“O LORD, be gracious to us; we wait for you.
Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.”
A Call to Wait
Life is a waiting room. That’s how Gayline and I see it anyways. When you have a headache that lasts for 30-plus years (like I have); and grown children who do not yet believe (like we have), and long-term unsaved friends who have still not bowed their knees to Christ (like both you and we have); and a life-time of pastoral ministry without any wonderful stunning revivals to write books about (like many pastors and I have); and several friends and family members struggling with illness for decades (like so many of us have); and a lasting longing to be married or in pastoral ministry or free of debt (like many have); and a nearly life-long panting for heaven where sin and sorrow will be no more (like all who believe have)—it isn’t any wonder that waiting has become a defining feature of our lives.
There is almost always a delay between when a need comes to light and the provision comes to pass. While God constantly protects and provides for his children, many times his providence is delayed; which makes not yet a huge part of a believer’s experience.
It is helpful to see that God’s delayed activity in behalf of his own is a major theme of Isaiah’s prophecy; which makes that ancient writing important to a life of faith still today. Isaiah’s God-breathed words reveal that God wants us to learn the spiritual grace of trust; captured often (though not always) in the language of waiting.
- Isa. 7:4, 9—“Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint…if you are not firm in faith you will not be firm at all.”
- Isa. 8:17—“I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.”
- Isa. 10:20—“In that day the remnant of Israel…will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.”
- Isa. 12:2—“Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”
- Isa. 25:9—“It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
- Isa. 26:3, 4—“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD God is an everlasting rock.”
- Isa. 26:8—“In the path of your judgments, O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul.”
- Isaiah 30:15, 18—“For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’…Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”
- Isa. 35:3, 4—“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come … and save you.”
- Isa. 40:31—“…They who wait for the LORD will renew their strength…”
- Isa. 49:23—“Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”
- Isa. 50:10—“Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.”
- Isa. 51:5—“My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.”
- Isa. 61:4—“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”
From these texts we learn that God acts in behalf of those who wait upon him, who rely on his still-to-come grace and power. And in so doing he becomes the desire, the salvation, and the strength of their souls.
The Long Hard Wait
It is commonplace, if not clichéd, to say that we humans don’t like to wait. When we lack something we demand it, or order it, or go get it. This may be especially so in a culture like the USA in which commodities and the means to purchase them are married to Amazon’s overnight delivery. Abundance, accessibility, affordability, and Amazon: the four A’s that turn already impatient people into a pushy, demanding, hurry up, I-want-it-now monsters. Like dogs straining at a leash, we long for and lunge at whatever it is we desire—and we expect to get it at first growl.
But Amazon doesn’t deliver a healing for a headache, or a returning prodigal for Mom and Dad, or comfort for the grieving, or hope for the divorced, or companionship for the lonely, or conversions for the lost, or vindication for the slandered or freedom for the oppressed or justice for the abused. These are God’s to deliver. And because he doesn’t give us a tracking device to know when the package will arrive, we will likely have to wait in the dark; and sometimes for a very long time. Isaiah’s “How long o LORD?” (Isa. 1:11), while starting as a simple question asking about God’s timing, often becomes a cry of desperation longing for relief (Psa. 6:3; 13:1; 89:46; 90:13; Jer. 12:4; 47:6). We come to learn, in the words of another cliché, that while God is never late, he is never early either. His timing is his own. And the wait is hard.
Four Facets of Waiting
Elizabeth Elliot experienced her share of God’s delayed provision (having been widowed three times), so her words carry weight: “Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts” (Elliot, Passion and Purity). Isaiah teaches us how to do this well, by proclaiming four facets of true waiting on God.
The first is trusting hope. To wait on the Lord is not a passive uncertainty about, but an active anticipation of, the coming strength, help, and deliverance of God. It puts trusting confidence in God’s promises, purposes, and help even when fulfillment is nowhere in sight. It lifts the waiting-weary heart; encouraging it by saying, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come … and save you” (Isa. 35:4). God will come. He will save. He will not disappoint. True waiting believes that God is, and that God will deliver. Healthy Biblical waiting may wonder when God will provide, but it will not wonder if. Of course, since none of us waits perfectly, we will sometimes wonder if. But in the end it really is a matter of when—and, down deep, we know it!
Secondly, waiting involves quietness. “In rest you shall be saved…in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15). Quietness is the opposite of striving and panic. It speaks of peaceful rest; a calm at the storm’s center. When mountains tremble, waters roar, nations rage and kingdoms totter, trusting weary saints remain still, knowing that God is God (Psa. 46:1-11). This kind of waiting resists the anxious fearful urge to manipulate and orchestrate—to make things happen now, to fix things now, to seize control now, to strive for resolution now, to squeeze people and problems into my control-driven agenda now.
Too often, when problems don’t disappear and people do not respond, we fall into what I call the Six-P Mode. It is easy to panic, press, push, punish, pout, and plunge. We are tempted to panic. We’re inclined to push people and press issues. If children or those around us fail to respond we want to punish with anger or pout in self-pity. And if nothing changes as fast as we want, we can plunge into discouragement or despair. But each of these reveals that we are still trusting self, not God. Taking matters into our own hands, we strive. In such moments we have to call our hearts back to quietness.
Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame knew this well. Following his Olympic glory, Liddell became a missionary in China, where he was imprisoned for his faith. It was while in a concentration camp that he died in the faith of Jesus; until the very end a persevering follower of Christ. Those with him during his last days speak of his quiet faith, his steadfast love, and his vibrant joy even in his darkest hours. His favorite hymn may explain the secret of his steady faithful life:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last. (Katherine Von Schlegel)
This is the quietness of a soul waiting on God.
A third facet of true waiting on God is prayer. “O LORD, in distress they sought you; they poured out a whispered prayer when your discipline was upon them” (Isa. 26:16). Those waiting on God will keep talking to God, even if only in a whisper. In writing to men and women longing (and waiting) for marriage, Elisabeth Elliot speaks this gentle word: “Waiting silently is the hardest thing of all… But the things that we feel most deeply we ought to learn to be silent about, at least until we have talked them over thoroughly with God” (Elliot, Passion and Purity).
Never quit praying my friends; even if only in a whisper. Just keep at it. Make sure that you talk to God about your problems more than to others. I know how discouraging prayer can be (try praying for headache-healing for 30 years without any positive answer!). But let us keep asking. I do. I do because I know that God withholds nothing good from his children. And I do because I know that the only reason God hasn’t answered my prayers for healing yet is because he knows I need a headache more than healing.
When my headache has served its complete purpose in my life (or others’ lives), I will be healed. “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:31-33, emphasis added). The New Living Translation renders verse 33—“For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow.” God is a loving Father, not cruel sadist.
We experience pain because it changes us for the better (Rom. 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; Heb. 12:11), not because God enjoys causing it. If we suffer, and if God delays, it is because it is in the truest sense, the best thing for us. When it is no longer best for us to suffer, we will suffer no longer. My headache will go away the very second that healing serves my soul better than hurting. It will not go away a moment before and it will not linger a moment after. The same is true for you, whatever your chronic or persistent trial may be. In this hope let us never stop praying (Matt. 7:7-11; 15:21-28; Luke 11:9-13; 18:1-7).
The fourth facet of humble waiting upon God is patience, since waiting means delay. God sometimes hides his face, delaying to show his hand. Often he comes with the dawn, and we have to endure the weeping that lasts for the night. He has a time-table that is only his—and we have to be willing to wait in hope of the sure promises of God. God over all gives strength to the trusting weary in his time.
As stated above, while God is never late, he is never early, either. He is “unwasting, unhasting and silent as light” (Walter C. Smith). Our Heavenly Father is never in a hurry. His provision is always on time, but it is always on his time, and it never arrives ahead of time. Grace will come to us precisely at the moment when it will do us and others the most good; simultaneously achieving for God the most glory. All this requires patience in us; the steadfast endurance that is inspired by certain hope (1 Thess. 1:3).
Trusting hope. Quietness. Prayer. Patience. These are the marks of biblical waiting. Since it is a given that life will be a waiting room, we would do well to cultivate this grace in our souls. Whatever it is that we need is on the way—and it will get here; even if it is at the Dawning of the Eternal Day. Let us then wait in hope, knowing that as we wait, he will renew our strength until the day of his deliverance comes (Isa. 40:29-31).