Several years ago, during a season of wrestling (I feel like I’m always saying that!) and questioning God on his promises, my mom, Sandy, heard God and showed up at my door. She felt strongly to read me a devotional on my very favourite scripture, Habakkuk 2 verse 3:
For the revelation awaits the appointed time. It speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it, for it will certainly come and not delay.”
In that moment, my angry, unfiltered, response was that of an eye-rolling teenager; I railed against the promise, preferring more to walk away than to hang on for the fulfillment.
This dis-ease had been churning and brewing for a while; there was a vague sense that I had something to say, though I couldn’t seem to articulate it with words. I decided that my cynical response was telling and likely something I should look at. I desperately needed to understand and re-believe at a visceral level that God’s promise would come and not delay, even if my emotions were acting willfully deaf and belligerent.
A short time later, when my pastor called asking if I would speak at church, I understood that this roiling brew inside of me would become a sermon. Potential titles flooded my brain: “The Art of Balancing Fact and Fiction,” or “How to Hold Opposing Realities in Balance without Losing Your Mind.” Or my personal favourite, “Waiting Sucks!”
There are prayers and hopes that are easily satisfied: “God, pleeeease help my kids sleep through the night!” or “I hope I get tickets to see Mumford and Sons!” or “Please God, help me find a parking space!” These are not what I am talking about. I’m referring to those deeply buried secret hopes. The ones that don’t find immediate fulfillment. The ones that feel like they’ll remain forever unrequited. The ones that seem too far out there to ever be possible. What do we do with these?
At times I’ve wondered whether the longings and senses were an innate part of my created person or whether they’d sprung from the creativity and ambition of my own mind (but who’s to say that God hasn’t inspired those, as well?). Some promises, I’ve known, beyond doubt, had their origin in Creator God. I’ve also learned along the way that certain words, though well-intentioned, may have been human-made, but hard to discern because of their little prophetic costumes.
I’m sure you’ve felt it, too…that overwhelming longing for an unnamed something in your future. Maybe it’s a plan you long to accomplish. Or perhaps it isn’t a concrete idea, but a sense of what will come to be; filaments of things hoped for. We may use different language to describe it—hopes and desires, calling, something being birthed, dream-seeds planted in our minds—but in spite of phrasing, the meaning is the same.
These very words, dreams and promises that are received with such joy and carried with such tender hope—that instil our journey with meaning and purpose—can cause us to become bitter and cynical when not handled carefully. Hope deferred really does make the heart sick.
I would hazard that for many of us, or most of us, our lives have not played out exactly like we had planned or envisioned. Perhaps we haven’t accomplished some of the goals we set for ourselves, personally or professionally. Maybe we’re not the person we had hoped we would be. Our marriage isn’t what we signed up for; or marriage hasn’t happened at all! Maybe the longing for a child has not been satisfied.
Particulars aside, God does not appear to be doing or caring or protecting or favouring or providing like we believed he would be; or should be. What in the world, God?! Where are you? In his introduction to the book of Habakkuk in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes:
Living by faith is a bewildering venture. We rarely know what’s coming next, and not many things turn out the way we anticipate. It’s natural to assume that since I’m God’s chosen and beloved, I will get favourable treatment from the God who favours me so extravagantly. It is not unreasonable to expect that from the time I become his follower, I will be exempt from dead ends, muddy detours and cruel treatment from the travellers I meet daily who are walking the other direction. That God-followers don’t get preferential treatment in life always comes as a surprise. But it’s also a surprise to find out that there are a few men and women within the Bible who show up alongside us at such moments. The prophet Habakkuk is one of them, and a most welcome companion he is…[He] speaks our word to God. He gives voice to our bewilderment, articulates our puzzled attempts to make sense of things, faces God with our disappointment with God.”
Shortly after my mom reminded me that God keeps his promises, and after my cynical, adolescent-like outburst, I wrote the following Habbakuk-like complaint in my journal: “Ugh, I am SO dissatisfied with my stagnant self–this NON place. Why aren’t you doing what you promised, Lord?!”
At which point, I clearly heard/felt the Lord respond: “This is not the end of the story, Ellen. This is part of your story.”
And so, to all of you who are wondering what the heck happened and whether or not God will ever come good on his promises, I say: This is NOT the end of your story! In the brief moments or long seasons of frustration, we need to remember God’s promise of an appointed time in Habakkuk.
We ascribe great courage, faith and determination to characters in the Bible, assuming they are considered heroes of the faith and worthy of mention because of their unflagging faith. But they struggled, too. We forget that we see the end of their stories. They did not. They did not know the outcomes of their own situations any more than we do! If I could read the story of my life, knowing how it will play out, what I will accomplish and what will come to be, I would have AMAZING courage and faith. It would be easy (err, easier!). But since we cannot stand outside of our own timelines, how do we live day to day, holding on to hope? To our dreams? To God’s promises? How do we resist becoming cynical and disbelieving; or worse (in my opinion), hyper-faith weirdos?
Anything in the extreme can become unhealthy. Even faith. Before you recoil in sacrilegious offence, hear me out. We are humans and sometimes we don’t do things well. I honestly believe that there are harmful and negative consequences to be found at both ends of the spectrum: holding on too tightly to God’s promises, but also, to holding on too loosely.
Holding on too tightly can mean that we become discontented, always straining at the bit and looking for greener grass. When our gaze rests only on the end goal, we miss out on what is. We may even become ineffective in our present lives.
When we hold promises in a death grip, we risk devaluing what IS and actually strangling the life we’re called to in the waiting; the interim. For instance, my heart comes alive in cross cultural contexts. I am compelled by issues of global injustice and inequality, but moving off to another country during this phase of my life isn’t something I’ve been asked to do. So instead of enduring this part and doing nothing while I wait, my family sponsors children through Compassion, I join short-term teams (to support long-term, established organizations—help without hurting! Rant over.) and I teach my own children and my fifth grade students about social justice and using our voices on behalf of others.
Also risky is the human capacity to create a contrived and empty fulfillment of the word, even if it happens unbeknownst to our conscious minds; a pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy. When we hold on too tightly, we can miss the fulfillment of the word because we’ve so obsessed over how it will look and be and play out that we don’t recognize it when it happens by God’s design.
I am so NOT a joke person, but this does call to mind the one about the man on a roof during a flood who keeps refusing the rescue offered to him in its various forms—because he is waiting for God to rescue him. It’s easy to miss the fulfillment when we’ve got a notion stuck in our minds!
Holding on too loosely to God’s promises is equally concerning. I once read a quote on a greeting card (that probably had a kitten on it) that said “Faith is letting go when you want to hold on and holding on when you want to let go.” Walking away and letting go of something you want to keep is heart-wrenching, however, it’s been my experience that hanging on when you’d rather let go can require equal amounts of strength and courage. There are times when it would be ever so much easier to simply walk away or bury or ignore or move on than to keep on believing. Holding on requires courage, stamina and long-suffering. When we disregard that which we know God has spoken, we close a door. At the time it might seem easier to just loosen our grip and set promises adrift, but long term, it can leave a person feeling unmoored, cynical and calloused.
Refusal to hold onto a word of promise brings death to something that is living. An experience I will never forget occurred when I was complaining to God saying “this is TOO difficult. I’m tired of hanging on! It hurts too much and I feel like I must be crazy!” Blah, blah, blah. All those whiney words we use when things aren’t going like we planned (you’ve had those conversations too, right?!). Clearly, I heard the Lord say abortion. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. The word, quite literally, took my breath away. He was telling me that I was opting to destroy something which was a living thing; an active word.
Returning to Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the book of Habakkuk, we read:
This prophet companion who stands at our side does something more important [than whine]: He waits and he listens. It is in his waiting and listening—which turns into his praying—that he found himself inhabiting the large world of God’s sovereignty. Only there did he eventually realize that the believing-in-God life, the steady trusting-in-God life, is the full life, the only real life. Habakkuk started out exactly where we start out with our puzzled complaints and God-accusations, but he didn’t stay there. He ended up in a world, along with us, where every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”
So how DO we navigate the in between; the limbo space between the initial promise and its fulfillment?
We wait, we listen, we pray, we trust. For me, this means I write down every hope, prayer, sense, divine word and promise. As long as it lines up with God’s word, I don’t disqualify anything due to its source. Whether it’s a word from a renowned prophetic voice or it feels like my own thoughts or it’s from the donkey down the street, I’ll take it. God can use anything and anyone to speak his word to us.
Then, from time to time, when the hopes, dreams and promises cross my mind, I give them some air space, offer them back to the Lord and say “God, I want what you want. May it be to me as you have said.” And then I lay them down again.
Other times, I intentionally read back through my journals and remind God about what he’s said, demand answers, cry about it, whine a little, write a sad song, rail against the unfulfillment…and then come back, once again, to “this is not the end of my story.”
Instead of extreme hyper-faith or a total lack of faith, what we need is a nice even simmer. Being visual, I like to imagine all the words and promises I’ve received over the years in a little pot, pushed to the rear of my stove. It’s not boiling on the forefront, nor is it cold. From time to time, I catch a whiff of the simmering promises or I intentionally lift the lid to see how they look. But apart from this, I leave them alone. It’s a simplistic analogy, but it works for me.
With age and maturity, I recognize that I don’t know the timeline for anything. I remind myself, again and again, that God says he’ll fulfill his plans at the appointed time; the right time. His true words will not be usurped, stolen by someone else or shown to be false.
Even when it feels like it’s taking an AWFULLY LONG TIME, wait for it. Because at the exact right time, it will certainly come and not delay. And when it does, say thank you.