Lately my computer has been running slowly. And by slowly, I mean it takes an extra few seconds for programs to start running. It’s annoying. In those short few seconds I think of all the things I could be doing (responding to emails, checking Facebook, working on a new lecture for class) that have been held up by inefficient technology. The tyranny of the urgent makes me anxious. In times like these I find that God always has a way of bringing me back to reality. In this case, reading the prophet Jeremiah’s words to the kingdom of Judah snapped me back to a better appreciation of time.
The much-repeated and often-misunderstood Jer 29:11 promises, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Many people forget the context of this promise, which God gave to the nation, not to individuals. While the nation as a whole would prosper, this did not mean that every single person would have an easy life. Furthermore, the promise came only after horrific judgment had befallen Judah (and, earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel) because of the people’s great sinfulness. The Israelites were God’s elect people, chosen to be holy and a light to the nations. Instead, the Jews worshiped false gods and oppressed the poor. God’s patience had finally run out, and so the Babylonian armies utterly destroyed Jerusalem, razed the holy temple, and carried off the Jews into exile. False prophets had been declaring the imminent destruction of Babylon, but Jeremiah told the people to make homes in Babylon, because God was not going to bring them back to Jerusalem any time soon. How much easier it would have been to listen to the false prophets! But sometimes the hard word is God’s word.
Ultimately, the promise of restoration was conditioned on the people’s repenting and once again obeying God: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (29:13). Even then, Jeremiah made it clear that the promised restoration would only take place after the Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years (29:10). Seventy years! Most people in that era did not live to be 70. This means the promise of restoration was for their children. Most of those who had been carried off to Babylon would never again return to their homeland, despite the promise of restoration.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Israel had to wait for God to intervene. The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years before God brought deliverance through Moses. And since the time of Christ, we are still waiting for the day of his return.
In an age of instant gratification, how do we keep faith when sometimes God takes decades, or centuries, or millennia to fulfill promises? If I can’t wait for two minutes for my computer to load, how can I wait for God’s promises to come to pass?
This is when dwelling on the past can actually be helpful. God’s past faithfulness points to God’s future faithfulness. In fact, Israel focused on this truth regularly. Many of the psalms (such as Pss 78, 105, 106, 132, 135, and 136), for example, recite God’s past promises and provision. Jesus, too, understood the power of remembering mighty acts, so he called his disciples at the Last Supper to remember that special meal. When Christians take the bread and wine of Communion, we remember Christ’s broken body and shed blood, given as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. No matter how dark the days of our longing for God’s intervention in a broken world, no matter how slow Christ’s return may seem to be, we cannot forget what Christ has already accomplished. His death on the cross is a fact of history that can never be erased.
Even creation itself is inscribed with reminders of God’s faithfulness. The apostle Paul declares in Rom 1:20 that God’s eternal power and divine nature are visible in creation itself. If we have eyes to see, we will recognize God’s handiwork in the beauty of orchids, the intricacy of DNA, the structure of a snowflake, or the commanding sprawl of the Grand Canyon. We are surrounded by reminders of a powerful God who continues to sustain creation.
We need these reminders in times of darkness, silence, and waiting. Yet such times are not devoid of opportunity. Desperate longing for God gives us a chance for introspection and growth, a time to ask, “Am I following God with my whole heart?” In an age where more than a three-minute wait for a coffee in the drive thru seems like forever, waiting on God helps us to listen, refocus, and reprioritize.
Despite the cultural demand for instant gratification, some things simply take time to shape: the Grand Canyon, a coral reef, a medieval cathedral — or a human being created in the image of God. Two seconds or two minutes of waiting is insufficient for such beauty to develop, and yet somehow we mistakenly believe that God should always act quickly. We must not let the tyranny of the urgent convince us that God is not at work.