Do you have a social “re-entry plan?” Do you have criteria you are using to determine when to eat at a restaurant, go on a trip, or join your congregation at church for Sunday worship? The upside of planning is its objectivity if we make our plans based on facts and data. In an article in the NY Times, Brad Stulberg compared enduring the coronavirus event to running a marathon versus a sprint. But “…unlike marathon runners and other endurance athletes, we did not sign up to participate in this prolonged and grueling event. Yet there is still much we can learn from long-distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes about how to move through these extended periods of discomfort…The first rule of running a long-distance race is to acknowledge that the race will in fact be long—and hard. If you envision a race that is over quickly and without pain, you are setting yourself up for unnecessary frustration…’If expectations are unrealistically high, they could be the basis of disappointment and low satisfaction.’” (1) Maybe you’re a pastor or minister who has had to adapt to an absent or reduced congregation to preach to—that can’t be easy. Or, you may be one of the many individuals or family grieving for someone who unexpectantly died from COVID-19 and also has to plan all the details involved in sudden death. When are you planning to return to church worship? Your office? Or visit your family? Do you have the patience you will need to carry out your plans?
I haven’t decided when I’ll return to worship at our church or attend in-person meetings; time with my church family is my most significant want right now. I had no pandemic plan, and was entirely reactive, as most of us were. But shouldn’t it be easier to be patient when we know we’re moving under God’s sovereign plan, like a pandemic? I thought I would be socially distancing at home for about a month, which has stretched to at least three or four. So I’ve had to make a plan and ask the Lord for patience. It’s always best to trust God with hopeful and eager patience for the right end of things. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will stand firm with patience, knowing that our hope in God will be vindicated, no matter what others think. We agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” (7:8)
Ecclesiastes 7:8 is my go-to verse when I am in a tough situation beyond my control, because God is good, all the time. John Gill writes, “…patience is a fruit of the Spirit of God; and is of great use in the Christian’s life, and especially in bearing afflictions, and tends to make men more humble, meek, and quiet…” (2) Godly patience is not just surviving a crisis or enduring, looking for it to end. Unfortunately, however, that’s what I usually do as I begin to consider this verse. Then wisdom kicks in; God uses our trials to strengthen and improve our character if we will only be patient to yield, to be more humble, meek, and quiet. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4) What’s “better” than applying the tests of our faith to our sanctification? “It is folly to cry out upon the badness of our times, when we have more reason to cry out for the badness of our own hearts; and even in these times we enjoy many mercies.” (3)
Trusting God with hopeful patience and humility for the right end of things as he tests our faith is not easy or natural for us. We groan and impatiently pray for the end right now. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:23-24a) “…the groaning of Christians is…expectant grief, that is, grief that looks forward to a time when all that is causing pain will be removed and salvation will be consummated. Christian groaning is a joyful grief that gives birth to a sure hope and patient endurance…In the passage of Romans 8 [:22-27], we find a word that is repeated three times and yet is found nowhere else in this letter…It is the Greek word…translated “groan…” the usage we understand best is our own groaning, since we groan in our bodily weakness and fleshly sins. But groaning is not the only thing Paul says we do. He also says that ‘we hope’ and ‘we wait,’ adding in the latter case that we do it both ‘eagerly’ and ‘patiently.’” (4) We who long for and place our hope in the resurrection of our bodies at Christ’s second coming must groan and pray for others to share in Christ’s riches. I long and sometimes groan for my family members and neighbors, community employers, employees, and volunteers to have “…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:4-5) With patience, we can plan to use our prolonged distancing for extended prayer for ourselves, our Christian family, and unbelievers. What is your plan, as you “wait” for the end of the matter?
Matthew Henry warns us about our tendency to look to the past for our best life. “It is folly to cry up the goodness of former times; as if former ages had not the like things to complain of that we have: this arises from discontent, and aptness to quarrel with God himself.” (5) And Paul, continuing in Romans 8, encourages us in our Christian hope for what God is going to do in the future. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24b-25) “The word hope has two senses: (1) an attitude of hopefulness, and (2) the content of that for which we hope…The specific content is the return of Jesus Christ together with…the resurrection of the body, the adoption of God’s children, and the gathering of God’s harvest. These things are all promised to us by God. Hence, the Christian hopes in confidence, a confidence grounded not in the strength of one’s emotional outlook but on the sure Word of God, who cannot lie. If God says that these things are coming, it is reasonable and safe for us to hope confidently in them.” (6)
Our hope is in Christ now and in his return for the new heavens and new earth, our eternal home with him. But waiting is not something we tend to do in a broad sense. This waiting is not looking for Grubhub to deliver food or the night when your favorite TV series starts a new season. “‘We wait eagerly…patiently.’ It is important to take the two adverbs together, because biblical ‘patience’ is not passivity. This is an active, though patient waiting. It expresses itself in vigorous service for Christ even while we wait for his appearing.” (7) “We with patience wait for it; as that which is certain and real, as something valuable, which will be satisfying, and be received with the utmost joy, [with] a valuable esteem and affection for it… [and] sit loose by the things of this world, and are ready to part with the one, and grasp the other…under afflictions from the hand of God, under the reproaches and persecutions of men, under desertions and want of answers in prayer, under the temptations of Satan, and in the expectation of the heavenly glory.” (8) We have lessons from marathon runners, but we have much better truths, too. So we trust God with hopeful and eager patience for the right end of things. But we put the Spirit’s gift, our heavenly patience to work for the sake of his glory. “If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation. And though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.” (Job 8:5-7)
(1) Stulberg, Brad, “What We Can Learn From Endurance Athletes About Getting Through This Pandemic,” New York Times, 5/21/20 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/well/mind/coronavirus-athletes-marathons-triathlons-sports-cycling.html
(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ecclesiastes 7:8, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ecclesiastes-7.html
(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Ecclesiastes 7:7-10,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/ecclesiastes-7.html
(4) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Romans 8:22-25, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
(5) Henry, Ibid.
(6) Boice, Ibid.
(7) Boice, Ibid.
(8) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Romans 8:25, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/romans-8.html
May 22, 2020