“People are always impatient, but God is never in a hurry!” Nikos Kazantzakis wrote those words and they highlight an important truth: We need to be patient, infinitely patient, with God. We need to let things unfold in their proper time, God’s time.
Looking at religious history through the centuries, we cannot help but be struck by the fact that God seemingly takes his time in the face of our impatience. Our scriptures are often a record of frustrated desire, of non-fulfillment, and of human impatience. It’s more the exception when God intervenes directly and decisively to resolve a particular human tension. We are always longing for a messiah to take away our pain and to avenge oppression, but mostly those prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.
And so we see in scripture the constant, painful cry: Come, Lord, come! Save us! How much longer must we wait? When, Lord, when? Why not now? We are forever impatient, but God refuses to be hurried. Why? Why is God, seemingly, so slow to act? Is God callous to our suffering? Why is God so patient, so plodding in his plan, when we’re suffering so deeply? Why is God so excruciatingly slow to act in the face of human impatience?
There’s a line in Jewish apocalyptic literature, which metaphorically, helps answer this question: Every tear brings the messiah closer! There is, it would seem, an intrinsic connection between frustration and the possibility of a messiah being born. It seems that messiahs can only be born after a long period of human yearning. Why?
Human birth already helps answer that question, gestation cannot be hurried and there is an organic connection between the pain a mother experiences in childbirth and the delivery of a new life. And that’s also true of Jesus’ birth. Advent is a gestation process that cannot be rushed. Tears, pain, and a long season of prayer a are needed to create the conditions for the kind of pregnancy that brings forth a messiah into our world. Why? Because the real love and life can only be born when a long-suffering patience has created the correct space, the virginal womb, within which the sublime can be born. Perhaps a couple of metaphors can help us understand this.
John of the Cross, in trying to explicate how a person comes to be enflamed in altruistic love, uses the image of a log bursting into flame in a fireplace. When a green log is placed in a fire, it doesn’t start to burn immediately. It first needs to be dried out. Thus, for a long time, it lies in the fire and sizzles, its greenness and dampness slowly drying out. Only when it reaches kindling temperature can it ignite and burst into flame. Speaking metaphorically, before a log can burst into flame, it needs to pass through a certain advent, a certain drying out, a period of frustration and yearning. So, too, the dynamics of how real love is born in our lives. We can ignite into love only when we, selfish, green, damp logs, have sizzled sufficiently. And the fire that makes us sizzle is unfulfilled desire.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offers a second metaphor here when he speaks of something he calls “the raising of our psychic temperature.” In a chemistry laboratory it’s possible to place two elements in the same test tube and not get fusion. The elements remain separate, refusing to unite. It is only after they are heated to a higher temperature that they unite. We’re no different. Often it’s only when our psychic temperature is raised sufficiently that there’s fusion, that is, it’s only when unrequited longing has raised our psychic temperature sufficiently that we can move towards reconciliation and union. Simply put, sometimes we have to be brought to a high fever through frustration and pain before we are willing to let go of our selfishness and let ourselves be drawn into community.
Thomas Halik once commented that an atheist is simply another term for someone who doesn’t have enough patience with God. He’s right. God is never in a hurry, and for good reason. Messiahs can only be born inside a particular kind of womb, namely, one within which there’s enough patience and willingness to wait so as to let things happen on God’s terms, not ours.
Hence, ideally, every tear should bring the messiah closer. This isn’t an unfathomable mystery: Every frustration should, ideally, make us more ready to love. Every tear should, ideally, make us more ready to forgive. Every heartache should, ideally, make us more ready to let go of some of our separateness. Every unfulfilled longing should, ideally, lead us into a deeper and more sincere prayer. And all of our pained impatience for a consummation that seems to forever elude us should, ideally, makes us feverish enough to burst into love’s flame.
To offer yet another image: It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth!