All Posts /

Learning to Wait

Learning to Wait

When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. — Matthew 14:32

Waiting is the hardest work of hope. ~ Lewis Smedes

Waiting patiently is not a strong suit in American society.

A woman’s car stalls in traffic. She looks in vain under the hood to identify the cause, while the driver behind her leans relentlessly on his horn. Finally she has had enough. She walks back to his car and offers sweetly, “I don’t know what the matter is with my car. But if you want to go look under the hood, I’ll be glad to stay here and honk for you.”

We are not a patient people. We tend to be in a horn-honking, microwaving, Fed-Ex mailing, fast-food eating, express-lane shopping hurry. People don’t like to wait in traffic, on the phone, in the store, or at the post office.

Robert Levine, in a wonderful book called A Geography of Time, suggests the creation of a new unit of time called the honko-second — “the time between when the light changes and the person behind you honks his horn.” He claims it is the smallest measure of time known to science.

So how well do you wait?

At a tollbooth, the driver of the car in front of you is having an extended conversation with the tollbooth operator. You —

Are happy they are experiencing the tollbooth in community. You think about joining them and forming a small group.

Dream of things you would like to say to the tollbooth operator.

Attempt to drive your vehicle between the other guy’s car and the tollbooth.

You have been sitting in the waiting room of your doctor’s office for an hour. You —

Are grateful for the chance to catch up on the 1993 Reader’s Digest.

Tell the other patients you have a highly contagious and fatal disease, hoping this will empty the waiting room.

Force yourself to hyperventilate to get immediate attention.

Most of us do not like waiting very much, so we like the fact that Matthew shows Jesus to be the Lord of urgent action. Three times in just a few sentences Matthew uses the word immediately — always of Jesus: Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead of Him “immediately.” When the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost and cried out in fear, Jesus answered them “immediately.” When Peter began to sink and cried out for help, Jesus “immediately” reached out his hand and caught him.

Jesus’ actions are swift, discerning, and decisive. He doesn’t waste a honko-second. And yet, this is also a story about waiting. Matthew tells us that Jesus comes to the disciples “during the fourth watch of the night.” The Romans divided the night into four shifts: 6:00–9:00; 9:00-midnight; midnight–3:00; and 3:00–6:00. So Jesus came to the disciples sometime after 3 o’clock. But they had been in the boat since before sundown the previous day. Why the long delay? If I were one of the disciples, I think I would prefer Jesus to show up at the same time or even slightly ahead of the storm. I’d like Him there in a honko-second.

But Matthew has good reasons for noting the time. A. E. J. Rawlinson notes that early Christians suffering their own storm of persecution may have taken great comfort in this delay:

Faint hearts may even have begun to wonder whether the Lord Himself had not abandoned them to their fate, or to doubt the reality of Christ. They are to learn from this story that they are not forsaken, that the Lord watches over them unseen… [that] the Living One, Master of wind and waves, will surely come quickly for their salvation, even though it be in the “fourth watch of the night.”

Matthew wanted his readers to learn to wait.

Another moment of waiting involves Peter’s decision to leave the boat. He cannot do this on the strength of his own impulse; he must ask Jesus’ permission first, then wait for an answer — for the light to turn green. I wonder if another type of waiting was involved for Peter. What do you suppose his very first steps on the water looked like? I expect that Jesus was an accomplished water-walker. But for Peter, I wonder if there wasn’t a learning curve involved. Maybe, like the Bill Murray character in the movie What About Bob?, he had to start with baby steps.

Learning to walk always requires patience.

It was not until the whole episode was over that the disciples got what they wanted — “the wind died down.” Why couldn’t Jesus have made the wind die down “immediately” — as soon as He saw the disciples’ fear? It would have made Peter’s walk easier. But apparently Jesus felt they would gain something by waiting.

Consider the activity that Peter and the other disciples had to engage in right up to the very end: waiting.

Let’s say you decide to get out of the boat. You trust God. You take a step of faith — you courageously choose to leave a comfortable job to devote yourself to God’s calling; you will use a gift you believe God has given you even though you are scared to death; you will take relational risks even though you hate rejection; you will go back to school even though people tell you it makes no sense financially; you decide to trust God and get out of the boat. What happens next?

Well, maybe you will experience a tremendous, nonstop rush of excitement. Maybe there will be an immediate confirmation of your decision — circumstances will click, every risk will pay off, your efforts will be crowned with success, your spiritual life will thrive, your faith will double, and your friends will marvel, all in the space of a honko-second. Maybe. But not always. For good reasons, God does not always move at our frantic pace. We are too often double espresso followers of a decaf Sovereign.

Some forms of waiting — on expressways and in doctor’s offices — are fairly trivial in the overall scheme of things. But there are more serious and difficult kinds of waiting:

  • The waiting of a single person who hopes God might have marriage in store but is beginning to despair
  • The waiting of a childless couple who desperately want to start a family
  • The waiting of Nelson Mandela as he sits in a prison cell for twenty-seven years and wonders if he will ever be free or if his country will ever know justice
  • The waiting of someone who longs to have work that is meaningful and significant and yet cannot seem to find it
  • The waiting of a deeply depressed person for a morning when she will wake up wanting to live
  • The waiting of a child who feels awkward and clumsy and longs for the day when he gets picked first on the playground
  • The waiting of persons of color for the day when everyone’s children will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”
  • The waiting of an elderly senior citizen in a nursing home — alone, seriously ill, just waiting to die

Every one of us, at some junctures of our lives, will have to learn to wait.

Lewis Smedes writes,

Waiting is our destiny as creatures who cannot by themselves bring about what they hope for.

We wait in the darkness for a flame we cannot light,

We wait in fear for a happy ending we cannot write.

We wait for a not yet that feels like a not ever.

Waiting is the hardest work of hope.

Waiting may be the hardest single thing we are called to do. So it is frustrating when we turn to the Bible and find that God Himself, who is all-powerful and all-wise, keeps saying to his people, Wait.

Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for Him… Wait for the LORD, and keep to His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land.

God comes to Abraham when he is seventy-five and tells him he is going to be a father, the ancestor of a great nation. How long was it before that promise was fulfilled? Twenty-four years. Abraham had to wait.

God told the Israelites that they would leave their slavery in Egypt and become a nation. But the people had to wait four hundred years.

God told Moses he would lead the people to the Promised Land. But they had to wait forty years in the wilderness.

In the Bible, waiting is so closely associated with faith that sometimes the two words are used interchangeably. The great promise of the Old Testament was that a Messiah would come. But Israel had to wait — generation after generation, century after century. And when the Messiah came, He was recognized only by those who had their eyes fixed on his coming — like Simeon. He was an old man who “was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

But even the arrival of Jesus did not mean that the waiting was over. Jesus lived, taught, was crucified, was resurrected, and was about to ascend when His friends asked Him, “Lord, will you restore the kingdom now?” That is, “Can we stop waiting?”

And Jesus had one more command:

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised.

And the Holy Spirit came — but that still did not mean that the time of waiting was over.

Paul wrote,

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Forty-three times in the Old Testament alone, the people are commanded,

Wait. Wait on the LORD.

The last words in the Bible are about waiting:

The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

It may not seem like it, but in light of eternity, it is soon. Hang on. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” All right, we’ll hang on. But come! We’re waiting for You.

Why? Why does God make us wait? If He can do anything, why doesn’t He bring us relief and help and answers now?

At least in part, to paraphrase Ben Patterson,

what God does in us while we wait is as important as what it is we are waiting for.

Excerpted with permission from If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg, copyright Zondervan

* * *

Your Turn

Who wants to wait? Who’s excited about a good, long wait… to be accepted into college, to meet your spouse, to find a job? Who is eager to wait in prayer such a long, long time for a positive pregnancy test? Or for a child who has wandered far from Jesus to return to faith in Him? Waiting can seem interminable. Waiting stretches our hearts until we may feel there’s no elasticity left! Yet, God tells us to wait, and to wait, and to wait. What are you waiting for today? Let’s join in prayer that we may wait well and not lose heart! Come join the conversation on our blog! We want to hear from you!