Most of us don’t like waiting.
We are annoyed with lengthy checkout lines at the store, frustrated by long red lights, and (if you live in northern Indiana like me) depressed with the lingering of winter temperatures in the middle of April. But we especially don’t like waiting on God. Of all the commands of Scripture, perhaps this is one of the hardest to obey. But the times and seasons for waiting on the Lord are many and varied. Scripture teaches us to wait on the Lord for guidance (Psalms 25:5), deliverance (Psalms 33:20), answers to prayer (Psalms 38:15), strength (Isaiah 40:31), and fresh assurance of God’s pardon and forgiveness (Psalms 130:5). Of course, we want these things now. Our needs seem urgent. We want immediate answers. That’s why waiting is so hard.
How to Wait
Waiting on the Lord is difficult, but it isn’t a passive activity. It’s not like waiting on your dentist or waiting for surgery, where you perhaps feel dread but little else. Waiting on the Lord is an act of faith.
The 17th-century pastor John Owen compared waiting on the Lord to sailors at sea who were at a great distance from land and beset with storms, yet were sustained in hope by the glimpse of land on the distant horizon. What does it mean to wait? Owen, who was writing specifically about waiting on the Lord for the assurance of forgiveness and pardon, highlights three things: quietness, diligence, and expectancy.
First of all, we need quietness. This is the opposite of a fretful mind, a troubled, anxious heart. “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:26). “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalms 37:7). But we also need diligence. Quietness doesn’t mean passivity, lethargy, or spiritual sloth. Waiting also involves faithfully following the Lord in everything we know to be right. As the Psalmist says, “Wait for the Lord, and keep his way” (Psalms 37:34).
For Owen, this especially meant diligence in using the means of grace (or, to use a contemporary phrase, the spiritual disciplines). “This, then, belongs unto the waiting of the soul: diligence in the use of means, whereby God is pleased ordinarily to communicate a sense of pardon and forgiveness,” Owen writes. “What these means are is known. Prayer, meditation, reading, hearing of the word, dispensation of the sacraments, they are all appointed to this purpose; they are all means of communicating love and grace to the soul.”
The third component to waiting is expectancy. If quietness keeps us from worry, and diligence from sloth, expectancy guards the heart from unbelief and despair. Waiting is to be hopeful. “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalms 130:5). “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” (Isaiah 64:4).
Owen’s components to waiting shows remarkable balance. Quietness without diligence can make us passive, lazy, negligent, and lead to escapism. But diligence without a quiet heart is just thinly disguised self-reliance. And either of these without hope in God himself will leave us trusting ourselves, rather than God and the promises of his word.
The God on Whom We Wait
The most important part of waiting is remembering who it is that we wait for, namely, God himself. Isaiah 40:31, quoted above, is one of the best-known passages on waiting, a common caption for framed art, usually under the picture of an eagle soaring in the mountain heights. But sometimes we forget the rest of Isaiah 40, a magnificent chapter that calls us to behold our God in all of his transcendent greatness in majesty (see Isaiah 40:12).
This is the God who holds oceans in his hand and measures the sands of the earth the way a chef measures sugar, salt, and flour. This is the God who weighs mountains in a balance and stretches the heavens like a curtain. This is the God who names and numbers the stars! He is so great, in fact, that we might be tempted to think that a God this powerful couldn’t possibly be concerned with the minute details of our petty, insignificant lives. But that’s exactly the response anticipated and countered in the text!
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27)
The Lord, in other words, is not only a God of transcendent power and majestic greatness, he is also a God of immanent strength who delights to strengthen the weak. The God on whom we wait is not only great; he is also near. And this is exactly the kind of God we need. If we lose either his greatness or his nearness, we will also lose faith and hope.
So, take a moment to test your theology. What is your view of God? If you think of God as remote and powerful, but basically unconcerned with the details of your life, you will lack warmth in your faith. Your view of God will be cold and distant. Your relationship with God won’t be marked by either a heart of trust or the practice of prayer. At best, God will be a distant sovereign, a king who doesn’t care too much. At worst, you’ll drift into either resentment towards God or practical atheism – living as if he doesn’t exist at all.
On the other hand, if you think of God as near, personal, and caring, as a friend with whom you can talk, but not a God of exhaustive wisdom, power, majesty, and sovereignty, then you will lack reverence in your faith. Your view of God will be mushy and sentimental. Your faith will sound as hollow as a Hallmark commercial. Maybe it makes you feel good, but will it really do any good? And over time you will likely drift away even from the warmth of friendship with God because your faith will lack the gravitas that comes from knowing that he reigns as sovereign over all.
But if your view of God rests on his unchanging revelation of himself in Scripture, your faith will be both strong and warm. You will not always understand God or his ways, but you will trust his inscrutable wisdom and his steadfast love. And you will be able to wait for him with quietness, diligence, and expectant faith.