The Practice of Waiting

Johannes Börjesson Part 8 of 13

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Waiting for Life to Change

COVID-19 has placed us in a state of waiting; waiting for the ordinary to return, for the embrace of loved ones again, or for a better future. For many the wait is less hopeful, filled with uncertainties and fears of what might come next. These forms of waiting in which we today find ourselves are predominantly passive, as we await a future in which we are once again active.

In the spiritual life waiting is reversed. Christians are called to actively wait for rest in the presence of God. Perhaps as we passively wait around for our post-COVID-19 lives to unfold we can cultivate the practice of actively waiting upon the presence of God.

Waiting in the Hebrew Tradition

The Old Testament often expresses life before God in terms of “waiting on the Lord.” Psalm 130:6 declares that our waiting for God should exceed that of the night watchmen’s waiting for the dawn: “my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.” Psalm 27:14 charges us to “Wait for the Lord” and Psalm 25:3 promises that “none who wait for you shall be put to shame.”

The Hebrew word for “wait” is kavah. This verb can be translated as “to hope,” “to expect,” or “to eagerly look for.” It is rooted in the concept of “twisting” and “stretching.” As such, it is related to the word for “cord” and to the verb “to bind together” and “to gather.” Thus, “waiting” in the Hebrew Scriptures has an active dimension no longer present in today’s culture. Furthermore, “to twist,” “ to stretch,” and “to bind” suggests that there is a formative dimension to “waiting.” In our waiting on God, he actively forms us and binds us together with him.

Waiting in the Christian Tradition

In the New Testament “waiting” is often related to the expectation of the Lord’s return (Luke 12:36; Phil 3:20). Waiting on the Lord’s arrival is a predominantly active stance that is central to the Christian life. This posture of waiting is one of “watching” and “praying” (Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36; Eph 6:18).

We see this active dimension of “waiting” on the presence of God in later Christian writers. John of Karpathos encourages waiting on God with unceasing prayer and perseverance. John promises that in waiting “there will come upon us a mighty force, infinitely stronger than any we can exert.”1 We are to be like the apostles waiting in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8).

Diadochos of Photiki advises that we “wait” for divine illumination “with a faith energized by love.” When God gives an “energy of love” the human intellect is focused on spiritual things free from the anxieties of the world.2 Hence, in our active waiting our soul comes to rest in God.

This is why Teresa of Avila says that when there is no sign of God’s presence we should actively seek him. If we do not, the dryness of our soul will only increase. Instead, we should see this as “a time to offer Him our petitions and to place ourselves in His presence; He knows what is best for us.” When God hears our prayer and draws us into his presence, “there would then be no harm in trying to keep our minds at rest.”3

Through these examples we see what it means to seek God’s presence actively. Once he makes himself known to us and we come to rest in his presence, there is less need of activity. This pattern of waiting on God, anticipating and experiencing his restful presence continues throughout the Christian life. It is our ongoing journey to God.

Waiting on God in the COVID-19 Crisis

In the current crisis we have grown accustomed to passively waiting for our normal activities to resume. But, as we have seen, waiting is inverted in the spiritual life. As Christians we are called to wait actively. So, as we await the return to normalcy, let us use this opportunity to eagerly await our true rest in the presence of God.

How to Practice Waiting

  • Place your body in waiting. This is a response to Paul’s admonition: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Find a space in which you are comfortable praying. Be there. In placing our body in a posture of prayer, it is easier to present also our internal reality before God. You do not have to be still. Waiting with the body does not have to be a passive exercise, but can be just as active as our spiritual waiting described above. In your own unique way, present your body to God.
  • Place your soul in waiting. As described above, this is an active practice in which you present your prayers and supplications to God. In Psalm 40:1, waiting on God is connected to “crying to God.” In Psalm 25:1 we find the example of “lifting one’s soul to God.” Psalm 27 contains God’s imperative to “Seek my face” (v.8) and concludes with an exhortation to “wait for the Lord” (v.14). Try not to be rushed or pushed as you present your soul to God. Trust that he is there. Be yourself before him, receive his presence, and let him speak to your soul.
  • Wait on God with others. The apostles devoted themselves to prayer “with one accord” as they waited on the Spirit (Acts 1:14). We are bound in communion with one another as we wait on him. Due to COVID-19 there is a risk of an excess of loneliness. We might set aside a time of waiting with family and/or housemates. We might utilize electronic means to wait with those we can’t be with. This is also an opportune time to connect with or seek out a spiritual father/mother or spiritual director.
Footnotes
  1. John of Karpathos, For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written to Him One Hundred Texts 50. In, G.E.H. Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware, Philokalia, vol. 1 (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 310.
  2. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination One Hundred Texts 7. In, Palmer et. al., Philokalia, 254.
  3. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, Chapter 3.5. ed. Benedict Zimmerman (London: Thomas Baker, 1921), 110. cf. Interior Castle, Sixth Mansion, Chapter 7.11, 223.
FR. Johannes Börjesson is a priest of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. He holds a PhD in Historical Theology from the University of Cambridge and works as Associate Professor in Church History and Systematic Theology at Johannelund School of Theology, Uppsala, Sweden.
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