In God’s Waiting Room: Lessons from the “Down Time” of Life
February 15, 1998
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” Acts 1:4
Have you ever heard of the American prayer? It goes this way: “Lord, give me patience, and I want it right now.” Patience is not a virtue our society seems to favor. We live in a world of frozen dinners, instant coffee, powdered orange juice, instant cameras, Cliff notes, freeway express lanes, cell phones, pagers, and beepers. Our motto is: Give it to me quick or forget about it!
Few of us like to wait – it reminds us we’re out of control. We don’t like waiting in traffic, in line at the supermarket, at the airport, or when our computers don’t work fast enough.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a Dallas internist, coined a term that describes this problem. People who hate to wait suffer from what he calls “Hurry Sickness,” which he defines as “an increased sensitivity to the passage of time.” He believes that people suffering from Hurry Sickness die before their time.
The good doctor offers the following experiment. You’ll need another person to help you with this. Give your helper a watch with a second hand. Sit down. Have your helper blindfold you. While blindfolded, try to guess how long a minute is. Dr. Dossey says that to a person suffering from Hurry Sickness a minute lasts 15 seconds or less.
“Tall, Glasses and in a Big Hurry”
I’m afraid I know more about this disease than I would like to admit. I’ve been in a hurry for so long that I can’t remember when I wasn’t. Twelve years ago I flew to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to lead a youth retreat. The man they sent to pick me up had no trouble finding me–even though he had never met me–because he had been given the following description: He’s tall, wears glasses, and he looks like he’s in a big hurry.
I’m not the only one who lives this way. People talk to me about having their plates too full, about living in the fast lane, about not having enough hours in the day, and running a race even a rat couldn’t win. We want to slow down, but we’re afraid the world will fall apart if we do. The funny thing is, one day we’ll all slow down—permanently. And the world will go right on without us.
Hurry Sickness is especially prevalent among highly motivated, achievement-oriented people. It often sets in around age 30 and gets worse with the passing years.
What happens if it is left unchecked? Dr. Dossey mentions many physical ailments—ulcers, high blood pressure, tension headaches, high cholesterol, and lowered resistance to disease. The eventual payoff is a heart attack. What he doesn’t mention is just as bad—anxiety, a frustrated spouse, neglected children, a deteriorating spiritual life, and a short temper. You do more, work harder, run faster and wind up in an early grave. It doesn’t seem worth it.
Most of the Life is Waiting
Most of us would rather do anything than wait. Some of us would rather do the wrong thing than wait.
Truth be told, most of life is waiting. Waiting for an appointment to see the doctor. Waiting to graduate. Waiting to be accepted in college. Waiting for your first job offer. Waiting to see if the bank will give you a loan. Waiting for the right time to start a family. Waiting for your test scores. Waiting for your loved ones to come to Christ. Waiting for the Lord to bring the right man or the right woman into your life. Waiting to find out what God wants you to do. Waiting for someone to buy your house. Waiting for your prayers to be answered. Waiting for your husband to come home from a business trip. Waiting for your oldest daughter to come back to the Lord.
Waiting is one of the hardest acts of the Christian life. Thousands act who cannot wait. Yet we all spend a big chunk of our lives waiting for things to happen. For every green light, it seems like there are 5 yellow ones and a dozen red ones. We all have to wait whether we like it or not.
Wait on the Lord
If you would like a fascinating Bible study, take your concordance this week and look up the word “wait.” Over and over again God’s people were told to wait. Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” In Psalm 37:7 we read, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” When we are tempted to take matters into our own hands, Proverbs 20:22 offers this counsel, “Do not say, ‘’I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.” Isaiah 30:18 expands on this theme: “For the LORD is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!” Perhaps the most famous—and most beloved—verse on waiting in all the Bible is Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
With that as background we turn to our text—Acts 1:4. We have come to the few days of the life of Christ on the earth. We are in that mysterious 40-day period between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension into heaven. Luke tells us that on one occasion the disciples and Jesus shared a meal together. The conversation turned to the future—to the time when Jesus would return to heaven and the disciples would be left with orders to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. It’s easy to imagine the excitement around the table that day. What do you want us to do, Lord? When do we get started? Let’s draft a master-plan and hit the road. James, you and John get started on the mission statement. Peter, work out a 10-year strategy. Matthew, you’re an accountant, aren’t you? Run some numbers, let’s see how much money we’re going to need. We’ve got to get the ball rolling. Lord, where do you want us to begin?
His answer is simple—and quite shocking to these over-eager disciples. “Don’t do anything yet. Go back to Jerusalem and wait there until the Holy Spirit comes.” I’m sure this must have come as a major surprise. Here’s a crucial insight: When God wants to reach the world, his first step is to tell his people to slow down and wait for him. When the time comes, he’ll give them the signal to move out. Until then, go back home and wait on the Lord.
This raises a question. Why did the disciples have to wait for what God had already promised them? Why couldn’t they just “name it and claim it?” From this text—and from the Bible as a whole—we discover five reasons why God often tells his people to wait on him.
I. To rearrange our priorities
Acts 1:4 says that Jesus commanded the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. I imagine that was the last place many of them wanted to be. After all, this was the city where Jesus had been crucified. The men who put him death a few weeks earlier were still in power. If they killed Jesus, why wouldn’t they kill his followers? Certainly all the uproar surrounding his death would have made them even angrier. Jerusalem was no longer a safe city. If you were a follower of Jesus, anyplace on earth was safer than Jerusalem. Getting out of town was not a bad idea.
But Jesus commanded them to stay. If they left, it would show a lack of courage and reveal a fear of what man might do to them. It would also show a lack of faith—as if they could not trust an unseen Master to help them. It would mean leaving the battlefield and admitting defeat. This they could not do.
There is another argument they might have made. “The world needs to know about Jesus. Jerusalem already knows about him. This city murdered him. Let’s go somewhere else and spread the Good News.” That would be a good argument, it would also be wrong. In serving the Lord timing is all important. Haste gains nothing if the Lord is not leading. Their duty was to follow, not to lead.
By staying in Jerusalem Jesus forces them to confront their fears and quells their budding enthusiasm.
Waiting is hard for all of us Type A action-oriented people who want to make things happen. There are times in life when God says, “Slow down. You’re going too fast. I don’t want you in the fast lane right now. Get off at the next exit and let’s talk it over.” When that happens our response is usually, “Go ahead and talk, Lord, while I drive down the road.” Suddenly another hand takes the wheel and we find ourselves heading toward the exit. It is the hand of God using the circumstances of life to get our full and undivided attention.
Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t speak to you more clearly? Could it be because you’re going so fast that you can’t hear his voice? Waiting rearranges our priorities, slows down our schedule, and forces us to listen to God.
II. To test our faith
Jesus gave specific instructions in three areas: He told them what to do—Wait. He told them where to do it—in Jerusalem. He told them what to wait for—the Promise of the Father(the coming of the Holy Spirit). But he didn’t tell them how long to wait. They had no idea whether they should wait a week, a month, a year, ten years, or for 40 years.
Some of you are in the same place right now. You’re waiting and you don’t know how much longer you can hold out. You feel like giving up and walking away from your dreams. You wonder if prayer is a waste of time because God has not answered your petitions. Perhaps you’ve been waiting for months or years already and deep inside you feel like giving up.
Remember Abraham and Sarah who waited 25 years after the promise for the birth of Isaac. Remember also what happened when in a moment of weakness they took matters into their own hands and Ishmael was born (see Genesis 16).
If It Takes Forever
This week I received an e-mail message from a friend in a distant state. After I read his main message, I saw this PS: “I think the Cubs are going to do some damage in the NL Central this year.” I have no idea why he said that, but I’ve been hearing similar things every spring since I moved to Oak Park in 1989. Some of you have heard that talk for 40 or 50 years. How long has it been since the Cubs won the World Series? It was 1908, which means that it’s been 90 years.
When I had only lived here a year or so—and didn’t understand the meaning of futility as it applies to the Cubs—I saw a sign on a hot-dog stand near Cicero and Addison in Chicago. The sign had the C symbol for the Cubs and underneath it these words, “If it takes forever.” Now that’s real faith.
Cubs fans know all what waiting is all about. After last year they also know what it means to have your faith tested. But true fans never give up. In fact, the longer you wait the stronger your faith becomes.
The same is true in the spiritual life. God makes us wait so that our faith will be put to the test. Do what the Cubs fans have been doing for 90 years–”Lord, I’m going to wait on you—if it takes forever.”
III. To purify our motives
Very soon the disciples would be asked to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Vast responsibilities would fall on them. Great things were expected and great things required. Of all the dangers they faced, perhaps none was greater than the danger of pride. Unknown to them, in just a few days 3000 people would be converted at one time (Acts 2). Lest they think that everything depended on them, God makes them wait. As the days go on, the disciples learn that the Holy Spirit cannot be bought or sold, cannot be manipulated, and cannot be commanded by human will. Waiting would force them into a position of humility—of beggars waiting for the promise of the Father.
Jesus knew that without the power of the Spirit everything else they did would be in vain. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). But with the Spirit all things were possible. The Holy Spirit would show them the truth, anoint their preaching, and through them draw sinners to the Savior.
All of us must some to that same place of utter helplessness before we can experience the fullness of the Spirit. God wants to bring you to the place where you know that you do not know. He arranges your life so that you understand that you do not understand. He wants to bring you to the end of your cleverness so that your trust will be in him alone. Waiting purifies our motives because in the long hours while we wait, our pride crumbles and we realize that everything depends on God.
IV. To increase our gratitude when the answer finally comes
This point is akin is the last. The longer the disciples waited for the Spirit to fall, the more they appreciated the answer when it finally came. This is one reason our prayers usually are not answered the first time we pray. We would begin to take God for granted and to treat him like a celestial slot machine where we insert a prayer and out comes an answer. Because God is our Heavenly Father he makes us wait so that our gratitude might increase.
Here’s an insight you may never have considered. When God puts us in a position of waiting on him, the answer almost always surprises us. Consider the situation in Acts 1. The Lord Jesus told the disciples to wait for the promise of the Father—the coming of the Holy Spirit. For days on end they prayed, “O Lord, send the Holy Spirit.” They prayed in small groups—”O Lord, send the Holy Spirit.” They probably lifted their hands and prayed, “O Lord, send the Holy Spirit.”
Now they knew something about the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament—and even more from the words of Christ—but they really didn’t know what they were praying for. The certainly had no idea of what was about to happen on the Day of Pentecost.
I can imagine a conversation. “How much longer do we have to pray?” “I don’t know.” “Well, how are we going to know when the Holy Spirit comes?” “I don’t know.” “What if the Holy Spirit comes and we don’t know it?” “Stop talking and start praying.”
So there they were on the Day of Pentecost—praying, no doubt—not knowing when the Holy Spirit would be sent. One disciples says to another, “Hey, there’s fire coming out of the top of your head.” “What? Hey, your head’s on fire too.” Then came a noise like a mighty rushing wind. Suddenly one of them started talking in Greek, another in Median, another in Parthian, another in Egyptian, another in the dialect of Cappadocia—and none of them knew any of those languages (See Acts 2:1-13) It was a wild scene in Jerusalem as the Holy Spirit came with great power. Their prayers were answered—but in a manner far beyond their expectations.
The people who saw it thought the disciples were drunk. They weren’t drunk at all—they were filled with the Holy Spirit of God. He is the God of great surprises. He makes us wait so that He can surprise us in the future and increase our gratitude when the answer finally comes.
V. To remind us that he is God and we are not
Jesus told those assembled disciples two things that must have been hard to hear: 1) Stay in Jerusalem, and 2) Wait for the promise of the Father. Luke tells us he “commanded” them to do these things. This isn’t a suggestion or a negotiating ploy. This is a command from a superior to his inferiors. It is God telling his servants what to do.
Because God is God and we are not, he often does things that make little sense to us. In the Old Testament he guided his people with the cloud by day and the fiery pillar by night. Sometimes the cloud would move for days on end. Then suddenly—without warning or explanation—it would stop. Then it would move again and then it would stop. No explanation given. The only command being, “Follow the cloud!” I am sure there were times when those weary Jews felt like shouting, “Why don’t you stop and let us rest?” Or when they had been several weeks in the desert, someone might say, “Lord, we’ve been here long enough. Can’t we move on now?”
There are times in the Christian life when God’s only command is to wait. When those moments come, God rarely explains himself or makes the big picture clear. All of this reminds us that in the end our God is sovereign and he chooses the times and places of life. He sets the path for each of his children and he doesn’t consult us in advance.
Don’t Fret Against the Lord
I know I speak to many who are waiting on God right now. What should you do? Here is my counsel:
Do not fret against the Lord
Do not panic
Do not take matters into your own hands
Do your duty each day as God shows it to you
Surrender your life to the Lord—”Thy will be done.”
But what should you do while you wait? Ah, what a perfectly American question that is. We want to do something, not just sit in silence. Very well, before you get out bed in the morning, pray this prayer: “Lord, help me to do my tasks today with joy. Amen.” Just do your job and do it with a smile while you wait on God. That will glorify your Father and will prepare you for whatever is to come. The best way to get ready for tomorrow is to do God’s will today.
At it’s core waiting is about becoming more like Christ and relying on God. It’s not that waiting is easy or enjoyable. Often it is very difficult. In the end we have this consolation–God works through our waiting to make us like Jesus. It has been well said that we serve an on-time God. He’s never early, he’s never late, he’s always right on time–which means that our waiting serves his purposes in ways we don’t understand.
Here is my final piece of advice. Do the best you can, and then sleep like a baby. Which is another way of saying, Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.
As a way of applying this message let’s change the American prayer to the Christian prayer: “Lord, I’m willing to wait for you—even if it takes forever. Amen.”