A Holy Impatience?
August 30, 2012
Updated February 27, 2014
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All I wanted when I pulled into the McDonalds drive-thru was a Chocolate Chip Frappe. I needed a little shot of caffeine. It was a hot day. The frappes were on sale (just a buck!). A quick trip through the drive-thru seemed like just the thing. I figured I’d place my order, pay with the spare change from my ash tray (my wife would never know!), and be on my way within minutes.
I figured wrong.
Apparently, someone in front of me had ordered several hundred Big Macs. And fifteen minutes later, I was still in line. Still waiting to hand over my fistful of change. Still waiting for my Chocolate Chip Frappe.
I really, really, really do not like to wait.
Like most people, I want what I want, and I want it five minutes ago. But I know better. I know that “patience” is an important Christian virtue–no less than a “Fruit of the Spirit.” And I know that a little patience can do a lot to make life more pleasant. (Neil Plantinga once wrote: “Patience is like good motor oil. It doesn’t remove all the contaminants. It just puts them into suspension so they don’t get into your works and seize them up.”) So I’m doing what I can to cultivate a little more patience in my life.
But I wonder: Is impatience ever a good thing? Maybe even a holy thing?
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend over coffee and muffins. Faith is hard for her, she says. She just can’t figure out why God doesn’t do more to stop all the hurt in this world. Thousands of kids die of hunger every day. Women and children are bought and sold like trinkets at a flee market. A gunman bursts into a movie theater and unleashes his mayhem on a crowd of terrified strangers. Why, she wonders, doesn’t God do something about it all?
The questions nag at her soul. To her, the unsettled feeling deep in her gut feels a lot like doubt. But I wonder she might learn to see these questions differently. Not as evidence of doubt. But of impatience.
The Bible is full of impatient people–and impatient prayers. There is the Psalmist, who cries out from the depths: How long, oh Lord?! How Long?! (Psalm 13). John, who pleads from his prison cell: Come quickly, Lord! (Revelation 22:20). And others too. Again and again we see people crying out for God to act–and to act in a hurry. Not because they doubt. But because they have a deep, abiding faith. Faith in a God who is good. Faith in a God who is powerful. Faith in a God who cares about the needs of the weak, the powerless, the marginalized. Faith in a God who has promised to come and make things new, to come and bring the power of Resurrection to a groaning creation. They have faith. But it is an impatient faith. A faith that wants God to come and do all that he says he can do–all they believe he can do–and to do it five minutes ago.
For those of us who hang on to both a keen awareness of the hurts of this world with one hand and the glorious promise of God’s new creation in the other hand, it’s hard to be anything but impatient. I believe our impatience can be a sign–a healthy sign–of Christian hope. But none of us really likes to wait. As Anne Lamott once wrote: “Believing in God is easy. It’s waiting on him that’s hard.” The danger is that it may seem too hard. The danger is that if we wait too long, we may start to think that the thing we’re waiting for doesn’t exist, or that if it does, its never going to come our way. The danger is that at some point, we will grow so impatient that we will give up, decide it is no longer worth the wait, that we might as well step out of line and get on with life. It happens in the McDonalds Drive-thru (Hey, who really needs that extra 570 calories?). But it happens with people of faith, too.
And so it may be worth reminding ourselves of the Psalmist’s words once again:
“Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
And wait for the Lord.” (Ps. 27:14)
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