Theology of waiting

Persevering through Unchanging Seasons

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. James 5:11

Perseverance: To continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success. Oxford Living Dictionary

I am currently reading a great book by Max Lucado called Anxious for Nothing, in this book, and so many others like it, the author talks about how we should respond when the ‘storms of life’ come. But I have to say that it is not the storms that worry me. Storms come and go as most of us know, and while it is good to be reminded in the stormy times to keep our eyes on the Lord, I think that far more dangerous to our faith and our Christian walk are perpetual clouds that never seem to lift. It is grey day after grey day, week after week, month after month or even year after year. It is never or rarely seeing the sun, or the rain for that matter. While the storm may be frightening there is a certain beauty in the lightning and the thunder which reminds us of the power of nature and of God. We also know that after the storm comes the rainbow, the sign that God has not forgotten us or forsaken us, and through His covenant with Noah, never again will He wipe out the human race. But what about the perpetual grey days, where there is no sign of sun, no sign of joy and no sign of breakthrough? When despite prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, confessing the promises of God and following every other piece of Christian advice we know, our situation remains unchanged.

When one season seems to go on and on well past its natural time, we can start to wonder what is going on. I live in the Arabian Gulf and while we don’t have winters that last forever we do have endless summers. To some this might be a dream, but when it is hot day followed by hot day followed by hot day with no rain in sight you start to long for the day that the clouds gather and the temperature drops. In the Gulf the rain is celebrated, people dance outside when it comes, children leave classrooms and people leave offices to stand and luxuriate in the rain. There is something about a change in the weather, a change of seasons, that awakens and enlivens us, that gives us reason to hope that things can be better or at least different. That just because something is a certain way now it doesn’t have to stay that way forever.

It is a lack of change in the seasons of life that can lead to a feeling of despondency and sometimes discouragement and a feeling that maybe, just maybe, there is not another season to come. That perhaps this will be the forever season, like the seemingly endless summers in the Gulf, or even the long droughts in my home country of Australia, a season that sometimes last for years.

When we have been waiting a long time we can feel like we are in exile, much like the Israelites in Babylon. It seems that we find ourselves in a place we didn’t choose or a situation we didn’t want, surrounded by people or circumstances we don’t understand and don’t want to be part of. In such places we can start to doubt God’s plans for us, start to doubt the promises of God and the dreams that we have in our hearts. In times when nothing is moving and nothing is changing, we too can feel stuck. So rather than living as if this is just a season we can stop expecting change, we can stop living with expectant hearts, and we can start to believe that things might never change.

For me the long wait to meet my spouse has sometimes seemed like a never-ending cloudy day, there is nothing dramatic about it, nothing monumental. There is no sudden storm or flood or crisis in it, there is just day after day of the sameness. Day after day of trying to living expectantly, trying to remain optimistic and hopeful that today might just be the day that I meet my future spouse. But it is then going to bed at night thinking I guess it wasn’t today. Stuck under perpetual clouds that are doing more to dampen my faith little by little, shard by shard, than any storm of life will ever do.

Rather than a brutal or sudden storm, something that everyone can sympathize about, so many people endure grey day after grey day. Everyone can understand people in crisis, we easily come alongside those who face a personal tragedy or a job loss or a serious illness or divorce or some other ‘storm’ that has a finiteness to it. But how well do we do with those who are not enduring a storm but an overcast day that never ends? It is so much harder to empathize with someone whose suffering goes on, we start to think there must be something they could have or should have done. We think they must be missing something, they must not be doing something right. We can start to think, like Job’s friends, that they are somehow responsible for their misery. We are uncomfortable with these situations as the lack of resolution or breakthrough doesn’t seem to clearly line up with our theology of a God who delivers and restores and redeems His people.

As I write this I think of dear friends of mine who have had to endure decades of economic hardship, yet rather than getting empathy, or even sympathy, mostly what they get is advice on what they should or shouldn’t be doing. It took me so long to understand all they wanted was for me to just sit there and be there with them and believe with them, and for them, for their miracle. I of all people should have got that. I know what it is like for people to try to ‘fix’ my singleness when that is not what I want from them. I don’t want advice on why I am single or what I should do (most of which I know already!), I just want friends who sit beside me and say I am going to keep holding you up in prayer. When you give up on a finding a spouse, I won’t, when your hands are weak I will hold them up for you, like Aaron and Hur did for Moses in Exodus so that the Israelites would win the battle.

Hold me up, don’t tear me down with a well-meaning but faulty diagnosis of my situation. Help me to run my race, to keep the faith, to not grow weary. Help me to keep waiting with expectancy to see the provision and glory of God. I want to be like Paul who even though he was languishing in a prison cell was still asking his friend Philemon to prepare a room for him because he hoped to visit. In reality Paul never did get to return to Philemon, he never left Rome, he died there. But what strikes me is that although Paul was in prison he was a relentlessly hopeful person. The only time he speaks of an unfulfilled prayer is the thorn in his flesh, which he says the Lord allowed, but then he never speaks of it again. He speaks of great hardships in 2 Corinthians 11 but in Philippians 3 says he counts everything that has happened to him as a gain, as all of it brought him nearer to Christ. There is no trace of bitterness, jealousy or defeat in his words. He is a man on a mission, he knows that his time is probably short but he is determined to make good use of it.

I wonder how can I thrive in all circumstances like Paul, how can I rejoice not only in the sunshine and in the storms but also in the perpetual gray? How do I make sense of my life with an ache in my heart and the feeling of a loss of something that I have never had? How do any of us keep going when outwardly our circumstances look like they will never change? How do we stop ourselves from becoming bitter or from deferring hope? How in the face of low level, but continuing disappointment, do we push on? More simply how can we persevere?

Perseverance is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success’. The Merriam Webster dictionary offers an even stronger definition which is ‘continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficultiesfailure, or opposition’. For some reason until I started writing this post I had not really considered what perseverance meant. As I read these definitions it starts to make sense and I can see why it is talked about so many times in the Bible.

James says that those who persevere will receive the crown of life. I think perseverance means that I must continue to believe, to have faith that God is good, that He is in control and that my life is in His hands. I must do this in spite of seeing difficulties, in spite of my own failures or those of others and in spite of any delays or even active opposition. I must be persistent in the face of all these things and trust in God’s perfect plan.

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James 1:4  says that the work of perseverance is to make us complete and mature, lacking nothing. An interesting statement. How can perseverance make us complete? I had not thought of that before either. James also talks about the perseverance of Job and the rewards that it brought him. Paul also talks about perseverance, in Thessalonians, Hebrews and most notably in his letter to the Romans. Here in 5:3-4 he writes: Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Perseverance in Paul’s thinking actually leads us straight to the door of hope. In his definition the way to avoid the deferment of hope and heart sickness, as described in Proverbs 13:12, is to persevere and in doing so hope will come.

Clearly the Bible places a high premium on perseverance, not only do James, Paul, Peter and John talk about it, but Jesus himself extolled the importance of persevering. In the book of Matthew 10:22 (Amp) He says And you will be hated by everyone because of [your association with] My name, but it is the one who has patiently persevered and endured to the end who will be saved. We can safely argue I believe that perseverance is considered as something that builds and refines our characters and something that is attached to a great reward, not only in the here and now, but for all eternity.

I suddenly feel a bit better about persevering through the seemingly endless grey days.

One of the best examples that the Bible gives us of persevering is Job. Everything is taken from him except his very life but he continues on, albeit quite reluctantly at times. He writes in Job 6:11 What strength have I left that I should wait and hope? And what is ahead of me that I should be patient? Job has a lot to say about waiting too, in fact the word wait and its derivatives are peppered throughout the book at least 17 times. Job’s suffering dragged on, he truly experienced the overcast life. While his misfortune started with a storm it slipped into seemingly endless grey days where Job found himself being accused by his friends of having caused his own misery. Not only does God vindicate and reward Job at the end of the book but in the New Testament when James writes about perseverance it is Job whom he references as the exemplar of perseverance and God’s reward for those who likewise stay the course.

In Luke 18 Jesus also tells us a story of perseverance, the parable of the unjust judge and the widow. In this parable a poor widow is seeking justice from a corrupt judge who refuses to hear her, but day after day she goes back to him and in the end Jesus says he gives her what she wants simply to get rid of her. Jesus says that if even the unjust judge gives the widow what she wants in return for her persistence and perseverance then how much more will our heavenly Father answer our prayers and petitions.

Earlier in the book of Luke in Chapter 11:5-9 Jesus also emphasized perseverance. Again He used a story, this time of two friends. One of whom wants some food from the other in the middle of the night. Jesus says that the friend being asked will not give the food because they are friends but rather because of the persistence of the man in need. He concludes this section by saying some of his most famous words For everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. The key to receiving, Jesus seems to emphasize, is to continue in asking and searching and knocking, in other words to persevere.

Now I will add a small caveat here that we need to be persevering in the right direction, that is according to the promises and Word of God. If we are not standing on a promise of the Lord then it may not be wise to keep on in a direction that perhaps God no longer wants us to pursue. For example while the Bible says it is not good for man to be alone, we do not know who God wants us to be with so it is not always prudent to insist on a particular person and get hung up on them when perhaps they are not the one. It is good to persevere in hoping and trusting the Lord for a spouse but we need to be able to exercise wisdom, with God’s help, so that we allow Him to bring the right person along. Similarly, in a job, if it is causing us to compromise our values then it may be wiser to leave that job rather than to stay and persevere in hoping that things will change. At the end of the day we need to take our plans to the Lord and follow what we believe He wants us to do. Even if we make a mistake however, we should remember that God still loves us and a mistake made in faith is still better than exercising no faith at all. It is good though to keep in mind that our perseverance always should be in the direction that Lord points us.

When I look at the overcast days and seemingly unchanging circumstances through the filter of perseverance then they start to take on a different hue. Somehow they seem less random, less pointless and less futile. The longer they drag on can actually be seen as almost a good thing, as an even greater strengthening of my character and of my faith and ultimately my hope in God. When we persevere in a situation the Lord goes to work in us, we are building the strongest of spiritual muscles and we are in wonderful company throughout the ages. There is nothing we like more than the story of someone who overcame great hardships to achieve something amazing. From Edison’s 1000 failures before the successful invention of the light bulb, to Sir Edmund Hilary’s first successful ascent of Everest, to George Muller establishing orphanages for over 10,000 orphans in Bristol in Victorian England, to Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom who continued to preach the good news of Christ in the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

The best books and movies are stories of perseverance, they resonate with something deep inside us, they inspire us, they motivate us and they give us strength to go on. I believe that as we persevere in our walk with Christ and our trust and faith in Him our lives will one day be one of those stories, maybe not told in books or movies but recorded in the Book of the Lamb, read aloud in heaven and celebrated by the multitudes when we finally get home.

After being sent out by Moses to survey the promised land in Number 14:9, Joshua and Caleb reported back that although there were giants in the land that that they would be as bread for the Israelites, in other words a challenge that would strengthen them. Similarly, I believe that our endless grey days can also become food for us, a challenge that strengthens us and grows our perseverance and faith. Today I would encourage us to see whatever season we are in as bread. In it and through it we are growing and maturing in ways that we would never have been able to without it and as a result we will not only have a stronger, more intimate personal walk with the Lord, but we will have greater measures of His peace, His joy and His love. This is something we can share with all those we meet in such a real and authentic way. Through this lived experience our tests truly become our testimonies and I believe that they will touch and transform the lives of everyone around us and ultimately bring glory to God.

I would love to hear your stories of persevering and the many things that you have overcome to get to where you are today. God bless and encourage you mightily.

 

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