Every Human Being Shares the Cross of Waiting
COMMENTARY: How can we make sense of waiting within the Christian life?
Everyone waits for something. Maybe it’s a job or a promotion. Maybe you’re waiting to meet the right man or woman. Maybe you’re waiting for God to reveal some clear direction or vocation in your life.
Or maybe you wait for something more urgent: You need healing from cancer, or from some addiction or habitual sin. Maybe you’re waiting for God to salvage your relationship with a spouse or a sibling. Maybe you’re infertile, and you’re watching your biological clock count down.
It’s a terrible cross, this cross of waiting, but it’s one of the few that every single human being shares. This Lent, a season of waiting and preparation for Holy Week and Easter, provides us a great opportunity to reflect on this cross. If we’re honest with ourselves, the cross of waiting can feel pretty pointless, a waste of time and unfulfilled desire. How can we make sense of waiting within the Christian life? What good could possibly come from our waiting? And, more importantly, what do we do with the cross of waiting when we have it?
When we open our Bibles, we find plenty of stories about waiting. We find Abraham and Sarah, waiting for a child and an heir to fulfill God’s promise. We meet Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who suffered for years before the Lord finally took away her barrenness. Even God’s beloved King David gets anointed as a young man, yet endures a long wait and a great many perils before he can rule his kingdom. Or think of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, waiting to see the “consolation of Israel,” the child Jesus Christ.
In fact, we could read almost the entire Bible as one long story of waiting for Salvation. The wait begins in Genesis with the protoevangelium, when God promises to crush the head of the serpent through Eve’s offspring. Then fast-forward through the patriarchs and judges, the kings and exiles, and the twists and turns of God’s salvific history until we finally reach the fulfillment of that promise in the Gospels.
Jews and Christians, it seems, have a long history of waiting.
St. Peter even addresses the problem of waiting in his Second Letter, and he does so in a way that helps us understand our own experience of this cross.
Early Christians were concerned: The Lord had promised to return in glory, but he hadn’t come back yet. Why was he taking so long? St. Peter explains: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (3:9). This is the crucial point. Peter insists that when God asks us to wait for his Second Coming, he does so for our sake, not his: “Consider the patience of Our Lord as salvation” (3:15).
“Now wait a minute,” you may be saying, “how does this relate to me? I don’t mind waiting for the Second Coming. But I need healing, or a job or some money — right now!” But, in fact, St. Peter’s advice still applies, and it shows us a new way to see the cross of waiting in our Christian life: God gives us the time we need. Waiting is for us. But if so, what fruit can the cross of waiting possibly bear in us?
First, waiting turns us back to God in prayer. It makes us recognize our dependence, our need to rely on the Creator for everything. This truth must form the foundation of our relationship with God, and waiting can remind us of it. But it’s more than that.
Remember, God doesn’t need prayer. We need it. Prayer, that intimate communion with God, gives us both life and power. How often do we forget to pray when we have everything we want? The cross of waiting, just like any suffering, can help to reorient us back to God, like a solar panel to the sun. And from that prayer, we can become transformed.
Second, waiting can purify, refine and refocus our desires. Sometimes we want the wrong thing. Sometimes we want the right thing for the wrong reasons. Maybe the cross of waiting is God’s way of purifying your desires. Ask him about it.
Third, waiting can help us grow in the virtue of patience. This one always makes us roll our eyes, like when someone tells us that suffering will “build character.”
But do we actually want to grow in virtue? We should recall that we need the virtue of patience if we’re ever going to have true love — and everyone wants to be better at loving and being loved. As St. Paul tells us, “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). That means that the cross of waiting may be God’s way of strengthening our capacity to love: to love him, to love ourselves and to love those around us.
So far so good, but how do we go about waiting properly? What do we do with the cross of waiting?
We should pray not just for the thing we desire. Instead, we should also ask God how he wants us to proceed in this moment. What is he calling you to in your present circumstances?
Second, (related to the first point): Recognize the wait as an opportunity.
What if God asks you to wait for something because he has another mission for you right now? If you’re single, waiting for marriage, you have more time and energy for friendships, for serving the poor, for education, etc. If you’re waiting for retirement, your office is your field of evangelization until that day comes. Sometimes we need to reorient our vision to see that, while we were waiting, God was offering us a call.
Third, have courage.
Psalm 27:14 tells us, “Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!” God knows our needs, and we can trust him. That trust should give us hope and the stamina to bravely wait for the Lord.
Fourth, wait actively.
We shouldn’t confuse Christian waiting with helpless passivity. As Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:35-36).
Or again, as Psalm 123 tells us:
“Yes, like the eyes of servants
on the hand of their masters,
Like the eyes of a maid
on the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on the Lord our God,
till we are shown favor” (123:2).
Christian waiting has nothing to do with apathy or inaction. We wait expectantly, our eyes watching God. We must remain sober, alert and attentive to what God wants for us today.
None of this will take away our cross of waiting. It may not even make it easier to bear. But if we embrace it properly, waiting becomes something more than the painful passage of time. Instead, through the act of waiting, we can grow closer to the Living God, and he can bear great fruit in us.
Kelly Scott Franklin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at Hillsdale College.