have witnessed in my life too, who have waited and at just the right time, wham! A miracle! A faithful single friend who found her perfect match in her 40s; A frustrated friend desperate for a new job, eventually landing the perfect God-given opportunity making sense of all the disappointments to date; Someone healed miraculously from chronic health problems after years of living with disability; a marriage restored; a child conceived; a house sale completed.
And yet, I also know people who have literally died waiting: for healing, for a marriage partner, for a successful pregnancy, for a restoration of a relationship, for a spouse or child to come to faith. They spent a lifetime genuinely delighting in the Lord and He apparently never did give them the desires of their heart, even the wholesome ones.
I’m going to say something perhaps a little controversial: sometimes, regardless of our best disciple-y behaviour, we don’t in fact get whatever it is we are waiting for. Sometimes, the desires of our heart are simply left unsatisfied.
So, what happens, when you’ve trusted and you’ve waited and you’ve pushed all the doors and prayed all the prayers and still you are waiting…?
I love the Old Testament. I relish the story that unfolds of the community called and commissioned, with all its humanity on display from which to learn. I bask in the beauty of what is created by the threads woven together. I love the many heroes of our faith who we find within the pages. There is however, one group of people who I wonder about in the context of waiting: The Israelites who died in the 40 years between the exodus (Exodus 13, 14) and entering the promised land (Joshua 1-5), going about their lives faithfully, holding on to the promises given to them, trusting that Moses had heard correctly, despite challenging evidence to the contrary. What did they think? How did they react when year after year they didn’t actually see anything change? What about the families left behind of those who died in the numerous battles on the way? Did they ever question whether the whole thing was in vain? Sometimes of course we know how they responded (Numbers 13, 14) and even bemoan their lack of faith from the luxury of the other side. But really, is it any wonder? Waiting is all well and good for a time, but ultimately, it all gets a bit tiresome, doesn’t it? I mean, waiting for a marriage partner at 23 takes on an entirely different nature at 43; The 23-year-old talks of waiting whilst the 43-year-old perhaps might turn to different narrative.
Full disclosure: currently, I am waiting. I am waiting for healing to come. I really, really, really want to be healed. The desire of my heart is to be healed. I like to think that as a person of faith, I am at least facing in the right direction on the pathway sign-posted “delighting in the Lord”. I believe I would be much better use to God if I were to be healed. And I remain absolutely convinced that God could heal me, dramatically, overnight, as in fact He has done in the past. I long for that to be the case. I have shed tears. I have begged. I have shouted, I have lamented. I have appealed. I am still waiting. I am acutely aware that my waiting might never lead to healing this side of eternity. Like all the prayers we prayed for my mum who ultimately died from her illness, the answer from God might be “no, you are to live with this one my child.” And that begs many questions about when waiting needs to give way to accepting the reality of “living” – without whatever it is we are waiting for – and if it is ever possible to do both the living and the waiting at the same time.
I’m not convinced I have it all figured out yet. This blog is more opening gambit than fully fledged theological thesis. But, for what it’s worth, my current reflections on approaching all of this well go along these lines:
A faithful wait-er manages to journey the fine line between managing expectations on one side and avoiding cynicism about God’s ability to do the miraculous on the other.
A faithful wait-er says “I am waiting for the Lord’s provision… but EVEN if He does not, or EVEN if it looks different… YET I will praise the Lord, YET I will believe in his goodness, YET I will rejoice, YET I will not lose hope.” (Habakkuk 3)
A faithful wait-er is not purely waiting but also living, working as a kingdom-bearer in the right here, right now messiness of living without.
A faithful wait-er is like a faithful Israelite pre the Promised Land, trusting in the wider purposes of God.
A faithful wait-er asks God to redeem the waiting. Here’s a cliché that I happen to agree with: “nothing is wasted in the kingdom”. There is a wonderful Bible verse (currently one of my favourites!) in Isaiah which has God say “I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places” (Isaiah 45 vs 3). There is treasure to be found if we dig hard enough as we wait.
A faithful wait-er looks beyond the object of the waiting. Most of the stuff we are waiting for isn’t bad. But it’s when those things become more important to us than Jesus, we risk allowing the waiting to pollute our faith in a loving, generous, compassionate God. Even after Abraham got the object of his waiting, he was still asked to prove the order of his affection.
A faithful wait-er focuses not on what is missing, so much as what is present. Thankfulness and praise are a great way to lift the soul outwards and upwards towards God (remember the yet?). Job’s friends had many faults but Elihu, even if slightly impetuous in youth, does at least lift everyone’s gaze:
“God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty and firm in his purpose… He is wooing you from the jaws of distress… God is exalted in his power. Who is a teacher like him? Remember to extol his work, which people have praised in song. All humanity has seen it; mortals gaze on it from afar. How great is God—beyond our understanding! The number of his years is past finding out. He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams, the clouds pour down their moisture and abundant showers fall on mankind. Who can understand how he spreads out the clouds, how he thunders from his pavilion? See how he scatters his lightning about him, bathing the depths of the sea. This is the way he governs the nation and provides food in abundance.” (Job 36)
Having said all that…
A faithful wait-er is honest. There is grappling and wrestling and if you’re anything like me there are questions and ultimatums and tears… So. Many. Tears. Job is an accomplished guide on this particular road.
A faithful wait-er grieves. Grief does not involve attempting to paper over the cracks, pretending all is well, that you don’t really mind. Grief is messy but also necessary in the journey towards hope. The Bible is full of imagery of new life coming from death. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the ultimate object lesson here.
Ultimately, a faithful wait-er recognises the waiting might be part of a bigger picture, of divine purposes at work, something of eternal not just current significance. The prophets of the OT never saw the Messiah God promised. They waited. God was faithful. They just didn’t see it during their time on earth. But boy did He come.
Talking of which…
And this is the thing I’m getting at really… I think…
Perhaps We miss the point when we see waiting through the lens of anything other than waiting for the Lord (Psalm 37 and 130).
Maybe that’s the deal. Waiting is not the framework we live with in order to achieve an end goal. Waiting is a posture we adopt which only makes sense in the context of our deeper longing for a Saviour. And if our waiting is met with a satisfied desire, there is a call towards seeing it as part of a picture which goes beyond ourselves; The baby was not just for Sarah, Joseph’s freedom was not just for himself and the Messiah was not just for Israel (either in exile or under occupation).
In being a faithful wait-er we give a nod to the journey of disciple, kingdom bearer, mourner, hoper, prophet and evangelist. Our waiting becomes part of the wider story of faith, a story which started a long, long time ago when Abraham and Sarah first waited faithfully* (*interpret that word as you wish!) for a baby, a story which twisted and turned and led to another baby in a manger, a story which goes on today and will go on tomorrow and the day after that and for as long as we all remain wait-ers this side of heaven.
This blog is part of a synchroblog to mark the release of what is already proving to be a highly praised book by Tanya Marlow called Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay (great title huh?!). In this interview she talks about her book in these terms:
“The idea came from the candles on the Advent wreath, symbolizing those who waited for Christ’s return: the patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary, mother of Jesus… Sarah, who had to endure 24—twenty-four!—years of waiting for a promised baby whilst not getting pregnant; Isaiah —this justice-loving prophetic voice to a society that refused to listen. (He should be the Patron Saint of Campaigners.); John the Baptist—who then got arrested, spending the end of his life waiting in prison.”
I certainly know what my Advent reading is going to be this year and judging by the reviews so far, I can’t wait (no irony intended!) to journey with these people through Tanya’s accomplished hand. I look forward to finding a partner in the wrestling and some sage wisdom to point me in the right direction as someone who is seeking to be a faithful wait-er in the now and the not yet, in the hoping to live “with” whilst knowing the reality of living “without”. Perhaps you would like to join me…?
If you’re the sort of person who now can’t cope because I have mentioned Advent in the month of October (Twice, three times now… but to be fair, one of those was Tanya…) then you might wish to avert your eyes. Because, taking things beyond Advent, I can’t help but think of that Christmas carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem. Advent is such a rich season which beckons us all to reflect on what it means to wait. And it culminates in this:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Our hopes and fears are met in Jesus. The wholesome ones and the not-so wholesome ones, Jesus answers them all. It really is that simple Sunday school lesson; Jesus really IS the answer every time. But it’s tough and it’s messy and it’s painful. And it’s wonder-full and its grace-full and it’s hope-full. I am thankful for Sarah and Isaiah and John and Mary and also for people like Tanya, who help usher us forwards as we wrestle towards an eternity of “with” regardless of, or perhaps sometimes because of, the “without”.
In the meantime, I am yet to experience anything in my life that cannot be answered in these words –
Psalm 130 vs 5
“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.”
**This is part of the synchroblog on waiting, to celebrate the release of Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay by Tanya Marlow – out now. **