Heavier than the fact that I've never been much good at waiting is the far greater burden that I've never quite learned how to wait. In my pursuit of immediate and observable outcomes, I have often overlooked the power of those patient, unobservable actions to which many others dedicate their lives. I marvel at thoughtful patience and mindful meditation. I am convinced that, for many of us, the word "waiting" takes on the qualities of a curse; waiting is a form of punishment, trial.
I certainly felt this way when, this past year, I was faced with a series of migraines that continued for nearly six months. After countless doctors' appointments, temporary fixes, and ambiguous conclusions, I found myself angry and exhausted. It was the kind of comprehensive anger for which there is no direct or adjacent object of resentment. As is often the case with this kind of aimless ire, it is tempting to blame God as the author of our pain. To this day, answers have proved elusive, and through the experience I was tempted to conclude that I could not relate to those who found strength in the process of waiting.
However, the authors of the Bible make plain that children of God must be committed to learning the art of waiting, for in the attitude of patience is the actuality of their strength. As Isaiah writes, "[T]hey 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 40:31). I wonder how many of us feel that we are perpetually running and perpetually tired? What would it mean to run without fear of exhaustion, to rise without fear of falling? The key, Isaiah's language suggests, is in learning how to "wait for the Lord."
The Book of Lamentations further extends the truths of Isaiah's analysis in its direct summary: "The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him" (Lamentations 3:25). In this formulation, "waiting" is far from inactivity. On the contrary, waiting for the Lord is translated as one whose "soul seeks him." Clearly our English "waiting" is a poor rendering of a much more paradoxical framing—a form of waiting that is far from passive, a form of patience that is nevertheless engaged. I wonder if the Bible's concept of waiting is more like a word we use to describe pregnant mothers: "expecting." In waiting on the Lord, we are expecting for hopeful fulfillment of a promised delivery.
And yet for those of us in the trenches of a daily life, plagued by seasons of painful silence and a desperate search for healing, the promises of the Bible can be hard to bear. Have you ever felt as though your expectation has been colored by sadness, turning your desire for hope into a certainty of hopelessness? In one of my favorite novels, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson puts it this way:
I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected—an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled in to the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows.
Many of us are surely waiting on that arrival, that explanation, or that apology. And many of us may have, like Housekeeping's narrator, lost faith in that apology or that explanation ever being voiced. In times of voiceless silence, in hours of needs that go unmet, it can be tempting to believe that there is no one on the other side of the quiet.
Even that harrowing thought, however, leads us back to the Word of God—leads us back, that is, to the person of Jesus, who faced the greatest silence imaginable, the silence of his own Father, whom he had neither displeased nor failed. In the Garden, Christ sweat blood in the anxious moments leading up to his crucifixion, not because he doubted God's goodness, but because he likewise has experienced what it means to wait (Luke 22:44). He has experienced the toll taken by those interminable seasons of demanded patience and tested faith.
Thus, waiting is an ability, an art, a sign of our willing faith. Writes Elizabeth Elliot, "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." At City Church, we want to highlight the "art of waiting" by way of our Ash Wednesday service next Wednesday, February 26th. Deep liturgical histories unite the season of Lent to the attitude of patient reflection. Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to lift our hearts above intrusive thoughts, by fixing our eyes on the one who suffered unbearable anxiety and carried the unbearable weight of our brokenness. With Ash Wednesday as with Lent, we commemorate the road that leads to the Cross, a road of patience and perseverance through which God's grace is secured for us.