Saturday, September 8, 2007

In the already, but not yet

Many books have contributed to my understanding of Scripture and clarified what it means to be a believer - and especially, perhaps, what it means to live as a believer. C.S. Lewis, no doubt, more than any other author has influenced my understanding of the faith. But there have been many others: Chesterton, Sayers, Stott, Philip Yancey - particularly his Disappointment With God. Decision Making and the Will of God, by Garry Friesen came to my attention at an important moment.

I was reminded of another important book by a reference to Ben Patterson in something I posted recently. One of his books is Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent. It is one of the books of which I own multiple copies because I give it away. The title accurately describes the subject, and the problem is one that every believer confronts - and always has. Mother Teresa's experience seemed to surprise, shock, or even gratify many of those who reviewed or read about the new book of her letters, but most Christians understood it. If, by some chance, someone doesn't, Patterson's book would help.

The experiences of Job and Abraham are central in the book. They had to wait for God's promises to be fulfilled - and wait and wait, without much evidence that the fulfillment would ever come apart from their faith, trust, in God. Patterson argues that the required attitudes, when things are very difficult, are not so much patience and perseverance, as humility and hope.

The epilog sums it up superbly:
More basic than patience or perseverance are humility and hope. These two are the attitudes, the visions of life, that make patience possible. Patience is a rare and lovely flower that grows only in the soil of humility and hope.

Humility makes patience possible because it shows us our proper place in the universe. God is God, we are his creatures; he is the King, we are his subjects; he is master, we are his servants. We have no demands to make, no rights to assert. I can be impatient only if I think that whatever it is I want is being withheld or delayed unfairly. As Chuck Swindoll put it, "God is not in your appointment book; you're in his." His superiority is not only in power and authority, it is in love and wisdom as well. He has the right to do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, but he also has the love to desire what is best for all his creatures and the wisdom to know what is best. He is superior to us in every conceivable way—in power and love and wisdom. To know that is to be patient.

Hope makes patience possible because it gives us the confidence that our wait is not in vain. Hope believes that this God of love, power and wisdom is on our side. It exults in the knowledge that, in the delays of life, he knows exactly what he is doing. If he moves quickly, it is for our good; if he moves slowly, it is for our good. No matter how things look to us, God is the complete master of the situation. There is an old theological word for this—providence. The venerable Heidelberg Catechism defines God's providence as:
The Almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were, by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.
There are no accidents, no glitches with God. He does all things well. Everything that comes to us comes by his hand and through his heart. He provides for our needs and fulfills our deepest desires in the fullness of time, not a moment too late, nor a second too soon. Hope assures us that in all things, even in the delays of life, God is working for our good. To know that is to be patient.

One of the surprise "goods" that God is working for us as we wait is the forging of our character. What we become as we wait is at least as important as the thing we wait for. To wait in hope is not just to pass the time until the wait is over. It is to see the time passing as part of the process God is using to make us into the people he created us to be. Job emerges from his wait dazzled and transformed. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.

Hope invites us to look at our waitings from the grand perspective of God's eternal purposes. In fact to be a believer is, by definition, to be one who waits. When Jesus won his victory over sin and death, he ascended into heaven, promising one day to return. We Christians wait for that return, poised between the times, in the "already, but not yet." ....
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