October 22, 2017

God’s Scandalous Patience

babylon

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

* * *

I had lunch with my friend Chris Smith today. Chris’s new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, has just been released and he is getting ready to embark on a summer of traveling to share its message in various places around the country. I haven’t been so excited about a book regarding the church for a long time, and, from what I’ve read so far, I expect its impact on my ecclesiastical thinking to be as significant as books by Eugene Peterson and Robert Webber have been. You’ll be hearing a lot about it this summer.

This post is not about the book per se, but about a concept raised in the beginning of it — 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?

IshtarGateWe 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.

History.

The patience of God.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Comments

  1. It really is ‘His – story’.

    I guess he can take as long as He wants.

    But I sure wish He’d hurry it up a bit.

    • Vega Magnus says:

      Why do you want Him to hurry up, Steve? I for one enjoy the hell out of life, and while I’m sure the afterlife will be lovely, I’d personally like to get there only after a long life.

      • will f. says:

        Vega: Well I for one am not enjoying the hell out of life. Since 2010 I’ve spent all of time wishing I was dead. The idea of a long life strikes me as frightening, most times. so….

        • Robert F says:

          will f.

          Hang in there, brother. Though I don’t know the particular shape of your suffering, I, too, know what it is to crave oblivion because of suffering. Hang in there. I hope one day we’ll meet, and laugh together, on the other side of this gauntlet. Hang in there.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Why do you want Him to hurry up, Steve?

        I didn’t know Uber-Lutherans were into Hal Lindsay?

        Tip from a veteran: You can only live “It’s All Gonna Burn… Any minute now… Any minute now… Any minute now…” for so long until you burn out HARD.

        And then there’s some comments I remember:

        From an old Reader’s Digest, about fast-paced modern life: “We buy gadgets that will cook a three-minute egg in two minutes. Like we’re trying to get to The End as soon as we can.”

        And from Slacktivist’s long continuing snark on Left Behind: “Look at the grand cosmos around you — Sagans of galaxies, Sagans-squared of stars, Sagans-cubed of worlds. And they expect God to bring it all to an end so 21st Century Americans won’t be inconvenienced by their own deaths?”

        And harking back to the imagery of Babette’s Feast: Turning away from the feast of the grand sweep of history and cosmic scale for the hard bread and thin soup of the pious prune. From Deep Time to a 6000-year-old, ending-every-minute, earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky Punyverse. Maybe God cannot be allowed to think big.

        • Who is Hal Lindsey?

          • ThelastFast says:

            He is a Dispensationalist Author.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hal_Lindsey

          • Oh…him!

            I member now.

            I used to think he was a bit of a nut. I don’t look for signs of the end…or stuff like that. I just pray that the Lord will wrap it all up (sooner rather than later)…so that we can get on with the really good stuff! You know…no more tears…the wedding feast that never ends…new bodies…free beer…stuff like that.

          • Robert F says:

            Steve, although I doubt that I’m expecting the same things in the new creation as you are, I have to agree with you on this subject: life is often hell and suffering, and not much more. We perhaps can take comfort in being in agreement with one of the wisest human beings who ever existed, the Buddha, who said that sentient awareness is suffering.

  2. For me, as for many others, life can be a vale of tears.

    As great as this life can be, as well as difficult…I know that Heaven will be far, far greater.

    I hope that you get the long life that you desire.

  3. Robert F says:

    “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Said by Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

    That’s what I’m feeling this morning, anyway, and many a morning. God’ patience makes me feel like I’m waiting for Godot.

  4. Robert F says:

    “But all we must do is simply ask the question, ‘Why history?'”

    This can be asked in another form: “Why suffering?” When the question is asked that way, it may lead to answers like the Buddha’s rather than Christ’s. Because human experience has given rise to the awareness of the universality of suffering, while historical consciousness is a very recent development.

    Why suffering?

    • Robert F says:

      That is, because human experience has always given rise to the awareness of the universality of suffering…

  5. There’s cultural facet to this as well. We Americans have been spoilt rotten by instant gratification on all fronts – fast food, 30-minute plot resolution on TV, fast transportation, instant communications, ad inf ad naus. Put that kind of person under the wing of a God for Whom “a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day”, and you’re going to get some, well, miscommunication.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      As that long-ago Reader’s Digest comment put it, “Trying to rush through life and get to The End as fast as we can.”

      P.S. Eeyore, you forgot one-page flashfics and Multitasking Multitasking Multitasking.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Don’t forget the “McDonaldization” of many churches.

  6. Robert F says:

    On the other hand, William Blake wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

    Most people I know do not have a historical consciousness. They see no grand pattern or sweep to history, although they often harbor the expectation that things should somehow naturally “get better.” Rather, they are most conscious of their own lives, and the lives directly connected with their lives. They wonder why they experience the things they do, and indeed, why life is so short. “You only live once,” is the sentiment often expressed, in one way or another. Because, although the history of the world may be very long, life is short, and punctuated rather quickly. The horizons of life form the real horizons for people’s lives, not the long sprawl of history, whatever history may be.

    • Daryl Wheeler says:

      Well said!

    • I agree that my life is better lived if I do have that consciousness of history; personal, familial, national and international all. Our brief stint is richer and better informed if we see how we not only fit into that sweep but are also influenced and impacted by it. Bruce Cockburn has a song called A Dream Like Mine with the lyric:
      When you know, even for a moment, that it’s your time,
      Then you can march with the power of a thousand generations.

  7. We hear so much about “radical transformation” in the evangelical church. But incremental change (2 steps forward, one step backward or sometimes vice-versa) and a sense of mundaneness in daily life are, I think, the norms. If we learned this it would result in less forced testimony and a shift away from a “me-centered” focus in understanding God’s work.

  8. I can only conclude that God is very interested in real, organic relationships with people.

  9. David Cornwell says:

    I’ve had a copy of “Slow Church” for about two weeks now and am slowly making my way through it. This is the recommended way of approaching this book, although when we have a rainy day I will probably sit on the porch and finish it up.

    In many ways the book is about “patience” and the slow ways of God, and of us, God’s people. It makes me glad to live where I live, in an old house, an acre of lawn to care for, and flower gardens that need rejuvenating. That may sound weird for a book about Church, but nevertheless that has happened. It is about “place.” And “place” is about “patience.”

    Chris Smith and John Pattison are the co-authors of this work. Earlier I attended the Slow Church Conference at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis where the ideas and concepts connected with book were presented. It was not a large conference, but, to me, a very important one. It was, along with this book, like a seed being planted in fertile ground, waiting to burst forth into new life.

  10. PastorM says:

    Here’s a different take. I wish all those (both right and left) would stop making grandiose statements about the future. They simply do not know what they are talking about most, if not all, of the time. Preachers/teachers also do this and should know better. Yes, God is in charge of history, so let’s be patient and trust God.

  11. Randy Thompson says:

    I think the heart of grace is God’s patience.

    From the smallest of small perspectives, it is God’s patience with me that is my deepest connection with God’s love for me. I have been overwhelmed by God’s incredible patience with me through fads, arrogance, self-ignorance and self-righteousness–all while a follower of Christ. I’m inclined to think that a very good definition of grace is, “God’s patience with jerks.”

    Likewise, when it comes to pastoral ministry, the awareness of God’s patience–history, in other words–helps me see that I am only one pastor in a long chain of pastors.My job is to provide a foundation for the next pastor to build on, and to build on or repair the foundation that I’ve inherited. God’s patience helps me see that whatever blessing may result from something I said or did may well be apparent only long after I’m gone.

    Finally, when you get a handle on God’s patience, you come to see that you are dealing with an astoundingly big, grand and fearsome Being, a glimpse of whom breaks our theological concepts like teeth breaking on an iron bar, and you see that the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” paradoxically knew what he was talking about. .

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      You mean God ISN’T completely all figured out in Calvin’s Institutes?
      Who’da thunk it?

      • HUG, Calvin never said he had God all figured out. Quite the contrary.

        • Oh, we know, CC. Whatever Calvin’s faults, he loved God and did his best to minister to the church. I think HUG is referencing the tendency of a (small, but vocal) minority to respond to any issue with “Let me check the Institutes”.

          Although, having read Calvin’s complete works, I am disappointed by his attempt to get behind the meaning of the text through philosophical reasoning – a project which would not be fully completed until the advent of modern liberalism.

          • Danielle says:

            There’s Calvin.

            Then there are the Calvinists.

            Then there are the young Reformed shock troops.

            The young & restless folk I knew from my college days were pretty sure that the doctrine of predestination explained all of life’s questions, every time, for all time. Ah, the zeal of a convert with a new chest of toys. I was impossible to bring over to such a viewpoint, but willing to listen. So our debates commenced. If only I could be snached away from my arminian errors, and my catholic sympathies, and Wesleyan sentiments, and my feminism! But alas, no. My heart was strangely warmed. Or hardened. Or … oh, bother.

            We’re all old and boring now, and probably have all mellowed.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            You mean the Calvinjugend?

            More Calvinist than Calvin could ever dream of?

          • Calvin was a westerner, and a lawyer to boot. His mind was wired and conditioned to think a certain way. He was also a product of his time and the religious wars and persecutions going on around him.

            So, although he was just another man (he himself was very much aware of his own depravity) he did much good in his day, good which extended beyond his understanding of Christianity and onto matters of government and economics.

            And he left us a good legacy. Some historians go as far as to credit him with igniting the fires of democracy and capitalism in the west. And although both of these ideologies have their dark sides (what doesn’t), more good than bad has come from it.

            The first part of my blog name is “Calvin,” but the second is “Cuban,” meaning that I have experienced the opposites of religious freedom, democracy, and capitalism, and I can tell you from experience that it is way better to live in a free democracy where one is free to be a capitalist or not, to be greedy or charitable than it is to live in a place where one has no such choices.

            And for these freedoms I thank the good blessings God passed on to us through John Calvin and many others, of course.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I love your perspective on patience, Randy. The hard part is realizing that we spent so much time being impatient, and in the process wasting time and resources.

      : “…fads, arrogance, self-ignorance and self-righteousness…”

      You nailed it!

  12. fix the elevator says:

    Such a great article, CM. Why doesn’t God just end it all? Because there are still sheep waiting to be found, and God is still working on the sheep that He has already found. I realize that it is the patience of God that allows the righteous man to get up the seventh time after he falls the sixth…and the righteous man stumbles along forward, always forward, towards God and towards ultimate redemption. Along the way he treasures those precious moments when God speaks to him and says, “Keep going…I’m here…I’m patient, more patient with you than you ever could be with yourself. The next time you fall, I’ll be there to get you up. And you will get up. You’ll get up because I’m am patient with you and I will not crush you. You’re becoming who I want you to be. Get along now.”

    I needed this article. Thank-you, Chaplain Mike. You really are a “chaplain” of the highest order.

  13. Ronald Avra says:

    The principal reason that I continue to come to this site is that I frequently encounter subjects addressed in a manner that resonant with my personal experience. The patience of God as he waits and works through the millennia simply confounds me.

  14. dumb ox says:

    Scripture presents (at least) two concepts of time: kronos and kairos. Kronos is the typical measure of time in seconds, minutes, and hours. Kairos is the sacredness of time as the “right time” or the “appointed time”. God established the kronos of time in the cycles of day and night in the creation story, and He established the kairos of time, specifically in the appearance of His Son.

    Living as a slave of the kronos of time would lead to watching the clock, doing things out of wrote and obligation (e.g. Jesus is returning, so look busy); life becomes either a moment lost in the past or which never arrives on the horizon of the future.

    Living in the kairos of time is to grasp the significance of the moment, the “Eternal Now” of the writings of Paul Tillich. Perhaps there is a Mary-Martha element here: Martha is caught up in the kronos of cleaning house and serving dinner on time; Mary is caught up in the Kairos of time, where at that moment the Son of God has come to visit them in their humble home.

    Paul urged his readers to redeem (exagorazomenoi – buy out, seize the opportunity, ransom) the time (kairon – the opportune time; the right time; the coming-to-a-head) because the days (h?merai – period of sunrise to sunset) are evil (ponerai – evil, pain-ridden). My paraphrase would be: Find the good God is revealing and doing in the moment, otherwise life under the sun is pain-ridden, vain, and meaningless.

    I will always remember a moment with my son (now twenty) when he was no more than two. I was in a hurry to get us somewhere, and he stopped to look at rock he found on the ground. At that moment, I realized he understood something I didn’t, and I hoped he would never lose that perspective. I think seizing the kairos of life is like that. For us, this is the moment of grace, where God is redeeming the world – including ourselves. When the end comes, this moment is gone. The parable of the talents also comes to mind: we can be the servant who waits with trepidation for the return of the Master, burying what was entrusted out of fear of that day, or we can be like the other servants who with joy, grace, and resulting boldness made the most of the moment and multiplied what was entrusted.

    Kronos may be the container of time, but kairos is the substance. A life lived only in kronos is empty.

    “But endless future is without a final aim; it repeats itself and could well be described as an image of hell. This is not the Christian way of dealing with the end. The Christian message says that the eternal stands above past and future. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” – Paul Tillich from “The Eternal Now”.

  15. Robert F says:

    To many suffering people, God’s long-suffering patience feels like hell.

  16. Christiane says:

    ” 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 . . . ”

    looking at Peterson’s words, I am reminded of this reflection:

    “”It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
    The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
    We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
    Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
    No statement says all that could be said.
    No prayer fully expresses our faith.
    No confession brings perfection.
    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
    No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

    This is what we are about.
    We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
    We lay foundations that will need further development.
    We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

    We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
    This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
    an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.”

    (Oscar Romero)

  17. Robert F says:

    Every time I drive by a dead animal in the road, I doubt the goodness of God, I rue his “patience,” and I feel the latent gnostic in me stirring.

    • Danielle says:

      This reminds me of passage from one of Anne Lammott’s essays, “Stitches.”

      Her topic in the second chapter of that book is on being what adults of the 1950s and ’60s thought of as the “over-sensitive child.” She writes:

      “Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth. However, if you reacted or cried, or raised the subject at all, you were being a worrywart. . . .

      “As far as I can recall, none of the adults in my life ever once remembered to say, ‘Some people have a thick skin and you don’t. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to the world.'”

      We sometimes assert the goodness of God in order to avert our eyes from realities that ought to pierce us. “Well, yes, that story is very sad, but God is good.”

      But it seems to me, any assertion of God’s goodness must instead rise from the fact that suffering and finitude seem so intolerable to us because they assail things that are good, that we rightly wish to protect. Likewise, our own horror constitutes an “appropriate response” that is itself good. These things are a manifestation of God’s goodness, if God exists. And given that most of us live in the mundane 99.9 percent of space and time, it is the primary face of it we’ll see. So if religion does not relate to this ‘doubt’ and ‘stirring,’ I am not sure what its utility could be.

      • Christiane says:

        I love your comment, Danielle.
        Anne Lamott’s writings always jar us into thoughfulness.
        Like those lines of hers:
        “. . . suffering and finitude seem so intolerable to us because they assail things that are good, that we rightly wish to protect . . . . . . . likewise, our own horror constitutes an “appropriate response” that is itself good ”

        She is one of those writers who helps us to connect some pieces of the great puzzle by putting ordinary things in a startlingly different light.

    • Christiane says:
  18. Robert F says:

    It is impatience with God’s patience that led to the revolutionary 20th century. Exactly those human beings who became most conscious of the dimension of history, and developed outlines and philosophies of history wherein humankind played out its existence entirely within the framework of this-worldly events, took matters into their own hands, found ways to radicalize and motivate (often through terror) entire populations in the service of their revolutionary projects.

    God’s evident inaction in the field of history acted like a vacuum, and was filled with violent human energies harnessed toward once-and-for-all, violently breaking the back and cycle of history’s slow-moving, crushing juggernaut, and ushering in what Christians call the eschaton by sheer human volition and force. Although the age of secular revolution seems to have passed, new religious revolutions have taken their place, revealing the real energy that drove them for what it was, a drive to break through the immanence of history into the a transcendent reality in which human suffering is undone, and human aspirations blossom like so many flowers in a lush garden.

    History itself has been hijacked by technology, which no longer can be conceived from a secular framework as a mere tool, but only as the new form of the old messianic energy, the new revolution that will crack open the prison of history and free the trapped spirit inside. This drive to escape the terms and conditions of this-worldly existence is a gnostic yearning, it has always been in whatever religious or secular forms it took, and it is endlessly creative, taking the unlikeliest shapes and paths. It won’t go away, because it constitutes a deep tendency of human nature that inevitably plays itself out in human social reality.

  19. Desert Storm Libertarian says:

    But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…2 Peter 3:8 – 9

  20. Drena (@DrenaBlanc) says:

    God is in the simple acts of mercy, friendly smile, comforting hug, beauty of a tree, being alive, having food with a good friend, and even simply laying down and staring at the stars. Is it weird I’m more wowed by that then since of the miracles i read about in Scripture?