When God’s promises fail to materialize, what do we do? Do we blame God? That’s a scary response, but we might.
More often, we blame ourselves: stirring up the past, berating ourselves for (forgiven) sins, and questioning where we went wrong. When God forgives, he puts our transgressions as far as east is from west; he ‘disappears’ them, never to return. But in the throes of discouragement and unanswered prayers, we resurrect our mistakes. We wallow. We question our commitment, and our baseline faith.
At least that’s what I did.
Abraham didn’t…or if he did, we have no record of it. Abraham, the father of faith, believed God. For as long as it took—and the fulfillment of THIS promise took ages. 25 years. Have you been waiting that long?
Let’s ponder this. By the time Abraham received God’s promise of a son, he and Sarah had been childless for decades. Imagine the years of failed conceptions, the monthly toll of “not this time”, stretched over years of watching their friends and relatives bear children, then watching those kids grow up and become parents and grandparents. Many of us can relate to this pain, even in miniature.
From a human perspective, God’s promise was long overdue, but God attached no timeline to his guarantee of an heir. I think if I were Sarah, long past my prime and sick with longing, I’d have expected a speedy fulfillment of the promise. Time was running out!
But this was not God’s way.
Instead, 25 more years of childlessness stretched ahead. I can understand how Sarah wavered, hatching the plan with Hagar to help God out. Yet we all know how that interference turned out.
Abraham, despite giving in to Sarah’s schemes, stood firm.
Abraham believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.
Or, as the Hebrew writer says, And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.
Key words: After waiting patiently.
Impatience defeats faith, if we let it. We foolishly determine how long it should take for God to answer our prayers or fulfill a promise, and respond with unbelief when his plans take longer. We take matters into our own hands, like Sarah, or we fall into the slough of self-pity. We exile ourselves from God’s community or linger on the fringes, envying other’s good fortune. We quit praying for the things we most desire. We give up, and get hollow.
All the opposite of Abraham. It seems the longer he waited for his promised son, the stronger his faith grew. It didn’t matter if he was passing from old age to older age to great-great-grandfather age as he waited. God had promised. God was faithful. Abraham would linger in the wilderness of childlessness for as long as it took.
If you’re like me, you might forget that wilderness is part of the journey. You know those long stretches when we struggle to feel God’s presence? That’s wilderness. Yet God is always near, even when he seems to ‘withdraw’ for a season—or for many. Think of all those psalms when God has seemingly turned away: Did he? Does he?
There’s a wilderness called Loneliness. Jesus promised a hundred-fold return in relationships for his followers, plus homes and fields (Mark 10:29-30). Yet Paul, the devoted apostle, was deserted by everyone at his first trial. He spend months in the Arabian desert, alone with the Lord, before even beginning his ministry. He spent years of his life languishing in prison—where he turned his languishing into prayer, his hours into powerful epistles to the church. Aren’t we naïve to think our own spiritual journeys will bypass loneliness?
Then there’s the wilderness of Unanswered Prayers. We each have those Big Asks, the seemingly impossible things we desire most. The turning of our children’s hearts to God. The healing of a family member. The end to chronic anxiousness, lifelong depression, a deeply dysfunctional, but necessary, relationship. A return to the joy we had as young Christians, undamaged by life’s vicissitudes. And by disappointed, immature faith that gives up too soon.
I ask you—as I ask myself—have you gone the distance with God? Have you prayed without ceasing for as long as it takes? Have you turned away from the story before reaching the dénouement, the smooth landing God has planned for you?
God has been faithful to me, as he is. As he does. But according to him—who always knows best– I needed a lot of wilderness first. My wandering period was closer to the Israelites’ timeline (40 years) than my desired one (the two-week straight shot suggested in the Old Testament). I’m not sure what this says about me.
Apparently I needed the wilderness of longing for God’s presence, the wasteland of loneliness and isolation, the desert of waiting ‘too long’ for desperate prayers to be answered. I must have needed them, or God would have cut my wanderings short.
I’m still waiting for many of my Big Asks to be answered. I may not see them in my lifetime, and that’s alright. But I want to show God my growing faithfulness by continuing to pray, by not giving up, by not losing heart; in short, by never questioning the goodness, power, and faithfulness of God. Like Abraham.
The Hebrew writer uses an anchor metaphor to emphasize God’s faithfulness:
God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus…has entered on our behalf… (Hebrews 6: 18-20)
Our hope lies in the faithfulness of God, a God who cannot lie. The anchor is as solid as he is, as impossible to budge or unmoor.
A perfect anchor.
Are you holding on tight? Are you in for the long haul? Are you still praying?