A pastor was pacing back and forth in his bedroom one night.
Finally, his longsuffering wife asked him, “What is the problem?”
He replied, “I am in a hurry, but God is not.”
Most of us can commiserate.
You don’t need me to cite examples of times and ways a typical pastor might be frustrated with God’s timing. We know that he is omniscient and omnibenevolent, so his timing is always best for us. But it can be really hard in the moment to connect our heads and our hearts to this truth.
At such times, a remarkable episode in Scripture may be encouraging.
“At the end of ten days”
In my pastors’ article last week, I focused on a request made by King Zedekiah to the prophet Jeremiah: “Is there any word from the Lᴏʀᴅ?” (Jeremiah 37:17). Today, the shoe is on the other foot (or soul).
Jeremiah 42 finds our prophet and his people in Judah under Babylonian conquest. They come to him asking for him to pray “that the Lᴏʀᴅ your God may show us the way we should go, and the thing that we should do” (v. 3). Once again, people are seeking a word from God, not just about him.
Jeremiah agrees to their request: “Behold, I will pray to the Lᴏʀᴅ your God according to your request, and whatever the Lᴏʀᴅ answers you I will tell you” (v. 4). Now comes the part that caught my eye: “At the end of ten days the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Jeremiah” (v. 7, my emphasis).
What was God doing for these ten days? Why did he delay his answer to the prophet’s request? Why does he sometimes (often?) answer our prayers in a different time frame than we would wish?
Our text doesn’t answer my question, so I’ll offer some options from my own experience.
One: God sometimes delays his response to our prayers to prepare us for his answers.
There have been times in my life when I was not ready to obey God’s will even though I prayed to know it. Over time, as his Spirit worked in my life and circumstances, I became ready to hear what he wanted to say.
Two: God sometimes delays his response because he is preparing and using people and circumstances as part of his answer.
I know a man who was praying for a much-needed promotion at work, seemingly without any response from God. Weeks later, he learned that a person at his company’s headquarters had retired and a person in his office was being promoted to that position, opening the promotion for which he was praying. God had been working all along, but he couldn’t see what the Lord saw.
As a friend once told me, we see the parade through a knothole in the fence; God sees the parade from the grandstand. C. S. Lewis was right: if we think of time as a line on a page, God is the page.
Three: God sometimes seems to delay his response because sin in my life is preventing me from connecting with him and/or hearing his voice.
The psalmist noted, “If had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). Peter instructed husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman . . . so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Our sins against God and others grieve and quench his Spirit (Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). The closer we are to the Lord, the more fully we can hear his voice.
Explaining Einsteinian relativity
Here’s the problem: none of these seem to apply to Jeremiah’s situation.
- The prophet would not seem to need more time to be prepared for God’s response since the Lord’s eventual answer was so similar to the previous guidance he had given the prophet for the people.
- Nor would it seem that the ten days’ delay effectively prepared them or their circumstances for the answer, since they quickly rejected the prophet and his message (Jeremiah 43:1–7). (I suppose it is possible that without the delay their response would have been even more sinful, but that’s an argument from silence.)
- Nor was there apparent sin in Jeremiah’s life that kept the Lord from responding to his prayer.
So, here’s the bottom line: there are times when God’s timing is not ours for reasons we do not or cannot understand.
It is not that he is “holding out” on us—since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he must have reasons motivated by his benevolence for his children. It may be that he cannot explain his omniscient ways to our finite, fallen minds (cf. Isaiah 55:8–9) any more than a physics professor can explain Einsteinian relativity to a two-year-old. Or it may be that we will one day understand what we do not or cannot today. I have often said that God’s will is often apparent in the rear-view mirror than in the windshield.
I do, however, want to close with a positive, redemptive word: Divine delays are wonderful opportunities for spiritual inventory and deeper trust in our Lord. When God’s timing is not ours, we discover whether we are in a transactional religion (we do what he wants so he’ll do what we want) or a transformational relationship. And the less we understand his ways, the more we must trust them.
“Our cause is never more in danger”
This is a dimension of the Christian life our secularized culture cannot understand. Since so many of our relationships are transactional and contractual, a person who trusts God despite all evidence to the contrary stands out like light in a dark cave. We prove the veracity and relevance of our faith when our faith is most tested. We are most likely to draw people to Jesus when we trust him without condition or reservation.
In C. S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, a demonic tempter warns his protégé: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Will you endanger the enemy’s “cause” today?