May 24, 2019

Another Look: God’s Scandalous Patience

God is transforming and reconciling the world. But unlike human revolutionaries who demand instant and total change, God is not impatient. The arc of the universe bends toward the full reconciliation of all creation, but — “Come, Lord Jesus!” — that arc is long.

• C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison

• • •

This post is about the patience of God. I am not sure I have ever heard anyone talk about what a troublesome, even scandalous idea (especially to the modern mind) this is to ponder.

But all we must do is simply ask the question, “Why history?”

  • Why this long process?
  • Why so much time?
  • Why so much lavish, extraneous detail that seems so unnecessary to God’s stated plan?

I won’t bring an even greater mystery to this discussion by talking about the current scientific consensus: that we live in a creation 13-14 billion years old and that the beginnings of the human race occurred about 6-7 million years ago. That raises the conversation to an entirely different level than I’m prepared to handle today. [One place to start in thinking about that is Ronald Osborn’s book, Death Before the Fall, which I commend to you.]

Instead, let’s start by simply taking the Bible’s timeline as an example. It records approximately 4 or 5 thousand years of human history. That alone covers several thousand years of births and deaths, and an almost inconceivable number of events in which humans have participated, in addition to all that happened in non-human realms. Think of all the moments lived, the thoughts considered, the dreams imagined, the words spoken, and the actions taken. Try to fathom the number of sins committed! the good deeds performed! How many tears have fallen over that period of time? How many smiles brightened a day? The mind reels at trying to take in even a little bit of it.

Day after day after day for a very, very long time, life has proceeded at a snail’s pace and has included an incomprehensible amount of detail.

And where is God in all of this? Assuming the Bible accurately represents God’s intentions for this world, why is he taking so long, and why is there so much detail that seems superfluous to his promises? How much is there in this world, how much of life, history, human experience, the development of human knowledge, and the rise, rule, and fall of civilizations, that seems to have little or nothing to do with what we know about God’s plan of redemption?

Scripture tells us repeatedly that God is longsuffering, but doesn’t this seem extreme?

Is it conceivable that a God of all love, all wisdom, and all power would allow such a slow, messy, and apparently random process as the context in which he puts a broken creation to rights? That God would only intervene occasionally, in a few special acts that don’t immediately do the trick but only set the stage for the next long era of waiting, living, dying and trying to figure it all out?

We can talk about God’s patience in a detached, theological way, scanning the recorded past with a telescope. In my experience, that is how most Christians, along with their pastors, teachers, and theologians have visualized it — Creation. Fall. Israel. Jesus. Church. All leading to a New Creation. The larger patterns dominate the discussion. But do they serve to shrink our view of God? Do they cause us to imagine a God who only (or primarily) reveals himself by breaking into history and displaying his glory through unmistakable actions?

When we put history under the microscope instead and see it inch along, moment by moment, with all the complexity of billions of everyday lives in every corner of the globe, for days, then decades, then centuries, then millennia, with few if any divine interventions that can’t be interpreted in other terms, what does that do to our understanding of God and his active participation in the affairs of life?

We who rely upon the Bible as our sacred guide have come to expect that our lives today should look like the Bible. And we forget that the story covers thousands of years; what we have in Scripture are a few carefully selected stories and teachings which communicate God’s overall plan and a few key moments in history that advanced the plan. Most of the story takes place on one tiny little stretch of land in the Middle East, and it describes an infinitesimal portion of what has happened throughout the history of the world.

But the preacher stands up on Sunday and leads the congregation to expect that God will do for us what he did for Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul on a regular basis. This presentation of the glorious interventionist God who is continually revealing himself and “working in our lives” in obvious discernible ways is an extreme filtering of the facts about how life is and has always been experienced by the vast majority of people in this world, including Christians.

Perhaps this is why many of our wisest teachers have tried to help us see that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” In a world ruled by a patient deity, God is present in every aspect of life and living, though his presence is not obvious, dramatic, or interventionist. Rather he works mysteriously, silently, evocatively, and with the active participation of his creatures.

We sense that life is more than what we are in touch with at this moment, but not different from it, not unrelated to it. We get glimpses of wholeness and vitality that exceed what we can muster out of our own resources. We get  hints of congruence between who and what we are and the world around us — rocks and trees, meadows and mountains, birds and fish, dogs and cats, kingfishers and dragonflies — obscure and fleeting but convincing confirmations that we are all in this together, that we are kin to all that is and has been and will be. We have this feeling in our bones that we are involved in an enterprise that is more that the sum of the parts we can account for by looking around us and making an inventory of the details of our bodies, our families, our thoughts and feelings, the weather and the news, our job and leisure activities; we have this feeling that we will never quite make it out, never be able to explain or diagram it, that we will always be living a mystery — but a good mystery.

• Eugene Peterson
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 2

Perhaps this long process of history is necessary for human beings to come of age somehow and become partners with God in the long arc of redemption. Smith and Pattison quote German professor Gerald Lohfink, who says, “God is thus revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings.”

Please carefully note my use of “perhaps.” I have a million questions and couple of “perhaps” suggestions. That’s all. God took Job on a whirlwind tour of creation and it shut him up. I feel like this one concept: the patience of God, has swept me up in a similar way and dropped me on my head. It raises so many questions about God’s nature, God’s plan, and God’s ways, as well as theodicy questions related to human purpose, suffering, death, and destiny.

Contemplating the patience of God provides an encounter with the numinous, like lying on one’s back under an endless sea of stars. It can scare the pants off you. It can blow your mind. Countless years, countless lives, countless human endeavors and experiences, countless cycles of life, death, and new birth. And a God who is somehow in it all.

History.

The patience of God.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    “God is thus revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings.”

    That would be ironic, because this human being is staking everything on the omniscience, freedom, and goodness of God.

  2. “Religion is one of the larger roadblocks that God has had to put up with in the process of getting his message through to the world. The usual religious view is that God has his finger in every pie, and, as the infinite meddler, never lets anything act for itself. People bolster such ideas by an appeal to Scripture, pointing out things like the parting of the Red Sea or Elijah starting fires with wet wood on Mt. Carmel. That won’t do, however. To be sure, I am not about to make out a case that God can’t do miracles–that he can’t from time to time stick in his thumb and manufacture a plum if he feels like it. Nor am I going to maintain that he can’t answer the prayers of those of his free creatures he has bizarrely said he would take advice from. All I want to insist on here is that most of the time he doesn’t meddle; that his ordinary policy is: Hands off.”

    – Robert Farrar Capon
    (The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair With Theology)

  3. Robert F says

    It is not the unfolding of events in the process of time, broadly defined as history, that is the problem, but the pain, suffering, and death in the midst of that process and those events. In connection with this, I recently heard an NPR interview with a physicist (who he was, what his specialty was, and what the occasion of his being interviewed I can’t remember) who said that without the movement from order to disorder that we call entropy, nothing could happen, since the energy state of existence would be in absolute and total equilibrium, which by definition means no heat exchange and no movement. If the suffering we experience in the process of events unfolding in time, in history, is largely the result of the movement from order to disorder, this would explain why creation cannot occur without suffering; but what it can’t illuminate for us Christians is how God will create a new reality at the eschaton in which the suffering that accompanies such movement from order to disorder, and that is required for anything to happen at all, will not occur.

  4. i find this to be quite at odds with the ‘wretched urgency’ one finds in so many fundamentalist churches. It is refreshing, and yet troubling. CM is right that Christians tend to focus on the events in the Bible and think it is ‘normal’ for miracles to occur (and something is wrong if they don’t happen on a regular basis), when it no doubt wasn’t ‘normal’ even for them (e.g. Elijah’s widow). I can honestly say that in 40 years as a Christian (30+ years as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist) I have seen very little (if anything) that I would really consider ‘divine intervention’ or supernatural. And I see so little evidence – in the world, or in my own life – of ‘new creation’ coming about that it often makes me question whether there is anything to it. But, I guess that is the nature of faith (or faithfulness). Perhaps Jesus’ parables (mustard seed, leaven) explain it – a series of small, imperceptible steps in the large arc (which itself is difficult to discern)..

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Maybe. It is easier, I find, to describe myself as a “functional atheist”.

      Will God be coming to my aid when everything falls apart? No
      Will God be coming to the aid of my little tribe when things get desperate? No
      Will God be coming to the defense of my neighborhood when, again, the PTBs screw us over? No

      We are on our own.

      What good does a mustard seed do any of us? I’m an not going to work-the-text to make excuses for the Big Guy. This is his Creation, it works the way he wants it to, for better or worse.

      • Robert F says

        Will God be coming to my aid when my mortal remains have been returned to the elements, and I’ve left a lot of unfinished business and mess in the wake of my life? Maybe not, or maybe.

  5. “But the preacher stands up on Sunday and leads the congregation to expect that God will do for us what he did for Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul on a regular basis. This presentation of the glorious interventionist God who is continually revealing himself and “working in our lives” in obvious discernible ways is an extreme filtering of the facts about how life is and has always been experienced by the vast majority of people in this world, including Christians.”

    And when people keep hearing that from the pulpit, and keep seeing the exact opposite in their own lives… bad things start brewing.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It helps create a very toxic attitude towards Authority. Authority brewed from this cess must be more about symbols than consequences.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        It also induces magical thinking- and leads to horrible personal, financial and political disasters. I think it is a main contributor to why we are struggling to find our way out of our political, economic and environmental malaise, even though the answers are not that complicated.

  6. Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
    Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.

    —Longfellow, after many others since antiquity

  7. Christiane says

    “Contemplating the patience of God provides an encounter with the numinous, like lying on one’s back under an endless sea of stars. It can scare the pants off you. It can blow your mind.”

    Maybe it’s the ‘lying on one’s back under an endless sea of stars’ type of contemplation that brings peace, and with it, trust and a calmness in the spirit that is remembered in time of need as a moment of healing.
    (?)

    My own thought is that those who cling ONLY to ‘wretched urgency’ as a manipulative technique also employ ‘fearfulness’ and suffer from a whole gut-bucket of negativity that drives their judgment of ‘the others’ while seeing themselves as ‘saved’ and ‘righteous’ . . . . . their brotherhood is built on hating all the same things, and the stridency of it gives birth to a belief that they see themselves ‘persecuted’, although they target so many with their contempt. . Where is their faith? Where is their trust? Why the terrible need to control and dominate and belittle? Sometimes, this whole self-important package is so bloated with smugness that no light comes from it, no comfort, no kindness. These folks desperately need peace themselves to calm their own storm and they don’t even realize it, which is sad.

    • Christiane, my wife and I enjoy spending summer nights on our boat looking up at the stars, identifying the planets, and talking about the vastness of space and time, and how far beyond us (and our abilities to comprehend) it all is. (A bottle of wine makes it even better!) It’s funny but every time the sun sets we start looking up and talking about space and time, and God – because the night sky is so overwhelming. It is, as Chaplain Mike says, mind-blowing, but it also brings a peace. As we look at the stars, the Milky Way, planets, even Andromeda, there is continuity, order, and nothing seems to be in a hurry. It provides a perspective that does bring peace. Like hiking in the Rocky Mountains, one does not get the sense that this was created recently or that God was (or is) in a hurry about much of anything (nor is he wringing his hands over anything).

  8. Stephen says

    Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Our little lives flicker out so quickly. A certain amount of impatience is understandable. The same year can find a person welcoming a new baby and then passing away at the height of their influence. I am thinking of Rachel Held Evans.

    How long until folks are simply tired of waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of God?

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “How long until folks are simply tired of waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of God?”

      My long spiritual desert wandering many years ago was fueled by that lack of sensing God presence and knowing that some (many?) of His “promises” will never be fulfilled. Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” helped me through that time, and his book was a huge factor in me seeing some greenery again.

      The truth is… some questions will never be answered. And the simple fact is… the wait will often never be fulfilled in our lifetime.

      • One of the most intriguing passages in the Bible (to me) is Rev. 6:9-10:

        When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.
        They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

        These folks are in God’s very presence, and aside from the fact that they still have attitudes that are not very Christ-like (‘how long before you will judge and avenge our blood’ – sounds pretty personal to me) they are very aware that things are still not what they ought to be – even souls in heaven (the ‘intermediate state’ – as N. T. Wright points out) in God’s very presence, still long for the fulfillment of the promises. Apparently that means the wait may not be fulfilled even after our lifetime. I guess that also means simply ‘being with Jesus’ is apparently not enough.

        • I didn’t realize that N.T. Wright calls heaven the “intermediate state,” although I do know that he’s big on resurrection, from reading Surprised by Hope.

          So… does this mean that heaven is really purgatory? And that the “real” heaven will be the new heaven and new earth?

          Sounds Catholic. Could be why I don’t hear much about N.T. Wright in some circles.

          • Robert F says

            In reply to your questions, I think nobody knows, including John of Patmos.

  9. Rick Ro. says

    The patience of God came up during our men’s group fellowship time this past Saturday when we looked at Luke 13:18-21.

    “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.’
    Again he asked, ‘What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.'”

    There’s nothing flashy or “quick” in the growth of a mustard seed into a tree nor in the way yeast works in dough. The kingdom of God does indeed seem to be one of patience.

  10. I’ve been reading here for over five years and I think this is one of the best posts ever. Maybe it’s just where I’m at spiritually (my husband and I recently left our church and are experiencing the myriad of feelings that go with that), but I was moved to tears and thought about this post while I was at work today, which is unusual.

    Thank you.
    Peace,

  11. CM. Lyric to a song I emailed you – “funny how the sun comes up again, funny how we know exactly when and how you remain so still and still you say so much”. Intimately not involved.