(Photo: Paul Tripp)
When God asks you to wait, what happens to your spiritual muscles? While you wait, do your spiritual muscles grow bigger and stronger, or do they become flaccid and atrophied? Waiting for the Lord isn't about God forgetting you, forsaking you, abandoning the ministry he's called you to, or being unfaithful to his promises. It's actually God giving you time to consider his glory, grow stronger in faith, and grow in courage for ministry. Remember, waiting isn't just about what you're hoping for at the end of the wait, but also about what you'll become as you wait.
So waiting always presents us with a spiritual choice-point. Will I allow myself to question God's goodness and progressively grow weaker in faith, or will I embrace the opportunity of faith that God is giving me and build my spiritual, pastoral, ministry muscles?
It's so easy to unknowingly revisit your belief system when you're not sure what God is doing. It's so easy to give way to doubt when you're being called to wait. It's so easy to forsake good spiritual and ministry habits and to take up habits of "unfaith" that weaken the muscles of the heart. Let me suggest some habits of "unfaith" that weaken us during waiting.
1. Giving way to doubt. There's a fine line between the struggle to wait and giving way to doubt. When you're called to wait you're being called to do something that wasn't part of your personal or ministry plan. Therefore you struggle to see it as good. Because you and I are typically convinced that what we wanted was right and good, it doesn't seem loving that we're being asked to wait. You can see how tempting it is then to begin to question God's wisdom, goodness, and love. Don't be naive: there's much doubt that visits people in ministry.
2. Giving way to anger. It's easy to look around and begin to think that the bad guys are being blessed and the good guys are getting hammered (see Psalm 73). There'll be times when it simply doesn't seem right that you have to wait for something that seems so obviously good to you. It's tempting in your anger to give way to thinking you're smarter than God, that you'd be a better sovereign than the Sovereign. It all begins to feel like you're being wronged, and when it does, it seems right to be angry.
As a result, it's important to understand that your anger isn't so much about people and circumstances. No, you're angry with the One who's in control of those people and those circumstances. You're actually giving way to thinking that you've been wronged by him. I've been amazed over the years at how many pastors needed to confess to me that they were more than disappointed with their ministry life; they were angry with God.
3. Giving way to discouragement. This is where I begin to let my heart run away with the "If only_____," the "What if_____," and the "What will happen if____." I begin to give my mind to thinking about what will happen to me and my ministry if my request isn't answered soon, or what in the world will happen if it's not answered at all. This kind of meditation makes me feel that my life or ministry is out of control, when they're actually under perfectly wise and loving control. Rather than my heart being filled with joy, my heart gets flooded with worry and dread. Worry and dread aren't the seedbeds of hopeful, courageous, persevering ministry. So I spend my free mental time considering my dark future, with all the resulting discouragement that will always follow.
4. Giving way to envy. When I'm waiting, it's tempting to look over the fence and long for the ministry life of someone who doesn't appear to have been called to wait. It's easy to take on an "I wish I was that guy" way of living. You can't give way to envy without questioning God's wisdom, faithfulness, and love. Here's the logic: if God really loves you as much as he loves that other guy, you'd have what the other guy has. Envy is about feeling forgotten and forsaken, coupled with a craving to have what your neighbor enjoys. This is deadly, because you tend not to run to someone for help if you've come to doubt him.
5. Giving way to inactivity. The result of giving way to all of these things is inactivity. If God isn't as good and wise as I once thought he was, if he withholds good things from his children, and if he plays favorites, then why would I continue to serve him? Maybe you don't consciously think these things, but you begin to stand with many pastors who've lost both their joy in and also motivation for ministry. Maybe this isn't what I'm supposed to be doing after all; maybe I've been kidding myself.
Sadly, this is the course that many people, even those in ministry, take as they wait. Rather than growing in faith, their motivation for daily pursuing God is destroyed by doubt, anger, discouragement, and envy. So the muscles of faith necessary for productive people-helping, God-honoring ministry, that were once robust and strong, now atrophy and grow weak.
In reality, waiting points us to God's goodness. He's wise and loving. His timing is always right, and his focus isn't so much on what you'll experience and enjoy, but on what you'll become. He's committed to using every tool at his disposal to rescue you from you, to shape you into the likeness of his Son, and to hone you for the work to which he's called you. Waiting is one of his primary shaping tools.
Habits of Faith
So how do you build your spiritual muscles during the wait? You must commit yourself to resist those habits of "unfaith," and with discipline pursue a rigorous routine of spiritual exercise. You must run to your Savior of grace, knowing his grace never gives up even though you're often tempted to.
Here are the things that he's designed for you that will build the muscles of your heart and strengthen your resolve: the regular devotional study of his Word, consistent and candid fellowship, looking for God's glory in Creation every day, putting yourself under excellent preaching and teaching of Scripture (even preachers need to be regularly taught), investing your quiet mental time in meditating on the goodness of God (for example, as you're going off to sleep), reading excellent Christian books, and spending ample time in prayer. All of these things will result in spiritual strength and vitality.
Do these things seem obvious to you? You'd be surprised how many pastors have confessed to me a lack of good spiritual habits. It's sad to think of how many pastors live in functional isolation, not putting their hearts in places where they can be watched, warned, protected, and nourished. Without daily meditating on God's glory and grace, all you're left to meditate on are the struggles within you and the problems outside you. No wonder our pastoral muscles grow weak.
Is God, in grace, asking you to wait? If so, what's happening to your muscles while you wait?