We all know how disappointing life can be. Maybe you never thought you’d still be single at age 35, or still stuck in an entry-level position, or still battling depression. Or maybe you never thought…fill in the blank. All of us have something that goes in that blank. We all know what it’s like to feel that things haven’t worked out quite the way we expected. What do you do about it? The Christian answer involves being dissatisfied with it. Paul tells us to “wait eagerly” and “strain towards” what is ahead of us (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:13): the perfect New Creation, where there are no disappointments. We’re not to act like this is all there is; that way lies despair.
But it’s dangerous to tell ourselves (and call each other) to be more restless. Why? Because the wrong kind of restlessness tells us that to be content in the present, we must be content with the present. If we’re not content in the present, we need to change our present.
This kind of restlessness doesn’t trust God’s timing. It wants heaven now. But those who seek heaven on earth make it hell for everyone else. Parents who demand perfection crush their children. Employees who trample on anything and anyone to reach the top create toxic workplaces. Worse, when we’re content with nothing less than heaven now, we’re bound to disobey God in order to grab it. Attempting to walk into happiness, we stay far from God, or walk away from God. And that’s (eternal) disaster.
We need to combine our restlessness with patience. Restlessness with patience is Christian maturity. Restlessness without patience is disaster.
Our Patience Problem
We live in an age that lacks patience! We’re bombarded with the message that we can, should, must have everything now. So we hate to wait. After all, if this life is all there is, there’s not much time to get everything done, to experience all we want to.
And the problem is that while we want fast, God likes slow. He really likes slow; and he often makes his people wait. God promised Abraham a son twenty-five years before Isaac was born. The nation of Israel waited hundreds of years in Egypt before being delivered, and thousands of years before receiving the promised Messiah-King. So we need to get used to waiting. We get help in the book of James:
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5: 7-8)
Have It All, and Have It Now?
James’ call to be patient for Jesus’ return is a big challenge for most of us. Our general impatience in life often translates into an unhealthy impatience for the new creation—unhealthy, because it’s shot through with lack of trust in God’s timing.
There’s a supposedly Christian movement that promises health and wealth in this life to followers of Jesus. If you have enough faith, God will give you houses, money, and cars. Here’s an example of the message, quoted in December 2009’s issue of the Atlantic: “We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW! … More work! Better work! The best finances!”
Who wouldn’t love this prosperity gospel? It shouts: Don’t wait for the new creation. Seize it all now.
And I have to confess that I fall for it. I have opposed this gospel and sought to persuade others of its dangers; and yet I often construct my own mini-versions of it. My mini-prosperity gospels arise when I cultivate false expectations of what this present world can and should offer. When I begin a new day, my usual assumption is that things will go well for me. There will be ample food for breakfast, and enough hot water for my shower. My car will start. The people I meet during the day will understand and appreciate me. My neighbors will be friendly and will lend me their tools. My children will be well-behaved in the evening, be in bed on time, and will sleep well. When I’m on vacation, my expectations are ratcheted up even higher— I’ve waited and worked for this little slice of heaven on earth, and no one had better take it from me.
I can tell when my expectations are too high—when I’m trying to seize it all now—by noticing my reaction when something deviates from the plan. Am I annoyed at car trouble? Impatient with inefficiency? Grumpy when hungry? If something goes wrong, do I feel cheated? Am I angry with God, as though he hasn’t delivered what he promised?
If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then I’m not being patient enough. I’m not trusting God’s timing. I’m trying to enjoy all his promised future in the present. I’m expecting perfection from an imperfect world. So I need to hear James’ call for patience. If James were a prosperity preacher, he would say to his economically deprived readers: Believe and you will receive! Have it now! But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he twice urges patience for the return of Jesus. Full deliverance and blessing will come—in the future. We wait patiently until then.
What does this mean in practice? Well, picture the man who always wished he could go to university. Two years ago, he was offered a scholarship, but he’s married with four kids now, and he knew pursuing a degree would require neglecting his family and mean he was never in church. He said no to the scholarship. That hurt, but he’s okay with it. He knows he’ll have forever to study God’s words and works in the new creation, and he doesn’t need to seize it all now.
Or imagine the woman who longed to be married, but somehow it never happened. There was a time in her late 30s when she hit it off with a guy she met at the gym. Everything went well for the first couple months, and then one night he pushed to have sex. When she said she wouldn’t do that, he distanced himself, taking her dreams of marriage with him. That hurt, and still does, but she’s okay with it. She knows she’ll have forever to enjoy an intimate relationship with God and his people, and she doesn’t need to seize it all now.
Patient trust in God and his timing makes us resilient and hopeful when life is hard. It’s essential to avoiding disaster. It prevents us walking away from Christ; it means we won’t try to seize it all now, and lose it all in the future. How can we be patient? By remembering the true gospel, which tells us that our future is glorious, and certain, and whispers: Wait for the new creation patiently. You’ll have it all then.
Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts, and teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This blog is an excerpt from his new book, Eternity Changes Everything: How to live now in the light of your future (The Good Book Company, 2014), which will launch at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors in early February and is available for pre-order now. Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.