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Growing Wise in the School of Waiting

Something called the candy challenge has been making the rounds on the internet, the latest in a string of ideas to try while the coronavirus keeps us stuck at home. A few brave friends posted videos of their toddlers presented with a dish of candy. They told the child that mommy would be right back and not to eat any until they returned. Then, they’d video the child’s response while they’d stepped away. It was a test of patience, a waiting game.

It wasn’t long — maybe a minute — but I found myself rooting for the children, applauding their adorable ways of resisting temptation by looking away, distracting themselves, or imagining what the candy would taste like when they finally got some — “Mmm, tasty!” one said, licking his lips.

Why is waiting so hard for us? Why do we seem to be primed for immediate gratification, our engines always revving? 

Americans, especially, are a restless bunch. We’re movers and shakers, with places to go, things to do, people to see. Perhaps we came by this honestly as part of our inherited work ethic and disregard for idleness.

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! (Proverbs 6:6, NIV). 

Less than 100 years ago in America, most people lived their whole lives within a short radius of where they’d been born. News came leisurely, via neighbor or postman, and most folks’ work was dictated by the lights in the sky (Gen. 1:14–18). Individuals and communities worked hard, for survival, but they also chewed the fat with one another on porches, watched the fire go to ash, and whiled away the time before bed by reading aloud to each other.

Waiting was industry’s cousin.

They waited for seeds to sprout, harvest time, and bread to rise. They waited for calving season and the ground to thaw enough to bury a father or a wife. They waited until they had enough saved to buy sugar, nails, or new shoes, and if the crops failed and the pennies didn’t add up, they waited some more.

There’s not much left in our society anymore that’s worth the wait. 

Things we take for granted like gender reveals instead of waiting nine months for a birth, information via the magical Google box, same-day delivery from Amazon, or instant communication via text or email are convenient but teach us nothing about waiting. Customer service is measured, in fact, by how long the “wait time” is. It’s the first thing the automated operator tells you when you’re trying to get that coronavirus refund from a canceled flight.

There’s not much left in our society anymore that’s “worth the wait.” Why wait when you can consume it now and move on to the next partner, purchase, or pleasure?

Would we be better off if we could all somehow be transported back in time? Of course not! I much prefer penicillin, washing machines, and eating strawberries out of season, traveling across town or across the country in a day. But the lessons of quarantine have made clear that we have forgotten — or maybe never learned — how to wait.

Two kinds of waiting

Any parent knows there are two kinds of waiting, but both have to do with obedience. The first is when you’ve asked your child to do something they’d rather not. Maybe they’re in the middle of a game or their hearts are simply not ready to comply. “Waiiitttt,” they whine. “Five more minutes?”

To this, my father used to respond, “Wait broke the wagon down,” his attempt at using dad humor to move us to obey. My own children found this conditioned response from me, as I did at their age, less than funny. I’m sure someday their own adorable offspring will react the same. It’s probably genetic.

The second kind of waiting is when we’re asked to do nothing.

Abstain. “Just sit tight,” Dad would say, and we knew that meant be still and await further instruction. With no discernible end to the wait, this is harder.

The only way it’s endurable is by trusting the one in charge.

Eventually, we knew, Dad would come through and we’d get moving again. Like the kids in the candy challenge, we trusted our parents’ direction.

This unique time brought to us by COVID-19 is frustrating and frightening, to be sure. Many of us have come face to face with our idols, gods of busyness, distraction, and consumption. I’ve seen evidence that people may be waking from a fog created by the incense burned in homage to these gods and instead treasuring family, community, and simplicity all the more. All good things.

A parable in Luke 11 might speak to us here.

Jesus tells about an evil spirit that has been put out and goes seeking a different resting place. Not finding one, it returns and finds the house “swept clean and put in order.”

“Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of the man is worse than the first” (Luke 11:26, NIV).

While we’ve been pressing pause on normal life and taking the opportunity to sweep clean our spiritual houses, we must also intentionally fill up with good things so as not to leave a vacancy.

While we’re sitting tight, the practice of waiting can fill us with reliance on and trust in our Father. When we sing, “Teach me, Lord, to wait,” He tells us how to do it. Not by endlessly scrolling or chewing our nails, not by wailing and gnashing our teeth, but “down on our knees.”

Waiting with trust in the Father teaches us obedience, self-control, and patience, time-worn building blocks of character that create both perseverance and hope, things we can all use a little more of these days.
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