June 1, 2001
 When Waiting
Is Worth It

God's Delays Don't
Necessarily Mean He Is
Nixing Our Dreams
    
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When George Muller was a young man, he had a dream--an earnest hope for his life and legacy. He wanted to become an evangelist, who would take the message of Christ to the world. After several unsuccessful attempts in his twenties to follow this vocation, he concluded it wasn't in God's plans for him. He gave up.

Until age 67. At this unlikely point in life, the dream finally materialized. For the next twenty years--until he was 87--Muller traveled thousands of miles, carrying out numerous speaking missions, and becoming one of the foremost Christian statesmen of the nineteenth century.

Muller's experience illustrates one of the most fascinating and encouraging aspects of God's providence that we encounter in life. It's the fact that certain dreams we have for our life that we assume to have failed and been forever denied by God, do eventually succeed--but at a later point than we expected. In some cases a dream comes about much later in life than we thought possible.

The corollary is that waiting often proves to be well worth it. By taking a circuitous route to our dream, we are better prepared to enjoy its benefits--and really do enjoy them more than if we had achieved our goal quickly and easily.

Often, too, we're more effective in carrying out the responsibilities that the dream entails. This was clearly true in Muller's case. En route to realizing his dream of a speaking ministry, he spent several decades building orphanages for the urchins of England. He achieved broad recognition for this work and for his remarkable faith-based approach to life and ministry. Through it all, he gained a platform from which to speak that would have been absent if he had jumped into evangelistic ministry when he was young.

The Long and Winding Road

Muller's example, of course, is unusual, dramatic and noteworthy enough to make the history books. I'm not suggesting that most of us will experience a late success with such notoriety. Yet if we remain open to God's leading, and optimistic about his possibilities for us, most of us will enjoy delayed accomplishments which to us are dramatic--in light of the expectations we have for our own life.

These late-realized dreams may occur in a wide variety of areas:

Many accomplish important vocational or educational goals later in life than they had hoped--but they do reach them. I was impressed recently with the value of a friend's long-persistence toward a dream. For many years he has wanted to become a pastor and gradually has taken steps toward this goal. He finally began pastoring his first church this past month--at age 56.

The best openings for friendships and relationships may occur when we are well into our adult years. Some find an excellent opportunity for marriage late in life, even for the first time.

Creative, artistic and recreational accomplishments can occur at improbable points in life. Some even begin, in their later years, activities that usually benefit from an early start in life, and succeed impressively with them. My mom took up painting for the first time at age 63. Over the next fifteen years she developed a significant talent for landscape painting, winning a variety of awards in women's club competitions. I think also of a friend who began playing tennis at 65, continuing avidly into his 80s and achieving a professional level of skill.

Efforts we make to influence someone else that seem to fizzle, sometimes do bear fruit over time, long after we've given up. A friend of mine just recently found that letters she had written to another friend about faith in Christ over twenty years ago had finally been retrieved by that woman in a moment of need, and had sparked a turning point in her spiritual life.

Our Critical Need for Hope

It may seem simple enough to say that God brings certain dreams to pass at unlikely points in our lives. Yet I'm certain that most of us do not begin to appreciate this aspect of God's work nearly as greatly as we should. The result is that our hope for the future often falls short of what it could be.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of hope in accomplishing personal goals and in realizing our potential for Christ. Without hope, we can miss obvious opportunities that God brings across our path. Hope sharpens our alertness to them and to God's guidance in our life. It give us that extra emotional edge we need to risk--to try new ventures of faith in career, relationships and other areas. Hope can make that hair's-breadth difference between knocking on a door that will open for us and deciding that it just isn't worth the effort to try.

Healthy and Unhealthy Hope

I don't deny that we can have too much hope, or that it can take on unfortunate dimensions. We can take solace in unhealthy fantasies which keep us from facing reality and taking responsibility. We can be too patient as well. Opportunities do not present themselves for ever, and the point comes when we must act. Taking too much refuge in the future can thwart our initiative.

For most of us, the problem is quite the opposite. We suffer from a chronic lack of hope, and need plenty of reassurance that God really does desire the best for us. It isn't that we don't want to have hope for our future. But it's difficult for us to understand how hope should interplay with accepting reality and surrendering to God's will. If we've made a reasonable effort to pursue a goal, yet haven't been successful, don't we reach a point when we should assume that God is saying no? Isn't our most reverent response then to accept that God has closed the door and to let go of our hope?

The answer depends upon the nature of the dream we're embracing. If we find that a dream doesn't match our potential very well, we should discard it, or at least revise it. Yet if a dream fits our gifts and long-term desires, we should be slow to let go of it. It may in fact be a point of stewardship to hold on to this dream. We are responsible during our lifetime to realize the potential Christ has given us, to the best of our ability. We discover our potential in large part simply by coming to understand our gifts and abilities--those things we naturally do well--and the desires that are deepest and most consistent within us and have stood the test of time. Dreams that genuinely fit these talents and interests shouldn't be quickly discarded.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Hope

We do need to be careful not to fixate on specific ways we imagine a dream must be fleshed out. It's here that we're most susceptible to caving in to unhealthy hope.

I may dearly desire to be married, for instance. If my potential matches my desire (I'm capable of being a good partner to someone), then I have excellent reason to hold on to my hope for as long as it takes to find a good opportunity for marriage. I should continue to pray that God will make marriage possible for me, and to look creatively for someone suitable to marry.

The challenge will come if I become attracted to someone who isn't willing to marry me. I may be tempted to hold on to the hope of marrying this person longer than is reasonable, or even to conclude that I couldn't be happy married to anyone else. In reality, God is fully capable of redirecting my romantic energy to another person, and giving me a marriage with that person as good or as better than I would have enjoyed with my present attraction.

Faith may demand that I let go of my hope of marrying this person, and work through my grief over this loss. But the failure of this specific dream doesn't mean that my long-range hope for marriage is inappropriate. Indeed, most of us will go through at least several disappointments--and some many--en route to finding a good opportunity for marriage.

This distinction between short-term and long-term dreams is one that we should keep in mind in all areas where we take steps of faith. When specific opportunities do not open to us after a reasonable effort, we should accept that the door is shut, and move on. Yet we should hold on to long-term hopes that are based on a good understanding of how God has made us, and continue to look for new opportunities to move toward these dreams.

The Benefits of Delayed Dreams

Even with a good understanding of this distinction, staying hopeful about our future is a challenge. We are human, and most of us find that disappointment hits us hard. We tend to reason from the specific to the general when disappointment occurs, and assume that one or two setbacks in moving toward a dream mean failure in that area forever.

In fact, failure often contributes to future success, for we are able to learn from mistakes and become more effective at points where we've failed. But success is only possible if we try again--and this won't happen unless we're optimistic enough to believe that God may enable us to succeed. Just how can we keep this hope alive?

One thing that helps greatly is appreciating reasons that God may delay the fulfillment of a dream in our life, and the advantages that may result for us in the long run. Some of these benefits may include--

Saving something for act three. When we're young, we imagine we would like to have all of life's treasures at our feet at once. As we grow older, we're grateful that some of life's best adventures have been delayed. God graciously proportions his blessings throughout our life.

Putting success in the right perspective. Any success we enjoy has the potential of taking on too much importance for us. It can become the central focus of our life, stealing our affection from God. God delays in bringing certain dreams about, I'm certain, so that we can first deepen our faith in him and strengthen our relationship with Christ. When success finally comes, we're less likely to make it an idol, but are more inclined to appreciate it as a gift of God and to relate to it responsibly.

A related problem is that we may think of certain blessings of life--such as marriage or a golden job opportunity--as a panacea, solving all of our problems and bringing endless happiness. In reality, the improvements these benefits bring are typically more incremental than global. God's concern is not only to help us put our expectations in the right perspective, but to help us learn to enjoy daily life in the face of many unfulfilled needs. The fuller our life is apart from a dream being realized, the more likely we are to benefit from its being met. Because we aren't banking on the dream being the answer to our happiness, we are less likely to suffer a letdown when it doesn't deliver perfection, and better able to enjoy the benefits it actually does provide.

Handling the responsibilities of success. Any dream that we realize brings new responsibilities into our life. While we might imagine we're fully capable of taking on these burdens now, God often does us a favor by giving us more time to get ready. One of the best ways we can invest our energy during life's delays is in preparing more fully for the responsibilities a dream will require if it comes about.

Fitting our piece into the larger puzzle. The most unfathomable fact of God's providence is that he fits the details of our life into an infinitely bigger picture. He not only has our own needs in mind in the timing of a dream's coming to pass, but those of countless others. And he integrates our own life-situation into an endless variety of other circumstances.

What's most encouraging about God's providential oversight is that when a dream delays, we often find that circumstances are more favorable for it when it does come about than they would have been earlier.

Over thirty years ago, when I was a young Christian, I looked seriously at the possibility of beginning a radio ministry. For various reasons, it didn't seem the right direction for my life at that time. Then, several years ago, the opportunity arose for me to launch a web site for my ministry with the Gospel Communications Network. This arrangement offers several advantages over traditional radio for communicating the material I wish to make available: I can provide it in both textual and audio formats; it is accessible to anyone anywhere in the world with a computer and an Internet hookup; they can access it at their convenience; and my ministry is able to provide it at a small fraction of the cost of a broadcast on a single radio station. Yet this technology wasn't even available a decade ago.

We simply cannot predict the direction that circumstances will take in any area that relates our life. When a dream delays, we should remind ourselves often that circumstances may actually fit it better at some point in the future. We do well to stay hopeful.

The growth of anticipation. A friend once took me boat shopping with him. After we had spent some time looking at different models, I asked him if he was ready to purchase one. "I don't actually intend to buy a boat," he confessed, "for then I wouldn't have this dream to look forward to."

My friend's somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment actually points to one of the most important keys to patience and contentment that we can learn. Anticipation has value as an end in itself. There is great joy possible in the mood of anticipation; it's an extraordinary stimulant and motivator for us. If we can learn to enjoy the process of anticipation, we have the most effective possible antidote to rushing a dream prematurely and to losing heart if it delays. Patience is natural for us in this case.

If we can become comfortable with anticipation, then it can grow over time. The end result is that we actually enjoy the fulfillment of a dream more when it delays than when it comes about quickly.

Divine compensation. There is also a more mysterious, spiritual dynamic to the postponement of dreams that's hinted at occasionally in Scripture. God, in compensation for the waiting process one endures, may increase one's experience of joy in a dream's finally being realized. Isaiah 61:1 and Zechariah 9:12, for instance, speak of joy being doubled in return for a long-delayed blessing. To be sure, we would be wrong to take such passages as a guarantee that God will operate in our own life in such a way. Yet they do give us a basis for hope, and remind us that the delaying of a dream can mean an increase in the blessings we eventually experience.

A Dream Fulfilled--And Then Another

While focusing on the benefits of a dream's delaying can help us stay hopeful in the face of disappointment, it also helps greatly to have real-life examples to encourage us. When we look for them, we find many examples--both from history and from the lives of people we know--of those who realized important dreams at unusual points in life. Such stories also permeate Scripture and are one of the most inspiring parts of biblical history.

My favorite of these biblical examples is Zechariah's temple experience, described in Luke 1:5-25. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were the parents of John the Baptist. The general story of their conceiving John in old age is well-known, and a staple of the Christmas story. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the temple and announces to him, "your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John" (v. 13). Even though Zechariah and Elizabeth are both "well along in years" (v. 7), Elizabeth soon becomes pregnant, and when her term is finished, gives birth to John.

While the fact that this miraculous birth took place is inspiring enough, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Zechariah was a priest, whose division of Abijah was on duty at the time of his encounter with the angel. Like other priestly divisions, Abijah served the temple only two weeks each year. Many of the priests lived away from Jerusalem, had secular jobs, and traveled to the holy city only by choice when their division was on duty.

Each day one priest was chosen by lottery to enter the holy of holies and offer sacrifice. What is most significant is that a priest was only allowed this honor once in his lifetime, and many never experienced it at all. When Zechariah was chosen for temple service that morning, it was the prize of a lifetime. Here on this one day, late in life, he not only experienced the angel's promise of a child, but enjoyed the fulfillment of a major vocational dream as well.

What a Difference a Day Makes

One thing Zechariah's experience reminds us of is how remarkably our life can change in the space of a single day. Harvest experiences do occur for each of us from time to time, and sometimes--as in Zechariah's case--we are completely surprised by them. I believe we do best to begin each day with high expectations for that day. While we shouldn't base our well-being on whether serendipities occur during that day, a certain hope for them is healthy, for it makes us more alert to the special openings God may present to us.

Hope for the Future

Zechariah's experience, of course, not only inspires hope for the day, but hope for the future. His being chosen for the temple service brings out how long-term persistence toward a goal--and availability--often do pay off. Zechariah undoubtedly had been making the sojourn to Jerusalem for decades before this cherished opportunity finally opened up.

Then there is the revelation from the angel. Most interesting is that Gabriel says that God's promise of a child is in response to Zechariah's prayer: "your prayer has been heard." Most likely Gabriel is referring to prayers Zechariah and Elizabeth had made for a child long before this, when she was in her childbearing years. This is one of Scripture's most graphic examples that past prayers are not forgotten by God. Time and energy we expend in praying do bring results--sometimes quickly, sometimes over time.

We shouldn't conclude from this incident that God will normally bend the rules of nature and enable a woman past menopause to conceive if one simply prays hard enough. God obviously can perform this miracle if he wishes. Yet the Bible gives only one other example of his doing so (Sarah's conception of Isaac), so Scripture clearly is not presenting this possibility as the norm.

What Zechariah's experience does show unquestionably is that prayer can make a radical difference in our destiny. Unless we have clear reason to know that God has shut a particular door, we have reason to stay hopeful when we have prayed earnestly, that God will bring about a certain dream. And if the dream doesn't work out, we can still be confident that the prayers we have made will bring benefit to our life in many other ways.

Keeping Our Own Hope Strong

Have you lost heart over a personal dream which hasn't been fulfilled? Yet to the best of your knowledge, does this dream fit your gifts and interests well? Is it a good match for your life as God has designed it? It may seem that pessimism about the future is your best defense against further disappointment. But keep in mind the benefits of hope, and the reasons for staying hopeful, that we've discussed. Be careful not to write history with a gloomy conclusion before it happens. Stay open to opportunities to move toward your dream that God may make possible for you.

Ask him to give you the divine ability to live in two worlds at once--to stay hopeful about your future, but to be happy right now even with certain dreams unfulfilled. Through his grace, you can achieve this balance in your outlook, and it's a vital part of the active attitude of faith.

Most of all, remember that whatever happens, Christ desires the best for you and is working out an ideal plan for your life. That alone is an incomparable reason for hope. Take confidence from knowing it. And may it give you the courage to take steps of faith.

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