In the tension between urgency and patience, the challenge is to know when it is time for which.
The Christian faith is filled with a number of creative tensions that never get fully resolved. It’s a little like walking. If I stand on my left foot for a long time I get shaky and unstable. But if I keep walking and shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I remain stable and keep moving forward. These tensions are not meant to be resolved. They are creative. They generate forward movement. One such tension is the one between urgency and patience.
Urgency says, “The time to act is now!” Patience says, “Everything is in God’s hands; wait on God.” Urgency says, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Patience says, “Don’t act until you are sure that God is in it.” Both of these voices need to be heard.
There are times in Jesus’ ministry where he places people in front of an urgent decision, and if they delay or waffle, the opportunity passes and they lose out.
There are certainly many times in church history where (at least as we look back) it appears the church missed its window of opportunity to act—and failed. Many of us can look back with regret on occasions where we thought about acting but hesitated and missed our opportunity.
But there are also powerful calls in Scripture for believers to be patient. At the critical moment in the story of the Exodus, God tells Israel to “stand still, and see the deliverance that the Lord has prepared for you …” After his resurrection Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised.” The entire book of Revelation is a call for saints to practice “patient endurance.”
In the tension between urgency and patience, the challenge is to know when it is time for which, and how the two are related. The danger is that if we collapse this tension and run to one or the other extreme our faith becomes one-legged—unbalanced and shaky.
In our Mennonite past we may have at times over-emphasized patience. When I was a boy I remember visiting my grandpa and grandma Dintaman. To me they were people who embodied the strength of patience. When I was with them I felt like a weed next to a tree. On this particular Indiana summer day, the skies were oily-black and threatening. With the recent memory of the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes fresh in my mind I asked grandpa if we shouldn’t go to the basement. He continued slowly rocking in his chair and said, “If it is our time to go, then going to the basement won’t help, and if it’s not our time to go God will protect us.” Well, that is fine and good for grandpas and grandmas, but as a boy I could not share their patience. I was sure it was time to act!
Patience, if it cannot hear the voice of urgency, becomes simply resignation to the way things are. Patience begins to sound more like fatalism. Patience taken to the extreme leaves everything in God’s hands and diminishes and devalues our own creative role as stewards of God’s creation.
If the voice of patience dominated our past, the voice of urgency threatens to overwhelm us today. If it is not grounded in patience, urgency has its own set of dangers. But how can we not sound urgent? Our world is faced with threats that at least from our limited vantage point seem unparalleled in human history. Global warming, pollution, the threat of protracted war between the western world and fundamentalist Islam, the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor—you name it. The time to act is now!
The prominence of the voice of urgency and the decline of the voice of patience are also rooted in some fundamental changes in how we view the world. As Mennonites living in the 21st century, we have gained more self-confidence. No longer content to be part of a minority community—over against a majority culture that we could hardly hope to influence—we have become more confident that we can make a positive difference in the wider world.
The voice of urgency is also very much an American thing. Impatience is a national trait. Living in Lithuania, a country that recently emerged out the dysfunctional economics of the Soviet Union, I get impatient. Lithuanians are so used to living with things that don’t work very well that they have simply learned to adjust to whatever doesn’t work. If the driver’s-side car door doesn’t unlock, then you just crawl in the passenger’s side. As an American, my reflex is, “fix the problem as soon as you discover it.”
There are many good things about this fix-it-now mentality, but a lot of the world’s problems are not as simple as fixing a door. How many times have you attended a church conference where someone passionately presented a situation of human suffering and injustice—and the heartfelt outcry from the audience was, “What can we do?” There is something so right about this response, and yet it has its own hidden dangers. It can mask an almost arrogant self-confidence that we can correctly analyze and solve the great problems of the world. This American hubris can take many forms. It is in our government’s naïve belief that we can dash into Iraq with our military and turn Iraq into a friendly democracy.
But I also see it at times in American liberals who seem almost as confident in their own way that they are the ones who correctly understand and can solve the world’s problems—but without using violence. Both the right and left believe the world is broken but we can fix it.
I recently attended a conference where the main speaker lamented all the violent images of God in the Scriptures and argued that since many Christians use these violent images to justify their own violence, the only solution is to purge all violent images from our view of God. Even the concept of an atoning sacrifice was too bloody to suit his tastes. (This speaker was not a Mennonite.) He concluded by insisting that we must choose. Either we keep perpetuating violence in God’s name, or we purge all violent images from our view of God. This task is urgent he said, “Because the future of humanity is at stake.” Wow! That is an urgent call to action.
But the more I reflect on this call to action the more it disturbs me. Is the future of humanity at stake? Will something that we do or don’t do actually determine the future of humanity?
Urgency can sometimes cover and express unbelief. If we believe that there is a Redeemer, then we cannot believe that the future of humanity is at stake in our actions. We are most decisively not the saviors of the world. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s action that gives us the promise of a New Creation. The world is broken, but God has redeemed it through Jesus Christ.
This confidence in God’s redemption is the heart of calm in the midst of the storm. This hope gives us a patience that can nourish and empower fruitful action. This confidence in God’s redeeming work frees us from arrogance and puts our actions in perspective. Urgent calls to action that operate out of the assumption that we must save the world or it is doomed, will lead to frustration, anger and burnout.
The liberating message of Scripture is that the decisive battle against the principalities and powers that seem to hold the world in their grip has already been fought and won by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is so freeing. If we believe that the battle is ours to fight and win, it can lead to desperation, to anger—and even hatred of those who oppose us. Even those who are committed to wrestling against the demons of darkness nonviolently can become consumed with the passion and anger of the battle. Confidence in the victory of Christ frees us to love and frees us from the exhaustion, anger and violence that comes from fighting the battle as if the outcome depended on us.
We as believers do get to share in God’s creative work. But we need some clear thought about how God’s work and our work are related. I like to describe how God’s work and our work are related by thinking about my wife’s and my experience of bringing children into the world. I mean we are modern people. We halfway understand that this is all a natural biological process. But when I first held our babies in my arms and looked into their faces, all I could think is, “Dear Lord, where did you come from?” It was so clear that this child was not our work; the child was a gift of God, pure and simple. All we got to do was experience some of the joy and the pain (my wife got to experience the latter somewhat more fully than I did) of bringing new life into the world. New life is a gift from God. Salvation is the work of God, but you and I through our actions get a taste of the joy and pain of bringing this new life into the world. The experience of sharing in the life-creating power of God should always leave us profoundly humbled.
Patience should never be used to protect us from urgent calls to action or escape from our human responsibility in the face of suffering. Sharing in God’s compassion means we will always be moved to respond to human suffering in whatever ways we can. If we are not ready to act when God calls, then our faith is bogus and our peace is just indifference. But at the center of our actions is confidence in God, who is our strength and our salvation. There is a profound wisdom in Isaiah 30:15 which reminds us that “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
Steve Dintaman is chair of the theology department at Lithuania Christian College where he and his wife Betsy serve as missionaries with Mennonite Mission Network and Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions.
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