Assurance of things, or not.
the embarrassment of waiting for God
“The people of God are a waiting people.”
I heard someone say this in reference to Psalm 40, while those around responded with sighs and amens, like this was some kind of good news. The statement was meant as an encouragement: defining us as a people who hold the line while keeping our gaze fixed on the promises of God. It was meant to imply that we are people filled with faith.
It also sounded, I thought—ashamed even as it came to me— a little pathetic.
To be honest, after resonating with the truth of the statement, I felt a little embarrassed. Does waiting look passive? Misguided even? Does it paint a picture of us a people standing around biting our fingernails, a people whose God is never doing anything, whose God is never coming through for them? A waiting people could also look like the last kid at soccer practice whose mom still hasn’t showed up. And there he is, just waiting.
Waiting is also hard. And it seems like a funny thing to celebrate, as though it’s a positive virtue that we have to wait for God so often.
My son walked in the door, sweaty from practice, and talking about David Hume. He was animated and earnest, scooping food onto his plate like he hadn’t eaten all day. They were reading about Hume’s ideas in Philosophy class and my boy sat at our dinner table, explaining how Hume’s skepticism had some weight to it: how can we be assured of anything (munch, munch) when we are perceiving all of reality through our senses (gulp), interpreting constantly (this bread is so good), unable to have sure knowledge of the thing itself without the bias of our perceptions?
Hume had a point. And his questions squirm their way into other areas where assurance of truth gets sketchy: like historical records, or memory. Memory is a tricky thing; our memories that feel so powerful, so vivid and trustworthy; our memories that can also be wrong. My own memory has always functioned poorly and is only getting worse. Sit down with any family (like mine) and listen to them rehash their upbringing and you will quickly see how unreliable, or at least how varied the witness of even eyewitnesses can be. Yet, we remain so assured of what we remember. So assured of our perception of things.
For the Christian, the entire testimony of the people of God is one of memory. The biblical text is written down as a testament, from the perspective of human authors, to the reality of a God who has spoken to and interacted with his people. Hume’s questions here are real ones. They force us to ask of our own sacred text: can I trust the author’s perspectives? Can I rely on the accuracy of their memory? How do I know these written words come from God? These questions and more lie underneath our ability to wait on God.
I think of that boy after soccer practice, waiting for his mom to arrive as the street lights turn on and the parking lot empties.
Hume doubted our ability to know anything with certainty and ended up struggling with depression, as you can understand. At dinner, we talked about how each of us are looking for a foothold, a way to understand ourselves and our world. For those who hold to the Bible’s description of reality and the God who is in charge of it, we have to take a hard look at whether the text we believe in can support the claims it makes; otherwise, it too is just a flimsy hope of a dream and not anything to stake your life on.
We are each grasping at something to keep us afloat in the waiting. Because aren’t we all waiting? For things to get better? For someone to show up and make it right? For life to finally round that corner and love, peace, harmony, and fulfillment to be in our sights? The truest explanation of this predicament is still, for me, the Bible. It is the most convincing story of humanity and the reality we all experience. It is the most convincing story of Jesus showing up for the boy in the parking lot.
Still, we have questions. Questions that can arise as we, a waiting people, say with the Psalmist, “I am poor and needy… you are my God, do not delay.” We are troubled. And we want God to act. So we wonder: are you there? Do you hear? Are these words really from You?
Perhaps part of waiting on God is learning that it is not a linear journey. Rather, we circle back again and again to the same lessons, the same questions, like a HIIT workout on endless repeat.
I come back to “the people of God are a waiting people” and tell myself that in this there is no shame. Rather, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully translated Romans 8, “waiting does not diminish us… we are enlarged in the waiting…”
“meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along…He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
We wait. And God is with us.