In the Western world waiting is a curse to be eradicated because it accomplishes nothing and wastes time. So almost everything gets instantized: food preparation, service, transportation, communication and leisure. In contrast, in the developing world waiting in long lines for service in a government office is a way of life, often being seasoned with lively conversations with the people around you in the line. But most people in the developed world will do almost anything to avoid waiting. Waiting is boring. To keep people waiting is a social sin. Forcing customers to wait is disastrous.
Instantizing Almost Everything
In response to this human demand for the eradication of waiting, technology offers faster and more powerful computers (that “boot up” in seconds), automatic teller machines (that produce money without the time-consuming factor of dealing with people), microwave ovens (that reduce meal preparation time) and instant foods (that reduce ingestion time). The trend seems irreversible. To avoid waiting for the bus, people drive their cars to work, one person per vehicle. To avoid waiting for replies from letter writing, people use e-mail. To avoid waiting for the repair of a toaster, people buy a new one. All this stems from the assumption that time is a commodity, a scarce resource that must be managed shrewdly.
Relationships are deeply affected by this instantizing trend. Intimacy takes time. Persons are mysteries. Friendship cannot be rushed: there must be time for the ever deepening spiral of giving and receiving as layers of ourselves are unmasked progressively. No wonder so many people are lonely today. A good marriage is the product of a lot of waiting and cannot be instantized. No wonder there are so many divorces. Love cannot be given or received without waiting and listening; instant sex, in contrast, is genital activity without waiting for the returns of love. No wonder there is so much preoccupation with sex in our society when there is so little sexual satisfaction.
Even death is affected. On one hand, when people find they have an incurable disease, they do everything possible to prolong life. Heaven can wait. On the other hand, when they get nearer to death and the quality of life has been drastically reduced, they cannot wait to die.
Religion gets sucked into this no-waiting vortex as preachers promise no-wait results from faith—instant health, wealth and happiness. Churches package their services into no-wait sound and sight bites without embarrassing silences. Starting a service late is a venial sin; ending late is a mortal sin. What would you do while waiting? People do not wait for God to speak, wait for spiritual gifts, for maturity, for answered prayer, for the blessing of God or for the Second Coming. They want it all now.
Paradoxically, the faster we go, the more it seems we must wait as we encounter technologically resistant zones in urban life: stalled traffic on freeways, delayed credit card transactions when the system is down, long waits for elective surgery, takeoff delays when air traffic control is overloaded. Some things seem to slow down when we try to speed them up. Family life is a case in point. Children, anxious to grow up as quickly as possible, wear adult clothes and savor adult experiences as early as possible. Yet people do not seem to be growing up as quickly as they once did. Adolescence has been prolonged indefinitely, and people delay having children themselves because they know intuitively that having children will force them to stop being children themselves.
Another example is spiritual growth. There seems to be no effective way to force-feed Christians, to create an effective hothouse for fast growth, to package deeper spirituality in one short conference or to reduce spiritual disciplines to a how-to manual. As Jesus said, “The seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). Try as we will, we cannot seem to eliminate waiting. Would it be a good thing if we could?
Waiting as Spiritual Discipline
Psychologists tell us that impulse control is a crucial life skill to be gained in the process of maturing. How can we learn to delay gratification if we live in an instantized culture? Sociologists claim the amount of leisure time is getting progressively reduced in the modern world as we squeeze ever more productivity out of the time we have. How as adults will we ever learn again to play if we fill up every gap in our date books with one more activity? Theologians proclaim that waiting for the blessing of kept promises is fundamental to living in hope—that crucial, though missing, dimension of Christian faith that enables us to live fully in the present without requiring everything now. How can we thrive in hope if we insist on instant sanctification, instant maturity, instant knowledge of God, instant heaven? The inspired apostles advise us that patience is crucial to spiritual maturity (James 5:7-11; Romans 5:4), and we learn patience in the most frustrating experiences of life (Romans 5:3; James 1:2-8). How can we ever become mature Christians if we eliminate the soil in which the fruit of the Spirit will grow?
In the Bible waiting is a metaphor for the life of faith. All the great heroes of faith in the Bible died without having it all: “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13). Adam and Eve had to wait for grace as they were thrust out of the garden with only a promise in their hearts. Abraham had to wait for a family. A generation of liberated slaves had to wait in the desert for the Promised Land. David had to wait for the throne. Job had to wait for God to speak. The exiles in Babylon had to wait for the restoration of the kingdom. The Jews in occupied Palestine had to wait for the messiah. Jesus waited thirty years to begin his ministry. Judas, in contrast, refused to wait for the kingdom and tried to make it happen. The wise virgins in the parable of Jesus were ready for a long wait; the foolish ones could not tolerate a delayed return of the Lord. The early disciples of Jesus had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit after Jesus rose from the dead. The converted Pharisee Saul had to wait fourteen years to be ready for his first short-term mission. All of us have to wait for heaven.
Waiting in the Psalms is a posture of focused expectation. “Wait for the Lord,” the psalmist tells himself (Psalm 27:14). “My soul waits for the Lord,” he says to his friends (Psalm 130:6 NRSV). “I wait for you, O Lord; you will answer, O Lord my God,” he says to God himself (Psalm 38:15). In the Lamentations of Jeremiah, written in the context of a social holocaust, the prophet calls to mind why waiting on God is so good: the never-failing compassions of God “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, `The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lament. 3:23-24). God is utterly determined to give his presence, to bless his people and to provide a place for his people to dwell. Waiting for God is not like Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play about pointless, no-fulfillment waiting. Waiting for God is resultful—but not efficiently so.
The process of waiting is faith evoking, as Job found out. He wanted instant answers to his excruciating pain and loss, answers that his friends supplied with slick precision and impeccable orthodoxy. But in the process of waiting for God to speak—waiting persistently though not patiently (in the sense of passively)—Job discovered that he wanted God’s presence even more than he wanted answers. What if God were to give us everything we prayed for immediately? (Would we not be sorry for asking—knowing so little about our real needs?) What if God revealed himself to us totally and instantly in our first encounter? (Would we cry out for the mountains to cover us?) What if Christian maturity were given in one transcendent moment and we never needed to grow? (Would not the Christian life be boring?) What if there were no bodily resurrection to wait for? (Would not all healing in this life be utterly disappointing?) What if Christ were not to come again? (Would not the world then end in a mere fizzle or a bang?) Refusing to wait is like turning to the last page of a novel to find out how it all ends. It spoils the whole story.
What Is the Good of Waiting?
Not all waiting is good. It is not good to wait another day to do the good we can do today or to wait for someone else to do what God has called you to do. It is not good to delay responding to the nuptial invitation of Christ or to wait for supernatural guidance from God when you already know what to do from Scripture. Some waiting is not good because it has an unworthy object, or no object at all, or it is not good because the source is wrong—careless, apathetic, idle waiting without faith, hope and love. But Christian waiting, while hard, can be good and full of promise.
So opportunities to wait in everyday life can become a means of grace. Waiting in lines of people or cars gives us the opportunity to pray and meditate. If we cannot talk to the people around us, we can at least pray for them and our loved ones. Waiting relationally for the returns of love, for a long-awaited letter, for the answer to an important question, gives us the opportunity to go deeper with ourselves and God. Busyness and frenetic-paced living insulate us from getting in touch with ourselves, a vital dimension of Christian maturity. Waiting for late dinner guests can be a deliciously relaxing, leisure-full moment in the day. Waiting for the sabbath each week can relativize our everyday work.
Reflecting on this matter, the Indian Christian Chandapilla once observed that there is always plenty of room at the end of the line. Up front, people are elbowing and pushing their way forward. But at the end of the line—a metaphor for the human factor in every situation whether business, church, family or neighborhood—there is no competition. You can find and be found by God, and you can find yourself waiting at the end of the line.