This is part 2 of a reflection on Psalm 130. I'd recommend reading the psalm before reading this post.
The Ache of Restlessness
When I wait on God, whether for a moment or for a season, doing all the right things (silently listening for his voice, watching for his movements, holding fast to his Way) I often find I’m waiting for an answer. Nothing makes me nearly as restless as not having the answer to something. What’s my next job? What’s the right thing to do? How do I heal from this wound? Can I heal from this wound at all? Does anything I’m doing matter? I think we’re all familiar with the feeling of those questions.
Waiting can make us aware of a deep restlessness, unlike anything else. Not that waiting itself creates it, but that we become aware of the desire to contribute that lies in us. We also become well-aware that this is more twisted than it is virtuous. God has created us to bear his image, partner with him, and work the garden, from a place of security in his loving presence. But the lie that creeps in to our good desire to contribute is that we are invaluable and therefore must contribute as a means to become loved. This is not so. This is not the order of events in Genesis 1 and 2. It is not the order of events in Jesus’ life and ministry. And as Jesus says later in John 15, our fruitfulness only comes from our abiding in the Vine. We cannot bear fruit and by doing so earn our spot in the Father’s love. Any lasting fruit is going to come from the Father’s love for us.
The tough part is that in believing that this is the real order of events, we have to learn to wait on God to bring about answers, change, fruit, or whatever is causing our restlessness. The restlessness and desire to be productive that we carry to work inevitably gets carried to prayer. Like I said, I often feel like I’m not being productive enough with God. Like waiting on him serves the sole purpose of giving me an answer to an unresolved thread in my mind. This influences what I do. Instead of being still, allowing the sun to rise and waiting like the watchman, I end up turning silence into a pedantic search. I’m not making noise, but I feel worthless and I fight and fight for an answer from God, thinking he’s waiting on me to produce one.
In all our questions, we find how impatient we are. We are impatient with our lack of production. We are impatient with God. And we transfer this, thinking God must be impatient with us. Thus we wait only by subjecting our minds to the same work ethic of a workaholic CEO running from pain. We try to wait, but we find it impossible to let ourselves wait without fear of being unproductive.
Our restlessness is everywhere. As more books and podcasts are available on productivity and business acumen, it seems more and more people report feeling less productive and more dissatisfied with themselves. And fear of unproductive life is not a good motive for following Jesus. Where fear is a motive, we protect ourselves from what we were made to receive. In waiting, we learn to have a spirituality of receptivity. In the face of a spirituality that encourages me to be manically searching for answers, there is the receptive way of life, waiting on and responding to God.
My wife and I just recently watched that Mr. Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” One of the most shocking things about the Mr. Rogers show was the amount of dead space he would allow. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Fred Rogers was a priest, with a deep well of compassion for the kids who were his audience. And one of the ways he embodied the compassion of Jesus to them was to allow silent spaces on live television. TV is a way to make money. What is more unproductive than using your time on their to be silent when you should, in theory, be entertaining people? Perhaps what Mr. Rogers saw as productive was different than the noise that keeps people mindlessly engaged. He saw dead space as beautiful and necessary. Waiting became a way to express love, whether there was a takeaway statement right away or not. In fact, he was quite critical of the usual noise of TV. In one episode, he addressed kids saying: “Did you ever hear loud, scary sounds on television? Well some television programs are loud and scary, with people shooting and hitting other people. You know, you can do something about that. When you see scary television, you can TURN IT OFF. And when you do turn it off, that will show that YOU'RE the strongest of them all. It takes a very strong person to be able to turn off scary TV. Mmm-hmm. That's one of the ways you'll be able to tell that you're really growing.”
Waiting Forges Trust
I think Mr. Rogers was onto something, seeing the value of dead space. Because what we interpret as invaluable isn’t always invaluable. What I see as transitory and therefore invaluable may be a moment of communion with my Father, who, even if he doesn’t give me the thing I think I need, loves me endlessly. And it’s never a waste of time to receive the love of God.
I think of the story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10. These two sisters are hosting Jesus. Martha (who I would likely be in this scenario) is doing all kinds of prep-work, likely to make Jesus feel welcome. She gets frustrated with her sister Mary, who just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. The story reads:
“But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
“Martha has chosen what is better.” It’s not a waste of time to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive whatever it is that he might have. We live in a story that begins with the Father’s voice. It doesn’t begin with our contribution. And this needs to be experienced in our prayers, not just as a cool, pseudo-comforting idea. Learning to wait for God as the watchman waits for morning is a gift that teaches us to live as Jesus did, completely dependent, only doing what the Father was doing. It’s not that we are hopeless or careless, but that we prioritize receiving what the Father gives. We prioritize, like Mary, being with Jesus.
Trust & Presence
While God is indeed a healer, he is not a doctor in the conventional sense. He holds the balm and salve for every aspect of my soul, because he, after all, formed it. But, I need not relate to him as I relate to my primary care physician or an ER doctor. For with most doctors, I come in need, but my goal is independence from them. Success is defined in the medical field by me no longer needing care for the same things, or at least not needing it as frequently. With God, this is not so. My goal is not to have a healing ointment administered to me so that I might never need to come back. While it is possible to heal from things so that I may not need the same treatment in the same ways after a while, my goal is never to be able to have all the tools I need and sit alone in my house — without God. My goal is to be with the one who had all of these things in the first place at all times. It is heightened dependence on God that my soul most requires for maturity, not independence from him. For his ultimate gift is his presence. God, as many of the prophets and the apostle Paul called him, is unsearchable. It is not that we do not know him or cannot know things about him, but that we cannot hold him within our grasp. He makes himself known to us, primarily in the person of Jesus, but not so that we might feel we have him under control, but so that we might miss surrender to the mysterious yet solid foundation that he is.
Waiting is often hard because I turn it into a period of pedantic searching. I hold my needs before God as though he is supposed to give me an answer that I myself will administer to my wounds. Then I will be OK. God does bring healing, but it does not tend to come without his presence. What I need is not an answer, but God. What a crying child needs is not an email that explains away their fear with a valid logic, but a loving parent to pick them up and hold them. If I spend my time waiting and praying as though my goal is simply a takeaway statement or an answer from God, I may spend my life perpetually restless and the place where I am supposed to find the most rest. Often my desire is good here, that I want to become mature and holy. And God wants these things for me as well. But I do not get to experience them outside of dependence. My life is to be hidden with Christ in God, not isolated from God because God is giving me everything I need. Adam and Eve were in the garden experiencing abundant life, and only forsook this abundance when they attempted to take what could only be given. Ronald Rolheiser says this about receptivity:
“To be a saint is to be motivated by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less. Scripture, everywhere and always, makes this point. For example, the sin of Adam and Eve was first and foremost a failure in receptivity and gratitude. God gives them life, each other, and the garden and asks them only to receive it properly, in gratitude — receive and give thanks. The original sin was precisely Adam and Eve’s refusal to do this. Instead they took the apple, taking as by right what could only be received gratefully as gift.”
So while there is a question asking nature to waiting that is important and necessary, I cannot divorce it from the ultimate purpose of waiting, which is trust, a willingness to receive from God. Waiting is a place where trust in the person of Jesus is forged, not trust in myself through what Jesus has given me is forged. In waiting, I am weaned off of my false systems of self validation, and thrown into the irresponsible looking way of abandonment to love.
The rest that we desire in our restlessness comes as I learn to begin by receiving the love of God, before I try to manufacture it. I learn to “take delight in the LORD,” and allow him to give me the desires of my heart (Psalm 37). As I learn to prefer his presence over his answers, my manic search becomes less of the norm. Waiting in silent receptivity before life and before God is the posture that trains me for loving relationship with him. It does not have to be void of hope because it is void of clarity. Rather, it can be rich with hope because it is the place in which I learn to depend upon the person and presence of Jesus, rather than merely the answers of Jesus. It is not that he doesn’t provide answers for where I feel lack of clarity, but that his presence is always the thing that houses his answers, not the other way around.