How Waiting Works

This summer, we’re running a short series of adapted selections from my book, How to Be a Bad Christian. (If you’d prefer to get the whole thing at once, it’s available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.) Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.


Waiting is a kind of emotional time travel. It takes our present energy and applies it to something that will occur in the future. We can wait with dread, poisoning the present moment with a future evil. Or we can wait with eager expectation, crowning the present moment with a future good.


But I’ve found that the joyful kind of waiting only comes easily when we know just how soon we’ll get what we want. When we’re waiting for a good thing, and we don’t know when it will come, we feel anxiety and pain instead of joy. “How long?” becomes the question we carry in our hearts.


That kind of waiting reveals our limitations. We can’t press fast-forward on the universe, or somehow tug tomorrow closer by force of will. We have to depend upon the efforts of other people, who are imperfect and often slow. But this kind of waiting can also open up new possibilities in our life with God.


Why Wait?

Catholic priest and contemplative writer Henri Nouwen considers waiting within the Gospel accounts that lead up to Jesus’ birth:

A waiting person is a patient person. The word “patience” means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. . . . Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there. Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her womb. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were present to the moment. That is why they could hear the angel. They were alert, attentive to the voice that spoke to them and said, “Don’t be afraid. Something is happening to you. Pay attention.”

Waiting allows us to see what God is doing here and now, not just then and there. It brings our focus to the realities of the people around us and of the places where we live and work. It encourages our curiosity. Instead of asking, “When can I get out of here?” we ask, “What might God be doing?” And then we listen for his response and how he is inviting us into his rest and his work. Waiting delivers us from an unhealthy idealism into the true ideals of obedience.


Early twentieth-century preacher Oswald Chambers said, “Beware of outstripping God by your very longing to do his will. We run ahead of Him in a thousand and one activities, consequently we get so burdened with persons and with difficulties that we do not worship God, we do not intercede.” Disliking waiting as much as I do, I often find myself “outstripping God” in this way. I want to move quickly, sometimes more quickly than he does.


In contrast, waiting allows me to keep in step with the Spirit. Nothing is more urgent than staying connected to God, than growing up into the maturity of deeper worship and surrender to God. The way of waiting gives us the slow, peaceful pattern of focus upon God, not just what we want to do for him.


Someone Who Waited: Joseph

All throughout the Scriptures, we see stories of quiet waiting in which God makes himself known. One that’s always inspired me is the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. Joseph, like me, had “golden boy” status in his community as a young man. He was favored to grow in influence and authority. He had a vision of his future, full of glory and renown. He was, perhaps, a little full of himself. His brothers sold him into slavery out of jealousy, and with little warning, Joseph entered into a hard, years-long trial of servitude and later imprisonment.


Those years as a slave and a prisoner are hard for me to imagine, having lived with such abundance and privilege all of my life. What must it have been like to feel the humiliation of being treated as property by his captors, the physical pain of the abuse he must have suffered, the pangs of hunger in a dark prison cell? How often did he wonder, “How long?” It must have been tempting to fall into bitterness, anger, or despair. Yet the Bible tells us that Joseph, somehow, responded to the difficulties of his circumstances with fortitude. He became a leader even within the prison in which he was confined:

But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed.


Genesis 39:21-23 ESV

Through an unexpected and miraculous series of events, Joseph was eventually launched from the lowly status of prisoner to a senior administrative post in the most powerful empire in the world at that time. From that post, he made arrangements that saved thousands of lives— including those of his brothers and relatives, adding an unexpected chapter of forgiveness and reconciliation to his family’s story. His vision of exercising authority and influence was fulfilled, but more beautifully and abundantly than he could have imagined.


I have often pondered the purposes of God in leaving Joseph to wait in that prison cell for so long before that happy ending. For years, Joseph’s day-by-day obedience was not the dramatic actions that would save an empire, but the minutiae of organizing life with his fellow prisoners. Joseph learned to look for what God was doing even there, in a thankless job, far from home. I wonder if it was that spiritual lesson that prepared him for the responsibilities he would inherit in the empire.


Joseph’s life of waiting follows the pattern of a story Jesus told, in which a king says to his slave, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17 ESV). Joseph was faithful with little, so God put him over much.


But I think it’s easy to miss the point in this kind of story. It’s not like Joseph earned the greater responsibility by being faithful with the smaller things, as though God was seeing if he measured up. The ten cities of Jesus’ story are not that kind of reward. No, I think that Joseph became the kind of person who can lead with humility and grace while he was in that prison. God set Joseph over an empire because he had matured to a point where he could be trusted with one.


That kind of spiritual transformation, from the golden boy with a swagger to the calm and generous ruler, can only happen through waiting. That is what God has in store for each of us, if we are willing to participate. He wants to make us the kind of people to whom he can entrust great things. But the only way he can do it is by making us wait for those great things, giving us the small things we are truly ready for. That means that, no matter how big the dream God has given us, the way forward will often consist in everyday and unimpressive acts of obedience.


Everyday Waiting

For me, those simple acts of obedience often come at home. Caring for my wife forces me to stay in one place. It puts me face to face with my own weaknesses and limitations, as I have so little control over whether she is well or ill. It allows me to love in a way that scores no points. While personal ambition gets so easily mixed in to more impressive forms of ministry, taking care of Katie does nothing to establish my public reputation. The day-in, day-out details of loving Katie don’t gratify my desire for concrete ministry success. Instead, the work of marriage itself is shaping my heart and my habits.


As I give more of my time to tasks which confer on me no glory—doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, sharing time in the car—I’m also giving them more weight in my vision of what really matters in the universe. It’s not just my projects at work or even my sense of ministry vocation that matters. There is a person, right in front of me, who matters, not because of what she can do for me or how she fits into some grand scheme, but simply for her own sake. In the end, that is how every person matters. That is what ministry is really about, and what all the projects and productivity must serve. The great things that God calls us into are ways to love and care for other people more and more fully.


Waiting for the Lord

Ultimately, waiting can become for us what the Bible calls waiting for the Lord. In Isaiah, we read the prayer

O LORD, be gracious to us; we wait for you.

Be our arm every morning,

our salvation in the time of trouble.


Isaiah 33:2 NRSV

When we’re waiting, something has not yet arrived. Like Joseph in that prison cell, we’re waiting for salvation, for deliverance from the trouble. But we’re not just waiting for any change of circumstance; we’re waiting for God’s deliverance. We want him to be our arm every morning, to be himself within us the strength we need for the day ahead. When we offer our waiting itself to the Lord, we remember that we need him even more than whatever else we are waiting for. In that moment, waiting becomes worship.



  • What are you waiting for? Does it feel like you are asking “how long?” about something in your life?
  • What would it look like for you to welcome God into your waiting?
  • Consider listening to “Wait for the Lord,” sung by the Taizé community.


Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

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