BY SARAH*, A PIONEERS UK MISSIONARY
In The Psychology of Waiting Lines, first published
in 1985, the author David Maister found that uncertain waits felt longer than known, finite waits, and that the uncertain waits created more anxiety. He used the example of a doctor’s waiting room. If patients arrived half an hour early for their appointment then they would wait placidly during that time.
However, as soon as even a few minutes passed after their
appointment time then their irritation and anxiety levels would sky-rocket. Furthermore, Maister found that if patients were given a time estimate, for example “the doctor is running late by twenty minutes”, then they would be more able to wait patiently. If no time estimate was given then their waiting would be filled with nervous apprehension.
This article has some interesting parallels to what we are
experiencing now with the coronavirus, and in particular, the indefinite waiting of the lockdown restrictions. It is easier to wait and put up with something if we know how long it is going to last for. At the moment though, it seems like there’s no real idea of how long the lockdown will continue, and in what form. This uncertainty has the potential to create a lot of anxiety, which
in turn can have a detrimental effect on our health, our relationships with those around us, and our relationship with God.
This time of waiting reminds me a lot of our own time of indefinite waiting when we were trying to adopt a child in our country of service. When we first started the adoption process in 2015, we had a rough expectation of how long things would take, and we were able to be quite calm about the whole thing. Also, to a large extent, the wait was under our control, because we were the ones putting together the relevant documents and compiling our adoption portfolio (with the help of many friends and family). In August 2017, after we had submitted all our documents and homestudy checks, we were given the green light and officially placed in a ‘queue’ waiting for a match, which we had been told would take up to a year.
A few weeks after being placed in the queue, it was our ninth wedding anniversary. I woke up that morning and wrote excitedly in my diary that this time next year we could have a child. That afternoon we were emailed by a representative from the government’s adoption department and told that the adoption process had slowed down dramatically, and that it would now take three to five years for a match. (This affected other families in the process too, not just us).
We were not told the reason for this, but at the time the political situation was declining rapidly, with increasing persecution against minority groups and also a move towards cancelling visas and removing foreigners from the country. We guessed it was something to do with all this, and it seemed entirely plausible that the adoption might not even happen at all. And there was nothing we could do about it except wait.
Here are four lessons that God taught me during those anxious, uncertain months of waiting. I write them here because it is a testimony to God’s faithfulness, and because I need the reminder, and because also they might be of some relevance to people in this time of lockdown who are also
wondering how to wait.
Lesson 1: Growth happens in the waiting
In the indefinite wait of the adoption process, it felt like our lives were on pause, or worse, stagnating, even though we had plenty of other things to be getting on with. For me as I waited to adopt, my fear was that I would deteriorate so much in the endless waiting that by the time we were given a child there would be nothing left of the original me; it would be a faded version of myself, someone who had become sad, weary and embittered.
But God spoke to me about this specific fear of stagnation, using this metaphor of a fallow field:
“A fallow field is never dormant. As dirt sits waiting for things to be planted and grown, there is work being done invisibly and silently. Microorganisms are breeding, moving and eating. Wind and sun and fungi and insects are dancing a delicate dance that leavens the soil, making it richer, better, readying it for planting.” (from Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren).
It was a promise that God would be at work in me as I waited. He wouldn’t let me stagnate; he would use the waiting to grow me and
transform me. A visible and tangible reminder of this promise was my
houseplants; as I tended to them each day, watching their leaves unfurl and their flowers bud and bloom, I was reminded that growth was happening.
I started noticing more agricultural metaphors in the Bible,
particularly this verse in Ephesians 3:17, about our roots growing down deep into God’s love. This is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to -”
To do what, exactly? It is interesting at this point to fill in the blanks here, to guess how Paul would end this prayer. Paul is a type-A personality, a high achiever, so it would be natural to assume that he wants the Ephesians to have power to be better church-planters, or to be a bigger and better church.
When I read this during our adoption wait, I thought that maybe God would use the waiting to make me a better Christian. Then I would be a more effective witness for him, more willing and able to share the gospel with people. He would use the waiting to make me nicer, more patient, more understanding… Just, better. Those were my blanks that I filled in for myself.
But this is how Paul finishes that line:
“… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
and to know this love that surpasses knowledge –
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
It is significant that Paul wrote this whilst facing his own
uncertain and indefinite wait in a Roman prison. He didn’t know if he would be freed, or if he would be executed. And yet his prayer throughout the book of Ephesians was for them to know Jesus better, that they would truly grasp with their heads and their hearts how much Jesus loved them.
And this is what God did with me. He used my own time of waiting to show me, in so many different ways, just how much he loved me.
Lesson 2. Hope won’t lead to disappointment a.k.a How to wait when the thing I am waiting for might not even happen
In this time of lockdown, we don’t know how the world will look when the restrictions are lifted and the coronavirus is gone. Our lives, our society and our world will not be the same. So how do we wait when we are not even sure what we are waiting for? How do we have hope when the life we are anticipating post-lockdown might be worse than the life pre-lockdown?
When Tim* and I were given the “three to five years” estimate for our adoption match, we were doubtful we would be able to stay in the country for that long. The government was making it harder and harder for foreigners to stay, and it seemed increasingly unlikely we would even be able to stay in the country for another year, let alone up to five years.
So we waited, unsure if there would even be a child at the end of the waiting. And I wondered – how was I supposed to look forward to something that might not even happen? How was I supposed to prepare for it? What was I even hoping for?
Despair is the opposite of hope, and in that Autumn of 2017, I came very close to despair. Even though I am a natural optimist, and come from a family of rampant optimists, I was ready to take on Tim’s motto of “hope for nothing and you’ll never be disappointed”, also known as “not getting your hopes up.”
As I pondered the nature of hope during that Autumn, a friend happened to send me a whatsapp voice message from a car park in America. She didn’t know what I had been thinking about, but she felt that God had something he wanted to tell me. (This was an experience I had again and again throughout the whole adoption process. God used people to deliver divine messages when I most needed it and when I least expected it).
She said God wanted to give me this verse:
“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow
with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13).
She told me bluntly that I believed that hope led to disappointment, which was a pretty accurate assessment. She went on to say: “That verse says that the Father is the source of hope. So if hope is sourced out of the Father then it can only be a good thing, and it is only going to a good place, a place that will be good for us.”
She quoted Romans 11:33 – “How great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible is it for us to understand his decisions and ways,” and said that even though the Father’s decisions and ways seem hard and difficult, they will always lead to a place of peace, hope and life, because this is what the Father does.
And then Romans 15:4 – “And his word gives us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.”
Therefore, my friend concluded, even if there was no child at the end of the adoption process, I could have hope that whatever happened would bring life, peace and fulfilment, in the fullness of what the Father wanted to do. It would not lead to disappointment.
However, my idea of life, peace and fulfilment looked like a
biking holiday in neighbouring Thailand over Chinese New Year, and a trekking holiday in the Scilly Isles for our tenth wedding anniversary, both of which were planned, booked and paid for and both of which had to be cancelled when Tim broke his leg quite badly playing football a few months later. They were my consolation prizes for not having a child, but God was telling me that all I needed was Him. He would be enough for me, whatever happened, and it was dangerous to place my hope in anything which was not him.
Which brings me to lesson three:
Lesson 3: Don’t let your circumstances shape your view of God
This was probably the most valuable thing that God taught me
as we waited. During that Autumn of 2017 I was assailed by a lot of doubt – about my convictions, about God’s character – and I began to let what was happening dictate my view of God.
I started to think that maybe God didn’t care about me after all, or that maybe my longing to have a child was not really that important to him. I wondered if I was being taught some kind of lesson, and only when I had learnt it then God would ‘reward’ me with a child. Perhaps I had ‘heard’ God wrong, that he didn’t want us to adopt in our country of service, and all the signs from him were just coincidences. I became more and more confused. Gradually, I stopped talking to God because I didn’t trust who he was.
After a few months of this self-induced misery, I listened
to a sermon by Kay Warren (the wife of Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose Driven Life). She was talking about her son’s suicide and how in that dark and confusing time, she had to find things from the Bible that she believed to be true, things that she could say with absolute certainty that she believed about God, that she could hang on to and be sure of.
After listening to the sermon, I wrote in my diary that I knew God was kind. That was my one thing that I could hang onto about him.
It was as if God was preparing me for what was to come, because the events that followed would have been a lot harder to deal with if I hadn’t believed that God was kind. In his mercy God surprised us with a son, and yet days after, as the arrests started, we also had to flee the country, leaving friends and possessions and everything behind, not to mention a life we had spent many years planning for and working towards. But because I knew God was kind, I also knew that he would help us. He was not playing games with us or being cruel, inflicting suffering to teach us a lesson. He cared for us. He wouldn’t leave us high and dry. He would provide for us. He had good things planned for us in England, and new paths for us to walk in.
In this time of the coronavirus, it would be so easy to let our circumstances shape our view of God. Every day, there are so many sad stories of suffering and injustice that one could start to conclude that God is not good, and that he is not in control. So we need to have a right and Biblical theology of God first; this is the lens through which we view everything that is happening around us. Not the other way around.
That wasn’t to say that I stopped questioning God, or getting angry and sad at him. But I did keep talking to him. The Biblical word for this is ‘lamenting’, and it brings me to the last lesson:
Lesson four: Learning how to lament
The Bible is full of laments. In these laments, there are no easy answers, no interpretations that make sense. The laments exist in the grey space, in the mystery, in the Easter Saturday which Pete Grieg in his book God On Mute calls the day of silence, the time of no miracles.
In those dark Autumn days, when Tim and I struggled to pray, we would read a Psalm of lament together, because it would echo the words that came naturally to us, but also reminded us of the One we were lamenting to. Some of those psalms were pretty long and I didn’t have the patience or focus to sit through the whole thing, so we would only read the first few verses and then skip ahead to the last verse – like in Psalm 13, which starts:
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
And ends :
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. “
Of all the people who prayed with us and for us during the waiting and the uncertainty, those who helped us most were the ones who also lamented with us, who admitted they did not understand what God was doing, who were willing to sit in the Easter Saturday with us and yet also reminded us of truths about God’s character.
I wonder if, in this time of the coronavirus, we need to
rediscover, individually and in our churches and communities, how to lament. How to sing songs of lament and how to pray prayers of lament.
Those of you reading this will know how our adoption journey
ended. But these reflections are not about the ending; they are about the middle. In many ways, that time of waiting was just as precious as the little boy we adopted in April 2018.
So, as we wait together, not knowing how and when this coronavirus pandemic will end, “may God, the source of hope, fill us completely with joy and peace because we trust in him.”
*Names changed for security