Tuesday 12 May 2015

Glimpsing God's patience and my impatience

Last Sunday I was preaching at my home church and was given a free choice of passage and theme. I decided to explore the theme of God’s patience in Scripture.

As I explained at the start I had three reasons: 

1. There’s an intriguing comment in 2 Peter 3:15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. 

That made me go looking for the theme in Paul and you start to realise it is everywhere – most obviously in Romans 2-3, Romans 9, 1 Tim 1. Romans 3:25 is especially striking because there Paul characterises the whole time before the coming of Christ as a period of God’s forebearance/patience. And that of course is the message of OT in large measure: God is slow to anger and abounding in love – before the flood (1 Pet 3:20), throughout Israel’s history (just read Ezekiel 20) and towards the nations (remember Jonah’s fear was that God would deal with nations just like he’s dealt with his people: slow to anger, showing mercy). And, as 2 Pet 3 makes clear, the Lord’s patience endures today for the same reasons: God’s patience, we might say, is his saving power of self-restraint. 

Biblically then it’s a big theme that holds together what we often struggle to hold together: God’s wrath and his love, OT and NT.

2. Ask anyone on the street and they won’t think of God as patient. They assume he is quick to judge, grudgingly merciful. Probably many of us think we live on the verge of exhausting God’s patience or fear that he is mildly irritated with us most of the time. Apologetically then it’s an important theme. God isn’t the capricious and quick-tempered God that Richard Dawkins finds in the OT. 

3. I am painfully aware of my own impatience. I am impatient with many things and people for no good reason. And when I suffer or experience opposition I am quick to annoyance and abounding in irritation. But just maybe reflecting on God’s patience might help…
Pastorally then, some help to be had here.

For the rest of the sermon I was greatly helped by two authors: Spurgeon who showed me God’s patience in a sermon from 1886 called “God's Longsuffering: An Appeal to the Conscience,” and the non-Christian author David Foster Wallace who showed me my impatience for what much of it is: rank self-centredness.

So, some excerpts from Spurgeon first:

 First, let us admire the longsuffering of God.  Admire the longsuffering of God as to peculiar sins. Look, brethren, they make images of wood or stone, and they say, "these are God," and they set up these things in the place of him that made the heavens and the earth. How does he endure to see reasonable beings bowing down before idols, before fetishes, before the basest objects? How does he bear that men should even worship emblems of impurity, and say that these are God? How does he bear it—he that sitteth in the heavens, in whose hand our breath is, and whose are all our ways? 

Others, even in this country, blaspheme God. What an amount of profanity is poured out before God in this city! One can scarcely walk the streets to-day without hearing horrible language. An oath has often chilled me to the marrow—an oath which was not excused by any special circumstance, but rolled out of the man's mouth as a customary thing. We have to-day some among us that might match the devil in blasphemy, so foully do they talk. And oh, how is it that God bears it when they dare imprecate his curse upon their bodies and their souls? O Father, how dost thou bear it? How dost thou endure these profane persons, who insult thee to thy face? Besides, there are those who use fair speech, and yet blaspheme most intolerably. Men of education and of science are often worse than the common folk because they blaspheme with fearful deliberation, and solemnly speak against God, and against his Son, and against the precious blood, and against the Holy Ghost. How is it that the Thrice-holy One bears with them? Oh, wondrous longsuffering of a Gracious God! 

And then there are others who wallow in unmentionable impurity and uncleanness. No, I will not attempt any description, nor would I wish to take your thoughts to those things whereof men may blush to think, though they blush not to do them. The moon sees a world of foulness, fornication, and adultery: and yet, O God, thou bearest it! This great blot upon the face of the world, this huge city of London reeks in its filthiness, and yet thou holdest thy peace! And then, when I turn my thoughts another way, to the oppression of the poor, to the grinding down of those who, with the hardest labor, can scarcely earn bread enough to keep body and soul together, how does the Just God permit it? When I mark the oppression of man by man—for among wild beasts there is none that equals the cruelty of man to man—how doth the All-merciful bear it? Methinks the sword of the Lord must often rattle in its scabbard, and he must force it down, and say, "Sword of the Lord, rest and be quiet!"I will not go further, because the list is endless. The wonder is that a Gracious God should continue to bear all this!  

Think of the sin involved in false teaching. I stood one day at the foot of Pilate's staircase, in Rome, and saw the poor creatures go up and down, on their knees, on what they are taught was the very staircase on which the Lord Jesus Christ stood before Pilate. I noticed sundry priests looking on, and I felt morally certain that they knew it to be an imposture. I thought that if the Lord would lend me his thunderbolts about five minutes, I would make a wonderful clearance thereabouts: but he did nothing of the kind. God is not in haste as we are. Sometimes it does suggest itself to a hot spirit to wish for speedy dealing with iniquity: but the Lord is patient and pitiful.

Especially notice, next, that this longsuffering of God is seen in peculiar persons...  Some manifest the longsuffering of God very wonderfully in the length of time in which they have been spared to sin. Many men are provoked by one offense, and think themselves miracles of patience if they forget it. But many have provoked God fifty, sixty, seventy, perhaps eighty years. You could not stand eighty minutes of provocation, and yet the Lord has put up with you throughout a lifetime. You tottered into this house to-night. You might have tottered more if you had remembered the weight of sin that creases to you. Yet the mercy of God spares you. Still, with outstretched arms, infinite mercy bids you come and receive at the hand of God your pardon bought with the blood of Jesus Christ. This longsuffering of God is marvellous.

Second, David Foster Wallace (from an address to American College Students, with some mild language, available online):

There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is…

…If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.