Disciplines of the spirit, pt. 5: Waiting

Oct 9, 2018 8:22 PM

Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple

Rembrandt van Rijn

The story of Simeon is told in the Gospel of Luke 2:25-35. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” We do not know how long he waited for the promise to be fulfilled, but Luke seems to suggest that it had been a long time—perhaps many years. Taking the infant Jesus in his arms, though, he was flooded with joy and broke forth in a song of praise and release.

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,

according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation.

Perhaps the most difficult and trying of the disciplines of the spirit is the discipline of waiting. Waiting is not passive. It only looks that way from the outside. To wait—more specifically, to wait upon or for the Lord—means to continue on a path of obedient faith during a prolonged period in which God seems silent, distant, and inactive toward performing that which we had believed he would do.

Waiting is a theme that permeates the scriptures, and is often (not always) connected to the portentous number 40, starting with Noah who waited 40 days and 40 nights for the rain of judgment to cease. What is the significance of that particular number? I think it is connected to the fact that it is outside the natural rhythms of life when we expect things to happen. We live in a world that passes through 24-hour night/day cycles, 28-day lunar cycles, 365-day solar cycles. Our bodies follow the rhythms of the world, and our society organizes life accordingly. “40” stands outside of those cycles and rhythms. Elijah and Jesus both fasted 40 days. Moses waited in exile for 40 years, and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. 40 marks a time of waiting in faith, because it passes beyond the time that we might expect a season of waiting to end and pushes us to the limits of our faith.

The specific phrase “waiting on the Lord,” however, does not appear until the Psalms, and outside that book is only used widely by the prophets Isaiah and Micah (who lived around the same time period). I think it may have been coined by David, who certainly learned the discipline of waiting in his own life: Anointed by Samuel as a lad; called into service as a singer by Saul; but brought forward as a warrior by Goliath; spending years in the kings service, then expelled from the court and hunted as an outlaw, finally going into self-imposed exile; returning to his homeland, waiting to be crowned king first by his own tribe, then by all the tribes of Israel. He waited years to see God fulfill the promise on his life. It was he who wrote these lines and many others like them (Psalm 27:14):

Wait for the LORD;

be of good courage and he shall strengthen your heart.

Wait, I say, on the LORD.

Isaiah, writing prophetically to a people who waited in exile, assured them that their hope in God was not in vain for the length of their wait (Isaiah 40:31.

But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint.

All of us will endure seasons of waiting, likely multiple times in our lives. Waiting takes many different forms and God has different purposes for them at different seasons of life. Sometimes waiting is through suffering as it was with Job. Sometimes the waiting is corrective discipline as it was for Israel in the wilderness. Sometimes it is a test of faith as it was with Abraham, who waited thirty years until after the ability of himself and his wife to have children had passed before the promised gift arrived. Often the wait is painfully long, and many are the prayers that cry out, “How long, O Lord?” Indeed, all of creation "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19), and we who believe are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Again, waiting is not a passive thing, and faith may waver. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” The waiting takes a toll. We may be tempted to give up, tempted to despair. We may even loose sight of the thing we had hoped for. But the second part of the proverb is also true: “But when the desire comes it is a tree of life.” God always proves the worth of the wait. It is indeed a discipline that strengthens the spiritual core to be able to know the love of Christ that passes knowledge.