God is transforming and reconciling the world. But unlike human revolutionaries who demand instant and total change, God is not impatient. The arc of the universe bends toward the full reconciliation of all creation, but — “Come, Lord Jesus!” — that arc is long.
• C. Christopher Smith & John Pattison
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This post is about the patience of God. I am not sure I have ever heard anyone talk about what a troublesome, even scandalous idea (especially to the modern mind) this is to ponder.
But all we must do is simply ask the question, “Why history?”
- Why this long process?
- Why so much time?
- Why so much lavish, extraneous detail that seems so unnecessary to God’s stated plan?
I won’t bring an even greater mystery to this discussion by talking about the current scientific consensus: that we live in a creation 13-14 billion years old and that the beginnings of the human race occurred about 6-7 million years ago. That raises the conversation to an entirely different level than I’m prepared to handle today. [One place to start in thinking about that is Ronald Osborn’s book, Death Before the Fall, which I commend to you.]
Instead, let’s start by simply taking the Bible’s timeline as an example. It records approximately 4 or 5 thousand years of human history. That alone covers several thousand years of births and deaths, and an almost inconceivable number of events in which humans have participated, in addition to all that happened in non-human realms. Think of all the moments lived, the thoughts considered, the dreams imagined, the words spoken, and the actions taken. Try to fathom the number of sins committed! the good deeds performed! How many tears have fallen over that period of time? How many smiles brightened a day? The mind reels at trying to take in even a little bit of it.
Day after day after day for a very, very long time, life has proceeded at a snail’s pace and has included an incomprehensible amount of detail.
And where is God in all of this? Assuming the Bible accurately represents God’s intentions for this world, why is he taking so long, and why is there so much detail that seems superfluous to his promises? How much is there in this world, how much of life, history, human experience, the development of human knowledge, and the rise, rule, and fall of civilizations, that seems to have little or nothing to do with what we know about God’s plan of redemption?
Scripture tells us repeatedly that God is longsuffering, but doesn’t this seem extreme?
Is it conceivable that a God of all love, all wisdom, and all power would allow such a slow, messy, and apparently random process as the context in which he puts a broken creation to rights? That God would only intervene occasionally, in a few special acts that don’t immediately do the trick but only set the stage for the next long era of waiting, living, dying and trying to figure it all out?
We can talk about God’s patience in a detached, theological way, scanning the recorded past with a telescope. In my experience, that is how most Christians, along with their pastors, teachers, and theologians have visualized it — Creation. Fall. Israel. Jesus. Church. All leading to a New Creation. The larger patterns dominate the discussion. But do they serve to shrink our view of God? Do they cause us to imagine a God who only (or primarily) reveals himself by breaking into history and displaying his glory through unmistakable actions?
When we put history under the microscope instead and see it inch along, moment by moment, with all the complexity of billions of everyday lives in every corner of the globe, for days, then decades, then centuries, then millennia, with few if any divine interventions that can’t be interpreted in other terms, what does that do to our understanding of God and his active participation in the affairs of life?
We who rely upon the Bible as our sacred guide have come to expect that our lives today should look like the Bible. And we forget that the story covers thousands of years; what we have in Scripture are a few carefully selected stories and teachings which communicate God’s overall plan and a few key moments in history that advanced the plan. Most of the story takes place on one tiny little stretch of land in the Middle East, and it describes an infinitesimal portion of what has happened throughout the history of the world.
But the preacher stands up on Sunday and leads the congregation to expect that God will do for us what he did for Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul on a regular basis. This presentation of the glorious interventionist God who is continually revealing himself and “working in our lives” in obvious discernible ways is an extreme filtering of the facts about how life is and has always been experienced by the vast majority of people in this world, including Christians.
Perhaps this is why many of our wisest teachers have tried to help us see that “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” In a world ruled by a patient deity, God is present in every aspect of life and living, though his presence is not obvious, dramatic, or interventionist. Rather he works mysteriously, silently, evocatively, and with the active participation of his creatures.
We sense that life is more than what we are in touch with at this moment, but not different from it, not unrelated to it. We get glimpses of wholeness and vitality that exceed what we can muster out of our own resources. We get hints of congruence between who and what we are and the world around us — rocks and trees, meadows and mountains, birds and fish, dogs and cats, kingfishers and dragonflies — obscure and fleeting but convincing confirmations that we are all in this together, that we are kin to all that is and has been and will be. We have this feeling in our bones that we are involved in an enterprise that is more that the sum of the parts we can account for by looking around us and making an inventory of the details of our bodies, our families, our thoughts and feelings, the weather and the news, our job and leisure activities; we have this feeling that we will never quite make it out, never be able to explain or diagram it, that we will always be living a mystery — but a good mystery.
• Eugene Peterson
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 2
Perhaps this long process of history is necessary for human beings to come of age somehow and become partners with God in the long arc of redemption. Smith and Pattison quote German professor Gerald Lohfink, who says, “God is thus revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings.”
Please carefully note my use of “perhaps.” I have a million questions and couple of “perhaps” suggestions. That’s all. God took Job on a whirlwind tour of creation and it shut him up. I feel like this one concept: the patience of God, has swept me up in a similar way and dropped me on my head. It raises so many questions about God’s nature, God’s plan, and God’s ways, as well as theodicy questions related to human purpose, suffering, death, and destiny.
Contemplating the patience of God provides an encounter with the numinous, like lying on one’s back under an endless sea of stars. It can scare the pants off you. It can blow your mind. Countless years, countless lives, countless human endeavors and experiences, countless cycles of life, death, and new birth. And a God who is somehow in it all.
The patience of God.
Your guess is as good as mine.