November 15, 2010
 Waiting on
God's Timing

And Keeping Pace with It
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I believe that the most common mistake we make in understanding God’s will is this: We get a right idea about what he wants us to do, but we miss his timing in carrying it out.

Sometimes we run behind the Lord. In Jesus’ time people were often surprised by his sense of urgency in responding to needs. What bothered the Pharisees most was not that he healed, but that he healed on the Sabbath. If he had waited just one more day to heal the man with the withered hand, they wouldn’t have complained (Mk 3:1-6). Instead, Jesus’ ministry reflected the prompt compassion urged by Proverbs 3:27-28: “Do not withhold good . . . when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’--when you have it with you.”

It is easy for me to get so preoccupied with preparations for ministry that I miss spontaneous opportunities that come along. I recall the time when I was working on a talk on the importance of spending time with your family, when one of our boys, in elementary school then, knocked on the door and announced with great sobs that his school bus had never arrived. My instinctive response was frustration that my valuable study time had been interrupted. The intrusion, however, became an opportunity to put philosophy into action. While driving him to school, I assured him that he had been smart to come back home quickly. I was able to give him some positive attention that he otherwise wouldn’t have received that day.

Of course, God not only uses interruptions to open opportunities for us to help others, but to meet needs in our own life as well. A friend who was going through a personal crisis asked to talk with me. It was a hectic week, and to me, the timing was horrible (why can’t friends schedule their crises for times when I’m not so busy?). Yet there was no question about my needing to make myself available to this person, and we had a long talk. At one point, he shared an insight which I quickly realized was the perfect pivotal thought for a talk that I had to prepare. It ended up being a win-win situation: my friend was encouraged by our chat, and the burden of preparing a challenging talk was lightened for me.

Much of Jesus’ ministry was a sanctified response to interruptions. Take a typical day: After teaching a large crowd for a long time, he breaks for time alone, only to have his disciples ask him to explain his parables (Mk 4:10). That evening, while traveling in a boat, they awake him to deal with an unruly storm (Mk 4:38), and when they arrive at the other side of the lake, Jesus is confronted by a man with multiple demons (Mk 5:1-13). In each of these cases, Jesus responds immediately to those who need his help.

Many opportunities, both for serving Christ and for experiencing his provision for our own needs, come packaged in unwelcome interruptions. We need to pray constantly for alertness to these openings when they confront us. Without such awareness, we’re likely to lag behind God’s timing.

Blinded by Discouragement

We may run behind the Lord, also, because of a pessimistic spirit. It’s to this end that Scripture warns graphically in many places of the dangers of hardness of heart. It’s normal for any of us to get discouraged at times. But when discouragement overtakes us and controls us, we may fail to take simple steps that will open welcome opportunities--for we fail to recognize action we can take that will lead to success. It’s especially important when we’re out of work and in need of a job, for instance, to keep trying to find employment, for through simple persistence, a door will finally open--and sometimes surprisingly. Yet the inertia of discouragement can hold us back from knocking on the door that will actually open.  

We can be too passive, also, in looking for friendships, or for someone to marry. Shyness or intimidation can hold us back from making worthwhile efforts. When, as a young teenager, I set my heart on asking out a certain classmate, it took me five months to get up the courage to do it! When I finally did, she accepted. A dating relationship resulted that lasted over a year, and was one of the most important growth experiences of my youth. God was willing to give me success in this case; yet I came within a hair’s breadth of not making the phone call which made it all possible.

Those of us who are shy by nature may tend to run behind the Lord when it comes to taking such major steps with our life. The results that come from simply pushing ourselves to be more pro-active can be wonderfully gratifying.

Education Motivation

We face, though, the possibility--and about an equal danger--of running ahead of the Lord. Not only did Jesus respond to people’s needs rapidly, for instance, but he also set aside generous time for preparation to for his mission. He prepared thirty years to minister only three. If he had entered his public ministry at age twenty or twenty-five, he might have saved and healed many more people than he did. Yet he put the emphasis upon quality of ministry over quantity, and refused to rush the preparation involved.

He limited the scope of his ministry as well. As a friend aptly put it, Jesus could have established a Torah study center or set up a home for prodigal sons. Yet God had called him to take certain unique directions with his life. Other tasks were to be left for his followers to accomplish (Jn 14:12).

As we undertake an education, we should keep in mind that we will almost certainly go through times when we feel unproductive. The more God’s Spirit touches us with compassion for a hurting world, the more we may feel that our time in preparation is preventing us from helping people who have needs which can’t wait. I went through several dry periods during college and seminary when I felt that the process was taking much too long. I felt guilty for not being out on the front lines using my gifts, and fearful that opportunities would disappear once I graduated. I had to remind myself frequently that I, as one person, can only do so much, and that God calls me to excellence in what I do. This means trusting God to take care of needs to which I cannot personally attend. And it means trusting him to open doors for service once he’s done preparing me.

A Gift in Season

We find an intriguing example of the stunning perfection of God’s timing when waiting is required in 2 Kings 8:1-6. The prophet Elisha counsels a Shunammite woman, whose son he had restored to life, to leave her country in order to avoid a seven-year famine. She obeys and sojourns in Philistia . When she returns, she goes to petition the king to return her land. At the very moment she arrives at the palace, Elisha’s servant is telling the king about the woman’s son being raised from the dead. The king is so impressed with the coincidence, that he appoints an official to restore the woman’s property to her, along with its produce during her years of absence.

If the woman, out of concern for her property, had cut her sojourn short, she might have found circumstances less favorable to reclaiming it. Staying away for the full term that Elisha recommended put her in the best position to regain her property once she returned. In the same way, we may trust that if God leads us into an educational sojourn, he will arrange circumstances afterward so that we’ll find the best opportunities for using our gifts and making use of the training we’ve received.

Different Seasons in Our Life

From Jesus, the woman of Shunem and numerous biblical examples, we learn that there are different seasons in the Christian’s life. There are times when God calls us to be active, and times when he calls us to pull back and prepare. But even during our preparation-intensive periods, plenty of opportunities will arise to help meet unexpected needs of others. We must not close our heart. At the same time, we shouldn’t feel guilty that the thrust of our life is toward preparation. We should feel great freedom to plan our lifestyle so that we have the time necessary for study, personal commitments--and interruptions.

The Personality Factor

One further point deserves mention. Each us has certain inclinations in our personality that can work for us or against us in helping us to keep pace with the Lord. Introverts are often comfortable pulling away from activity and people, and investing significant time in preparation. Yet they may overdo this part, and never reach the point where they feel completely ready to take the steps for which they’ve been preparing.

Extroverts, on the other hand, are more likely to short-cut preparation and to forge ahead with a major life-move too quickly.

The important matter for each of us is to understand our own temperament, and to make some compensation for it as we consider God’s timing in our life. We who are introverted, and especially those of us who are shy, will benefit by pushing ourselves to take steps before we feel fully prepared--to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should bypass important preparation, but simply that we not carry it to an unreasonable extreme.

Those of us who are extroverted, will benefit by throttling some of our need for people and activity, and giving devoted attention to education and developing our inner life. To be sure, we should take our extroversion strongly into account in weighing God’s direction for our life. As much as possible, we should choose options that allow us to reflect the outgoing personality God has given us. But we should also recognize how our temperament may incline us to run ahead of God’s timing, and make some allowance for that.

In Christ we each can achieve the balance that is right for our life, in light of the gifts and personality he has given us. We should pray daily that Christ will help us to order our life in the way that best enables us to realize our potential for him.

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