Tom Petty has a knack for timeless lyrics with universal appeal.
Some 30 years after its release in 1981, his song “The Waiting” tugs at listeners more powerfully than ever. Whether it’s waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for food service or waiting for marriage, biding our time is more countercultural than ever. And proclaiming it “the hardest part” resonates deeply. We have been conditioned to have it our way, right away. First it was fast food and instant coffee; then it was everything else as well.
But our disdain for waiting isn’t just the product of social trends and generational shifts; it is an expression of something profoundly human.
Our twin 4-year-old boys can relate already. They heard Petty’s chorus, and it struck a nerve—and stayed with them more than anything else from his greatest-hits album. Now they sing it to pacify themselves when they feel the burn of waiting.
And the pains of waiting seem even more pronounced in mom and dad. From gestation, parenting has challenged our patience, and exposed its lack, with embarrassing frequency and depth.
Christianity Is Waiting
Our perspective on waiting is perhaps one of the stronger ways our society is out of stride with the biblical worldview. Not that waiting was easy for our forefathers, but they were more at peace with it, and more ready to see its goodness and potential.
In the Old Testament, the psalmist celebrates waiting patiently for the Lord (Psalm 40:1), and Isaiah promises that those “who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
Waiting on God is a regular refrain in the life of faith. It is an expression of the healthy heart’s desire: “O LORD, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul” (Isaiah 26:8). And it is an echo of the unparalleled power and grace of God, “who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
With all those centuries of waiting for the Messiah, you might think the waiting would be done once Jesus had come. But now in the church age, we wait as much as ever, called to live in the shadow of his return. We “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7); we are a people “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). The church is that community which has “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10), knowing that when he appears, he comes “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
The church has endured two millennia of extended waiting. We “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23), and we aim to live in “holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God … waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:11–13). And as we bide our time on this side, we “keep ourselves in the love of God” by “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 21).
Patience Is the Virtue
The illusive virtue, then, which corresponds to this dreaded condition is patience. It is the first thing Paul celebrates about love in 1 Corinthians 13—“love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4)—and one of the most repeated exhortations to church leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Timothy 2:24; 4:2). Eternal life is the possession of “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7). And patience is a virtue so rare, and of such divine doing, that Paul twice draws on its exercise as a defense of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 6:4–6; 12:12).
Patience is the companion of humility and the enemy of pride. “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8). It is the appropriate posture of the creature illumined enough to say, “God is sovereign, and I am not.” And it is not our own production, but “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22; 5:5).