God's time? Our time?

God's time? Our time? Another look at the meaning of waiting

An insightful look into the concept of waiting, as seen in 2 Peter 3.

Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

“Your God is too fast,” wrote Rich Mouw, now president of Fuller Theological Seminary.1 He was reflecting on our impatience, our unwillingness to wait, our apparent assumption that anything God really wants done, He will do quickly—whether it be the creation of the world or individual salvation. On the other hand, whatever He doesn’t do quickly and decisively, in a sort of once-and-for-all manner, He mustn’t be too interested in or mustn’t think too important—or, worst of all, must be helpless to do anything about. Obviously, Mouw disagreed with all of these propositions.

Still, it’s not hard to see why the popular view prevails. We are a people in love with speed, and not just with the fast cars that were the status symbol of an earlier generation. The love affair is not getting better. Progress in science today depends on dealing with events that occur so quickly we measure the elapsed time in nanoseconds—a word new enough that it just sneaked into the addenda of the current Webster’s unabridged dictionary. It means a billionth of a second. Imagine. But even that’s not fast enough for photon research. For that, I am told, we need attoseconds, a quintillionth of a second, one times ten to the negative eighteenth, a span so short it’s beyond any reasonable conceiving. Nor have our daily lives escaped this acceleration. Airmail is now just one more form of snail mail, intolerably slow. Processor speeds of ordinary personal computers, which in theory and pretty much in practice have doubled every year and a half or so, we now measure in gigahertz.

Waiting? Patience? How can these snubs of our technological competence possibly be seen as virtues? At best, they’re a manifest threat to the economy. Get it now; no payments or interest until next year, with your good credit.

But if all this obsession with speed seems silly to, say, the writer who finally takes a step back and realizes that she won’t produce a single sentence more with the brand-new 3.0 gigahertz screamer than with the ancient 486, or to the thinker who cares more about the quality than the quantity of ideas conveyed, still, even that sudden effort at perspective does not tell the whole story. In the midst of the silliness, a hard truth hides: It is in fact possible, from our point of view, for speed to matter, and matter a lot. It is in fact possible for things to come too late.

You know: the cure for the disease of which your child just died. And if some bureaucratic bungling or some company’s greed delayed the distribution of the critical medicine that could, otherwise, have been made available in time, well, whether grief or futile rage would prevail is hard to say. The check can come too late—the one that would have made it unnecessary for you to sell your home or would have spared you from succumbing to doing wrong to get desperately needed funds. Oh, it came, all right; but the damage was done.

Some other things come not, strictly speaking, when it’s too late but when one has been hurt too much in the meantime. Picture a prisoner of conscience, jailed unjustly for decades. He would be unlikely to tell you not to bother to let him out of jail, since you’d already been so slow about it. If he’s still alive, he probably wants out. He will be different, though, than he was before. He may be alive, but something of trust, something of confidence in human nature, will likely be dead. Slowness killed them. Had you let him out immediately, they would still be alive. Some things can’t be undone.

And some things don’t come at all. That’s one of our rawest fears when the desired outcome seems slow: will it ever arrive, or is all our waiting in vain?

Slowness? It’s not just foolish impatience that makes us anxious about slowness. Terrible things can happen when deliverance does not come in time, or does not come at all. So Christians have long cried out, “How long, O Lord, how long?” And they have earnestly prayed, “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.” The Lord does, indeed, sometimes seem very slow.

He seemed slow to Peter’s group of readers, who had been confronted by taunting scoffers, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet. 3:4).2 What made people think it would ever be any different? Why should they hang on to futile expectations? And why should we, we who have yet another two thousand years of evidence of things just going on and on, as they always have.

Peter did not try to respond by arguing that it hadn’t really been such a long time after all, or that someone had made a minor miscalculation of the date. There’s no point in flying in the face of the facts. Instead, he simply interpreted what the long time means. “The Lord is not slow about his promise,” he said, “as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Better, the Lord is not late (that’s the more precise sense of the word); the Lord has not gone past the appointed time for the fulfillment of His promise to return and make things right. The Lord is not late. He’s not off twiddling His thumbs or attending to the needs of some more interesting and less recalcitrant planet. He hasn’t become indifferent. He is not thwarted by some barrier to His acting. He has not been unexpectedly delayed, has not changed His mind. No. He is giving us time. He is patient with us; He is giving us opportunity to better fit ourselves for His coming; He is holding back His wrath. Do we count it slowness? We are badly mistaken. We should count His forbearance salvation (v. 15). He does not wish that we should perish.

All will be saved?

We would be overinterpreting to take this text, as some have done, as a sort of proof that all will in fact be saved in the end; or, contrariwise, to dismiss its argument as absurd, as cynics with an eye for math have done, on the grounds that with every day that elapses, more people die in their sins, so that far more will have been lost when the Lord actually does return than would have been had He been more prompt. Neither of these approaches is fair to the context. Peter is not concerned with global, abstract theological questions, on the one hand, or matters of strict logic on the other. His goal is pastoral. He is telling his people, and us, to ask not “What is going to happen to all of them out there,” not “Why doesn’t God hurry up and spare us so much suffering,” but rather “What sort of persons ought [we] to be in lives of holiness and godliness” now (v. 11). After all, the seeds of dissolution are already at work in the world as we know it, and the end is sure. Yet the Lord graciously gives us time to repent and amend our ways and better fit ourselves for the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells. He gives us a bigger context for our waiting, one that can give us new perspective on our current circumstances.

Knowing that the seeds of dissolution are already at work, pointing to the sure end of the world as we know it, may give us a way of understanding both how to value this world—precious, oh so precious, but not permanent—and how to view some of the terrible sorrow and evil it contains—agonizingly painful, to be fought against with all of our strength, but not permanent either. Obviously, we are fools to get a death grip on the perishable. It won’t hold us, and we can’t keep hold of it.

Tyranny of the perishable

Take this issue a step further, though, and consider how our view of the perishable interacts with our view of time. Actually, even to call a thing perishable is to say something precisely about what happens to it in or over time, right? Given just a little time, the grass withers and the flower fades. Given a little more, youth is gone. Yet more, and the last chance for a promotion passes one by. It may take but an instant for a fortune to be lost, or one’s health; but these are nonetheless lost in time. And hear the double meaning when we say that help was too slow, that it did not come “in time”: It did not come in such a way as to deliver us from some evil of this perishable, time-bound life. If we were in fact less ultimately attached to these things that are being dissolved, would we not be less terrorized by time? Do we not want more time, or less time, precisely because of them? I love the story about the fellow sitting in his living room wondering what time it was. He heard his small daughter, too young to read a clock, out in the kitchen and called out, “Susie, what is the little hand on?” After a short pause Susie, misunderstanding the question and taking it literally, replied, “A chocolate chip cookie.” But her answer can make a point. In so many ways, it’s the chocolate chip cookies we have our hands on, or wish we had our hands on, that tell us what time it is—too early? Too late? A moment we wish we could preserve forever?

The idea, again, is not that these things we so desire are necessarily bad or that they lack their own proper value, but that they are perishable, already being dissolved. We cannot keep them. They cannot keep us. Much of our sorrow and grief have to do with transience and loss, with our wanting one way or another to hang on to something precious to us, which we too often attempt to do in a way that speeds its passing or poisons our enjoyment of it in the moment we have. But remember something else: The sorrow and grief and pain also belong to time, as does the shallow optimism that would deny them. The seeds of dissolution are to be found in them too. They too shall be done away. A great Christian said this: “Remember that complacent optimism, no less than pessimism, is treason against hope. The world, as it is, is not good enough to be true. We ought not to be satisfied with it. ‘God has prepared some better thing.’ ”3 Do you not like that, and does it not ring true? “The world, as it is, is not good enough to be true.” If the Lord is anything like what He has revealed Himself to be in Jesus Christ, this world simply cannot be what He plans for us, or all He has for us. It is in too many ways a mockery of His goodness and mercy. He will not finally be satisfied with existence poisoned with evil. We should not be satisfied either. He will, assuredly, do them away. The more we believe and trust in a holy God, the more certain we will be that His future, His promise, holds something far better for us. And consequently, “according to His promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” We wait.

Waiting with a passion

But we do not wait immobile, passive. The text does not contemplate that route for a moment. Rather, it directs us right away—fast!—to the question, What sort of persons should we be now to fit ourselves for these new heavens and new earth? I read of a Kentucky politician who had a diverting fancy about judgment day: When the last trumpet sounds, he imagined, the Lord won’t send anyone to heaven or to hell. He’ll just remove everyone’s inhibitions, and they’ll all go where they belong.4 There’s something to that fancy. Think, right now, about what you love, what attracts you, what you long for, and what makes waiting for it so desperately hard. Do you, do I, in fact, love the things that would make us rejoice in inhabiting a place characterized as being where righteousness dwells? That’s the only feature of the new world Peter considers relevant, the only characteristic he mentions: it will be a world in which God’s will will be done. The less sure we are that we would feel at home in such a place, or the more we want to cling to this or that self-indulgence (or sin, to give the thing its proper name), or the less bothered we are by those imperfections, those spots and blotches, that are, after all, merely human, the more we need the time the Lord has given us in order to repent and change.

It is safe to assume that as long as we remain on this earth, even if our circumstances are miserable in the extreme, it is still possible that, by grace, we might today become a little more prepared for the Lord’s return than we were yesterday and that it would be pleasing to God were we to orient our attentions in that direction. But perhaps not just if we have become cynical and discouraged, but especially if our circumstances are good, we may fail to recognize that progress is required. Even what is admirable, say by way of zeal, in a young person, must take on new qualities if it is to remain admirable and not destructive in an older one; even as a flower is beautiful in spring but has failed in its purpose if it remains a flower and not fruit in the summer. And sometimes, whatever our circumstances, we will simply become resistant to the pain involved in so much of our human progress. A Jewish writer reports, “A few days ago my rabbi asked me how things were going, and I answered, ‘Things are going all right, but it wouldn’t hurt if they went a little better.’ Raising his formidable eyebrows, the rabbi said, ‘And how do you know it wouldn’t hurt?’ ”5

Perhaps it is because so many eventually worthwhile things hurt that someone pointed out that the great risk is that we will become satisfied with this or that moral conquest or achievement and fail to realize that it will be spoiled if we rest in it. Especially by middle age, if we have much sought to make progress in these ways, we are likely to be weary of the effort and weary of change. Maybe even our longings have shrunken and died, and we no longer much aspire or hope and, hence, no longer wait with much urgency or anticipation. Then we are tempted to say to ourselves, “I have at last come far enough. I don’t really want to be better or wiser or more attuned to the call of moral adventure than I am now. This will just have to do.” But that, of course, is moral death.6 No way could we ever have more time than we need to seek to make progress in every sort of holy behavior and piety and search for purity, because we serve a holy God who will not be satisfied until, in our proper measure, we are like Him.

Well then, if we could no way have more time than we need, how much time do we require? How much time does the earth require? That, only the Lord Himself knows. To say that with Him a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day is no doubt primarily to say that He does not experience time as we do and certainly feels none of the anxiety about the outcomes that plagues us. He would have no reason, then, to describe His work as either slow or fast. The relevant category is that He is not late in fulfilling His promise (or in any other way). But it may also be true, as someone suggested, that in the Lord’s economy, a single day may be as productive of events, as significant to the course of history, as are a thousand. Such a day comes with respect to our individual human lives when we come to know Christ and trust in Him for the first time. Such a day comes for the earth on Christmas and Easter and, of course, the day the Lord returns. Perhaps today is in some sense such a day in your life. Perhaps today requires a decision of moment for the rest of your earthly existence, one that must not wait. This may be a day in a thousand in that sense. Or perhaps today is simply one more opportunity to ask ourselves what sort of persons the holy, faithful Lord wants us to be and to act accordingly.

1 “Humility, Hope and the Divine Slowness,” The Christian Century, April 11, 1990, 365.

2 All Scripture quoted from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible.

3 William R. Inge, quoted in John Baillie, A Diary of Readings (Nashville: Abingdon, 1955), 19.

4 Context, July 15, 1989, 4.

5 Quoted in Context, August 15, 1989, 4.

6 Adapted from A. E. Taylor, quoted in Baillie, 277.

 

 

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Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.

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