At this very moment, all around the world, countless human beings are waiting. We do it all the time. You’ve probably done it recently, and you’ll likely do it again soon. Perhaps you’re waiting for something right now: an airplane to take off, a letter to arrive, a teenager to come home, a phone to ring, a baby to fall asleep.

We wait, and then we wait some more. We don’t necessarily enjoy it, but we endure it because we expect the waiting to produce some desired outcome. Sometimes, we receive what we expect, when we expect it. But often, waiting is messy. Planes and trains and buses run behind schedule. Medical test results from the lab are delayed. And sometimes, no matter how perfectly you prepare your little darling for her nap, a baby refuses to fall asleep. And so, we wait.

The act of waiting is a persistent reminder that no matter how meticulously our plans are made, we are simply not in control. As this reality sinks in and slices against the grain of our fallen flesh, we begin to view waiting as an adversary to be conquered and subdued, or at least avoided. We react in anger and annoyance. We seek to wrestle back the control we never had, and when we can’t completely avoid it, we scramble for the nearest distraction to reclaim this so-called wasted time.

Yet God, in his perfect wisdom and providence, ordains that times of waiting are a significant part of the human experience. And if all is to be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), then waiting is not exempted.

This raises the question, “How then shall we wait?”

Wasted Waiting

There’s a fascinating tale about design and psychology which seems to illustrate that our deep dislike of waiting isn’t linked to any length of time. Rather, our aversion is bound up with the feelings we often experience while we wait, namely, boredom, anxiety, and uncertainty.

The story goes like this. It’s the 1950s in Manhattan, and tenants in a high-rise office building begin to voice complaints about excessive wait times at the elevator during peak business hours. The building staff consults with engineers to see if anything structural or mechanical can be optimized to alleviate the wait. When the report comes back that the problem cannot be solved, a young psychologist working in the building offers a rather surprising solution. He recommends the installation of floor to ceiling mirrors in the lobby next to the elevators so that people can look at themselves (and discreetly at others) while they wait. The building staff agrees, the idea is implemented, and complaints plummet. 1

No one is quite sure whether this account is a true story or merely an illustrative lesson, yet the principles it presents can be seen anywhere a line exists, from tabloids in the grocery store checkout to televisions above gas station pumps, to highly elaborate distractions in lines at theme parks. The conclusion is clear: human beings hate to wait, but if waiting cannot be avoided, provide sufficient distraction to make the situation tolerable.

It’s one thing to glance in a mirror to check your hair or fix your tie or see who’s behind you in line. However, there is a tendency in our day (and too often in my own life) to apply the “distraction principle” to any and every situation in which waiting may render us bored, anxious, or uncertain.

Yet not all waiting is equal. We know this. Waiting behind a packed minivan in a fast food drive-thru may elicit a grumble, but some waiting cuts much deeper than these surface irritants.  Waiting at the bedside of a dying parent, or waiting on a diagnosis for a disabled child. Waiting for justice, or waiting for mercy. Some waiting is painful and draws out deep groans. It’s done in the depths, where tabloids and televisions prove hollow. If our default response is to reach for the next distraction, then we waste our waiting and allow these diversions to displace the gifts God gives.

God does not pass out distractions to his waiting children; he does not hand us a mirror so that we can amuse ourselves while we wait. God gives good gifts to those who wait, pointing us away from ourselves and inviting us to wait on him.

Waiting with the Wise

The pages of the Bible are replete with the reality of waiting. Noah waited for the flood waters to subside, Abraham and Sarah waited for a promised son, Joseph waited in a pit and then a dungeon without really knowing what he was waiting for. The Israelites waited for deliverance from bondage in Egypt, Moses waited on the mountain for God to deliver his law to the people, and Job waited for answers. The psalmists did a lot of waiting for a lot of different reasons. The circumstances vary, and the individual responses range from trust to doubt to utter despair.

The Bible speaks much of waiting, but never does God reveal that waiting is a meaningless nuisance. Times of waiting teach us dependence, submission, and wisdom. As we wait on the Lord, layers of self-sufficiency, pride, and autonomy are peeled away as the Spirit transforms and reorients our most intense desires and affections.

Yet God does not leave us to our own devices while we wait. He gives gifts. Here are three of them.

  1. God gives songs for the waiting. The Psalms are a rich song book for those who wait. We find dozens of descriptions, petitions, and exhortations about waiting. Repeated cries of “How long?” Through it all, the psalmists refuse to ignore the hurt that often attends waiting.  “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130:1). The deepest ache of the soul reminds us that we live in a sin-sick world. It also reveals that the things of this world will never ultimately satisfy our deepest hunger. So, sing with the psalmists as you wait. Lift up your lament and aim it straight at the One who will hear your cry.
  2. God gives us his people in the waiting. We are not left to wait alone. We are surrounded by an invisible cloud of witnesses who have waited in faith (Hebrews 12:1), and a very visible throng of saints in our churches who are waiting in faith. Wait with them. Listen to them recount the faithfulness of the Lord through feast or famine. Wait in the company of saints who “groan inwardly, as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)
  3. God gives himself to his waiting people. Even when our earthly waiting doesn’t yield the outcome we expect or desire, God is near. In fact, Paul makes the case that because God has given us himself in his Son, we can trust him to also “graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32). God is the giver and the greatest gift, and from him flows “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17). He gives us all that we need, and he is all that we need while we wait. He is with us and will never leave us. So rather than reaching for the nearest distraction, look to Jesus, hold firm to the promises, and rest in the God who is forever faithful.

Waiting reveals our weakness, limitation, and need, our desire for control and predictability. Yet God purposes that our waiting will work for his glory and our ultimate good (Isaiah 30:18; Romans 8:28). He shows us his character and faithfulness, giving good gifts and holding his children fast even in the depths. Amid sorrow or joy, tears or laughter, may these gifts point us to the unshakeable hope found in our gracious and faithful God. He is the God of those who wait.  May we wait on him in faith, whatever we are waiting for.

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References:

  1. I first encountered this story here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/27/what-you-hate-about-waiting-in-line-isnt-the-wait-at-all