Anxiety is the slave song of the human heart under the tyranny of insignificance. Impatience is an acute strand of anxiety—played in a certain key—that can mesmerize and trap a soul in an infinite loop of hypnotized idolatry. With each heartbeat, drops of innocent desire increasingly become a torrent of violent mania, accruing simple words with vast jurisdiction: “I want it”…“I want all”…“I want it all now, RIGHT NOW!”
And, ferocious as it is, this impatience remains cloaked under the calm innocence of the original desire. For a text message. For an answer. For a spouse. For a child, a job, a spot on the list.
Impatience is a profound aversion to the entire concept of “our daily bread,” in favor of a mere “Give us each day.” Usually, “Just give it.”
When God Says “Later”
We have heard a nauseating amount of times the Christian adage: “God gives three answers to prayer: yes, no or later.” There are several reasons God may say “later” for a blessing, both when he plans to give it, and even when he wants to withhold it. The difficult part is in never knowing which it will be.
“No” is easy, because, well…it’s a no. “No” is concrete, and therefore lamentable—you can grieve, heal and move on from “No.” God is protecting you from something. God is clearly doing something bigger when he issues a “No.” “Yes” is great, because it’s a yes. You get the thing. In both cases, pray with thanksgiving. But “Later” is hard, because it cuts the cord between you and the ground, and with nothing concrete to hold on to, can send you rocketing into internal turbulence and confusion.
The temptation that faces every Christian-in-waiting is to proceed as if God had given a “No” or “Yes.” To say, “I’m just going to assume I’m getting this,” or “I’m just going to move on without a clear answer.” But that is not what God is doing with “Later.” “Later” is not merely divine ambiguity. “Later” is God turning up the emotional volume knob to reveal what’s in the heart. With “Later,” God amplifies a Christian’s spiritual state. “Do you hear that? Do you hear that insecurity? Do you hear that fear? I’m teaching you how to respond to that. I’m teaching you how to process those emotions, and trust me with those thoughts.” “Later” is more than “not now.” “Later” means “Listen while you wait.”
We don’t know if a “later” is “yes” or “no” until after the fact. But for the times when God’s “Later” is “Later…but yes,” it will be helpful to remember that God’s most precious gifts are often established in gradation for three reasons.
1. To increase faith.
First, if God didn’t want a deep and affectionate relationship with you, he would give you everything you wanted immediately. He would placate you with the pleasures of this world. For those who know God, that is intuitively unlike him—not unlike him to bless, but unlike him to appease. God did not send his Son to propitiate your temper tantrum (Romans 3:21–26).
Because he loves you, God will not bless you so richly that you do not have to trust him. He blesses you seasonally, proportionately and incrementally, because he wants to bestow you with both the gift itself and the gift of faith, and never the former without the latter. CCEF counselor Ed Welch observes, “Such prosperity would be a curse.” God blesses us with the fullness of himself through the momentary incompleteness of his material provision.
2. To instill appreciation.
Second, immediacy can depreciate the value with which the recipient receives the gift. A loving gift does not add onto excess, but is a personal expression of care for a need or want (Matthew 7:9).
3. To ingrain permanence.
Third, and this is only sometimes, we must be mindful that some gifts, in order for their goodness to last, require time to implant and grow. Emotional well-being. Romantic status. Financial stability. Stark increase in one of these areas can often (although not always) be a red flag signifying the illusion of a blessing (Proverbs 20:21).
Sometimes we use up all of our endurance, or a “No” comes, and faith seems to stand at the end sheepishly and embarrassingly empty-handed. The doctor delayed the diagnosis; I waited in faith, and now I have cancer. I thought my boyfriend was going to propose; I waited in faith, and he broke up with me. We tried months, and then years; I waited in faith, and we never got pregnant.
In those moments, it’s understandable to say, “I don’t want God in that moment. I want to stay alive for my family.” “I don’t want increased faith right now. I want a husband.” “I don’t want to be better at feeling like a Christian. I want a child.” “I prayed for this, and you gave me nothing.” In these instances, Scripture can feel like nothing more than a pastor at a cosmic diner who, after serving him, leaves us a tract instead of a tip: “The rules of the Lord are…more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (Psalm 19:9–10). Thanks…jerk.
There is no answer for these sufferings, except that God is God. But that answer leaves us with a tension that is, at least emotionally, irresolvable. We ask why God would put us through a difficult season of waiting only to pull the rug out from under us, and we question his trustworthiness, his character and even his love.
Here is an often-overlooked truth: It is not wrong to ask. We can fearlessly pray, “Look at my life, God. I don’t believe you love me” (Psalm 22:1).
Yes, God may be rooting out idolatry with a “Later…but no.” He may be disciplining. He may be doing spiritual housecleaning. But we should guard against ever giving an explanation for a “Later…but no.” Official policy should be: “Don’t tell people why God causes their suffering.” Pretty much always.
Of course, God will always continue to sanctify a Christian no matter his life’s circumstances (Ephesians 3:8–13). But that doesn’t make all of the subsequent events to a “Later…but no” the reason for the disappointing experience. God never promises a reason. He rarely offers an answer. He will always offer himself. And I (reluctantly) cannot think of a more persuasive way for God to present himself to a sinful heart than through rising anticipation, and the free fall of disappointment.
There is a real, unavoidable tension here, and impatience can be a sore loser when it meets “Later…but no.” If we let impatience take control in the moments while we wait, chaos will take control when the answer comes, “No.”
The Timeliness of God
It would be so much easier if we could just be thankful, instead of faithful. In moments of waiting, the biblical definition of faith becomes annoyingly ethereal: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Can it be the conviction that God should bless me abundantly and immediately when I want something really badly? I vote for that definition of faith… But thank the Lord that that is not the case. Let us praise Jesus that Paul Maxwell doesn’t get what he wants when he wants it.
God is good, and that has cash value for our lack today (Hebrews 3:13)…somehow. And he tells us to trust that his timing is perfect (Psalm 31:14–15). Let us do that with the lowest bit of materialistic entitlement, and the highest confidence we can muster. If we knew every variable in our circumstances as God does, we would readily admit that God’s timeline for blessing us is perfectly appropriate.