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The Advent art of waiting

Unsplash/Amelie & Niklas Ohlrogge
Unsplash/Amelie & Niklas Ohlrogge

Advent is always a season of waiting. It reminds Christians of the long-anticipated first coming of a savior who shared in our sufferings, and it teaches us to wait for his second coming to judge the earth. Indeed, waiting is arguably the greatest theme of Advent literature and liturgy. From Mary’s Magnificat and the Song of Zechariah to “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” Advent hymns and Scriptures reward us with rich reminders of what God has already done to deliver us from captivity, coupled with a longing for what he will eventually do when Jesus comes again in glory.

Of course, every Advent includes a lot of other waiting, and this year is no different. Some of our waiting is, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Where I am, for instance, students can’t wait for the semester to end and professors can’t wait for grading to finish. At the same time, some of our waiting is consequential. We hope for an end to atrocities and pray for the release of hostages. We long for healing, seek answers to pivotal questions and yearn for the restoration of relationships. We wait for career-shaping decisions and soul-shaping insights. And as we wait, it often seems that matters of personal preoccupation, social significance, and cosmic consequence strain our beliefs, test our devotion, and weigh on our hearts, sometimes causing us to question God’s promises as we suffer through our current experiences. This kind of waiting invites us to ask, along with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” (13:1).

In this Advent season, it is crucial to reflect on the transformative witness of belief and devotion in the midst of difficult and painful waits. Though it’s often true that “the best things come to those who wait,” sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes people never arrive at clarity, never experience restoration, never see healing for themselves or for their loved ones. Sometimes people perish in their patience. What of their waiting?

It is easier to wait well — to affirm God’s goodness and follow him wholeheartedly even in the midst of ambiguity, uncertainty, and deferral — when we’re convinced that waiting will pay off somehow. It’s harder to wait when we don’t know that it will be rewarded, and harder yet when we know that it won’t.

What then might our waiting mean?

This is where the witness of waiting well comes in. When we affirm God’s goodness and follow him wholeheartedly even though we cannot yet — and may not in this life — taste the benefits, it enhances the credibility of our faith.

Such waiting demonstrates that God himself — and not the other blessings he bestows — is the object of our faith and that God is deserving of our devotion even when we don’t yet, and may not ever, have other good things. Affirming God’s goodness and following him wholeheartedly even as we wait validates that God is worthy of our love regardless of the benefits we may experience. It demonstrates that God’s value is ultimate and intrinsic, and not dependent upon or instrumental to other good things. When we trust God even while we wait for his blessings, and especially when we doubt, they’ll ever arrive, that is when our witness to his goodness is strongest. It is a clearer demonstration of genuine faith when the correlation between benefits and devotion appears strained, reversed, or delayed. Faith is, after all, the “assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

Indeed, Scripture consistently prompts us to question the authenticity of a relationship with God that depends solely on immediate blessings. It’s not that God’s blessings are bad or that they necessarily compromise our witness in the world, but we are warned against relating to God in a transactional way. God’s people are instructed against treating His name as an incantation that results in blessings. And, in the book of Job, the adversary asks cynically whether Job fears God — whether he has lived a blameless and upright life — just because he experiences rich blessings, triggering a calamitous test of Job’s faith and God’s promises. Over and over, the Scriptures distinguish between genuine belief and devotion, on the one hand, and the transactional pursuit of blessings, on the other. Waiting well is one way that we, too, can demonstrate an ongoing distinction between the two.

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to Christians who have gone before us in demonstrating this distinction. From the martyrs of the early church to those Christians who have waited well with unresolved injustice, many have helped us to distinguish between following God for what he gives and following God for who He is.

The best witness we can offer our world this Advent season is to love God more than any gifts that may one day come our way, and to trust Him even when it appears they never will. And so, whatever we’re hoping for this Christmas, let us affirm God’s goodness and follow him wholeheartedly even as we wait.

Noah J. Toly, PhD, is the chief academic officer at Calvin University.

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