Seinfeld has a great bit about waiting rooms. “You know they’re going to use it. There’s no possibility of you not waiting. They have a room made precisely for that purpose.” Maybe you could say the same thing about life. There’s no way you’re not going to wait. In a sense, all of life itself is one long wait. Waiting for death. You’re waiting for the other side. You don’t know when it’s going to come, and you alternatively dread and anticipate it, but you definitely can’t avoid it. Then in each individual life, it breaks up into chapters, whose titles are determined by what we’re waiting for in that particular season. They should put up welcome signs in maternity wards for new babies: Welcome to The Wait.
Waiting to grow up. Waiting to leave home. Waiting to finish school. Waiting to get married. Waiting to have children. Waiting for those children to grow up and get out. Waiting for your first job. Waiting for your career. Waiting for you dream career. No, waiting for your real dream career, or your real true love. Waiting to be successful. Waiting to get recognized. Waiting for grandkids. Waiting until you retire. Waiting to feel better again. Waiting until it’s all over, and you go home.
Then, in the smaller vignettes, and in more rapid spirals, we go through seasons, days, and hours, of waiting. Waiting for the next weekend, the next vacation, the next project, the next meal. Our lives and emotions are drawn forward and shaped by anticipation as much as they are by the present, often to the detriment of the present.
Becoming a Christian doesn’t give you an escape card. In fact, as you grow in your Christian faith and your prayer life, your perception of the experience of waiting only heightens. You become connected to more lives, more causes, more experiences of praying and waiting. As your love for others grows, you find yourself with a stake in more waits. Yet for a Christian, he is able to meet and endure his waiting differently. We know that our waiting is personal and purposeful, which makes a world of difference.
The world has ways it tries to redeem the wait. You have the blind optimist, who accepts by faith that the universe is winding itself out with intentionality, always with benevolence and fairness. Then you have the ultimate individualist, who bravely and grimly shoulders the full weight of responsibility. Everything depends on how he responds, grows, and adapts to the circumstances around him. In this way, he indeed can wrest purpose from every wait, but the world he lives in is barren and unforgiving. Only the Christian discovers a personal, relational purpose in and behind his waiting. Only the Christian has a defined “other” whom he can refer his wait to, and who will walk with him, as he struggles to endure or forge ahead in the present.
So what is God doing for you, Christian, as you wait? What does He want to happen during your wait? We quickly find there is a layer of mystery we can never unearth. We’re never able to fully see through the shroud that lies around the purpose of our wait. Even after the fact, when it’s all said and done. That’s what makes it so agonizing. God doesn’t have to explain himself. Even if Job had known the full context of the preface to story, which it appears he never gets, would that be sufficient? Is it sufficient for us, even now with the full story, to sit back, and say: “Yes, God was “justified” in what He allowed to happen to Job?” We don’t get to weigh God in the scales of justice. We can’t check his math, to make sure His equation is balanced.
Look at the lives of any of the patriarchs or saints of the Bible. They are lives that are marked with waiting. The purpose of their waiting, in large part, remains hidden even from our eyes. There is a sort of internal struggle to which we are not privy. There was for them, as there is for us, a relational push and pull that occurs during the waiting, the triumph of furnace-tested faith over wearying doubt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be learned through reading, even if you could put it into words.
Abraham was seventy-five years old when God promised him Isaac. And with Isaac, God promised a blessing to all the nations of the earth, as well as descendants more numerous than the sand of the sea. Yet Isaac doesn’t come for another twenty-five years. What happens when you wait for one thing for twenty-five years? What made this wait better in some ways and worse in other was that God had explicitly committed Himself to do this thing. What was the point of those years?
It’s mystery. We know some of it, but never all. One reason for Abram’s wait was to produce one of the most dynamic and robust contrasts between gospel promise (Isaac) and human works (Ishmael) imaginable. It’s a contrast which has blessed all nations of the earth, especially since the writing of Galatians 4. Are we willing for God to use our waiting mainly for the benefit of those around us, for the lessons God teaches them from watching us? Even then, our wait is never without benefit to us, just like the teacher always learns the lesson better than the student. Abraham lived the tension. He knew the depths of the contrast between human work fulfilling human longing versus faith trusting a promise, played out over two and a half decades. Then afterward, he could never look at his own efforts and God’s provision in the same way, when he had the fruit of those two categories living embodied in front of his eyes.
Or take the example of David. The age is hard to pin down, but David was between fifteen to twenty years old when Samuel anointed him. He’s the anointed king, a teenager. His next fifteen years could hardly be described as regal. According to God’s promise and guarantee, David is the king when he’s about to be betrayed by a city of people he’s just rescued, or when Saul uses the cave he’s hiding in as a bathroom. But what David experiences is The Wait. In fact, David’s life is arguably never as beautiful in its integrity and grace as when he’s on the run. There’s a dark irony captured in the contrast of two pictures from the life of David. In one, you see David the hero, sparing Saul’s life while David’s sleeping on the rocks. In the next, you see David in a palace, placing a 75 pound golden crown on his head after he’s committed adultery and murder. (2 Sam 12:31) In hindsight, David’s waiting was when he lived his charmed life, intimate with God and confident of His smile.
Perhaps most intriguing is the case of Joseph, specifically after he interprets the dreams of the baker and cupbearer, but then is forgotten. He waits two more full years before Pharaoh’s dream. I say intriguing, because this is a space of time when we, the readers, are left completely in the dark. What happened in those two years? Why were those years necessary? What was God up to? What did Joseph gain from that? No answers. All we know is that God is good, and that He was working, both in Joseph and in the world around him.
Jesus himself had to “learn obedience through what he suffered”. (Heb 5:8) Surely, of all people, Jesus could have leaped to the finish line. Why did he have to wait so long for his ministry to start? And why did he have to gradually crescendo to his death, instead of having done with it in the first couple of months? I believe part of the secret lies in his taking on our human condition. There is no humanity without waiting and suffering over time. That’s why the founder of our salvation had to be “made perfect through suffering.” (Heb 2:10) Perfect for us.
In fact, and here I confess that I stray into speculation, is it really conceivable that there will be no more waiting in eternity? Aren’t those in Heaven waiting for that great final Day, and the raising and rejoining of their bodies? And will the waiting be done even then? The experience of waiting is so intrinsic to what it means to be human and a creature that I doubt we will ever entirely leave it behind. Nor would we want to. Only a being who is fully infinite can be entirely removed from waiting.
Here I should differentiate. There are two main tracks of change that we move along while waiting. One track is negative and the other is positive. The negative track of waiting brings with it a decay, a weakening, softening, crumbling, and loss. Waiting over time brings a forgetting and a dissolution that in a sin-cursed world can still be positive, albeit sad. That track will end in Heaven. The other track of waiting brings a strengthening, a building, a growing, and maturing which cannot come to us all at once, nor again, would we want it to, otherwise we would feel disappointed to have reached a terminus. The Bible makes it clear that a growth in the knowledge of the glory of God is infinite, which means we’ll still be waiting in eternity.
Hence there comes to us the idea that all of life is a journey, or to use an older term, a pilgrimage. Yet we have to be careful not to press this to an absurd reductionistic conclusion, and say that “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” If life is merely a journey, and you reject a destination outright, then you’re wandering around aimlessly, and your journey has no meaning. If there is no destination, then there’s nothing you’re waiting for, there’s nothing you’re moving toward. Coming to peace with that shrunken philosophy is not building patience, but building indolence.
There was a great line Professor Lane Tipton said, that has always stuck with me: “The only thing you get to bring with you into Heaven is yourself, meaning your character.” If we see our destination as growing in our relationship with God, and our own God-likeness, then all of our waiting now has meaning. None of our waiting is lost time if we’re moving ahead on that journey.