“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord…..you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” – James 5:7
“We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” – Romans 8:23-25
“I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation” – Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
The Christian is one who is incessantly waiting. This means that the question of how we wait is the question of how we live, and that learning to wait well is learning to live well. While the way in which we wait is the focus of this post, we must first ask another question- what are we waiting for?
We are waiting for “the coming of the Lord”, as James puts it, which Paul says will mean our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. We wait for the Lord Jesus to return in order to transform us to be like him, that we may live with him in the New Creation, finally receiving in full all the blessings of being the adopted sons of God. Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the redemption of our bodies beautifully;
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”
Paul, in his 1st letter to the Corinthians compares what our bodies are like now with what they will be like then, saying “What is sown in perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.” (1 Cor 15:42-43) and goes on to conclude “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (Jesus).” We shall be like Jesus.
We wont just be like him, however, but will also see him. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12) The Godhead, three in one, will dwell forever in perfect love and intimacy with his redeemed people in their redeemed bodies in a redeemed world. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4) C.S Lewis, in his sermon ‘The weight of glory’ describes this moment in a way which captures well the end of our waiting- “The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
This then, is what we wait for- The glorious return of Jesus to consummate all of Gods promises.
But how are we to wait?
The first way that scripture calls us to wait is patiently. “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord” commands James. Paul says similarly ,”But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
The late theologian John Webster said that “Patience is the virtue of waiting. It involves waiting for all things to reach their end-waiting for others, as well as for ourselves, to take the time they need, and above all waiting for God to fulfill his purposes in his own good time.”
From Webster’s words we see that there are certain things we must know and acknowledge if we are to wait patiently. The first is realising what some theologians have called the ‘Creator-Creature distinction’; the fact that God is God and we are his creatures. Accepting that we aren’t in final control of our lives, and that God is, releases us from the burden of battling against the limitations of time, ability and situation that we face, of craving comfort and control. Instead, we begin to see our limitations as the shape of the life that God has given us, and we are even able to rejoice in our finitude, because we know the one who is infinite.
The second thing which will help us to wait patiently is knowing the purpose of the Lord; that he is directing our lives towards our ultimate redemption. In James, it says “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful”. Knowing that the God in control of our lives is not a despot, but a loving heavenly father, compassionate and merciful, who is making us increasingly like his Son until the day we see him face to face means we can trust him when our experience screams that pain is purposeless, and when we feel that he has forgotten us.
The third thing we must realise in order to wait patiently is the goodness of the patience of God. In 2 Peter, in a chapter on the return of Jesus, he says “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Jesus has not returned yet because in his mercy God wishes to bring more people to repent and believe. It is not through lack of care that the Lord has not returned, but because of his deep care for the world.
To be one who waits patiently, therefore, is to know God – his otherness, his purpose, his goodness, and to rest in it. To wait patiently is to abide in God. To do this we must ponder these truths regularly ourselves, speak the word of the gospel to one another, and form patterns of living that reflect who this God is.
However, we are also called to wait eagerly. The passage from Romans says that “we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. Hebrews 9 says that Jesus will come again to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
To wait eagerly is to wait expectantly, confidently, assured that God will do as he has said. In his grace he has been kind enough to show us throughout scripture that he is a God who keeps his promises. We are not like poor Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s famous play, who are waiting for Godot, but wait in vain for one who does not (and seemingly will not) arrive, one who promises but disappoints. We are waiting for the God who promised to rescue Israel from Egypt, and did; who promised them a land, and delivered it into their hands; who promised a Messiah, a Saviour, and gave his Son.
We wait for the promise keeping God, so we wait eagerly.
Scripture further calls us to live holy lives while we wait. In the first letter of Peter, after calling people to place their hope fully on Jesus’ return, he then says “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written “You shall be holy, for I am holy”. In other words we are called to wait looking forward (to the last day), rather than behind (to our past sins), and to wait looking to God rather than at those around us.
As we focus on our future hope, and the God who is at the centre of it, we will increasingly be shaped and transformed into a holy waiting people.
We are warned, however, that waiting will be painful. We are told in Romans 8 that we will groan inwardly as we await our final salvation. 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 says “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
The tension of having the Holy Spirit within us, the guarantee of our future, but of not fully experiencing it yet causes us to groan – to long for the day when the redemption of our bodies, and of our world, becomes reality. There are echos of the experience of Mrs Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ in the lives of all Christians who know what they hope for;
“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have- to want and want- how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!”
Each of us will know this groaning in our lives in different ways. Suffering with a long term illness, I long for the day when pain shall cease, when my body wont fight against me, when I wont just feel fine some of the time but good all of the time. Struggling with sexual sin I long for the day when I wont even be tempted, the day when my desires will be honourable at all times, my thoughts always pure. And most of all, living in a world where Jesus is mocked instead of glorified, I long for the day when every knee shall bow, when we shall see him as he is and praise him forever.
But is there not a clash here, a contradiction between groaning and patience?
I think that while there is a kind of groaning which is forgetful of God, there is also a groaning that is deeply mindful of him and his character. We often groan not through impatience, but through pain- the pain that is the reality for those who know the Lord, and also know how sinful we still are, how broken our bodies still are. We groan because, although we trust that God will deliver us, and do so according to his perfect timing, we still rightly long for what we do not yet have. It seems, therefore, that groaning and patience can and do co-exist in the life of the Christian.
And so we wait, patiently, eagerly, longing for the day when waiting shall cease, when every longing shall be satisfied, the day we are like him, and see him face to face.
Father, help us to be those who know what we wait for, and look forward to it with joy. Help us to wait for it with patience, knowing that we are your creatures, that you love us, and that your patience is kindness. Help us to wait eagerly, knowing that your purpose shall not be deflected. Help us to live increasingly holy lives while we wait. And father, in our groaning comfort us, shower us with your grace, and keep us waiting with hope. Amen.