Waiting for patience

Waiting in line…it’s definitely not on my list of top ten favorite things to do. I try to avoid it when I can. I’ve never understood, for example, why so many people are willing to stand in long lines to see the first screening of a new movie. But perhaps it’s just a matter of priorities and preferences in how we wait. Some people already feel they’ve been waiting forever for the movie to come out, and are therefore willing to brave that line. Me? I’d rather wait a few weeks for the furor to die down. Wait at home, not at the theater.

These days, of course, I might also wait for the movie to stream online for free.

Yep. “Cheap” is one of my priorities.

But some lines are unavoidable. The checkout line at the grocery store (Dude, I think to myself, peeved at the shopper in front of me. This is the express line, ten items max. See the sign?). The security screening line at the airport, which sometimes seems to go on for miles. Freeway traffic at rush hour. The Apple Store at any hour.

There’s a reason they say that patience is a virtue. I could use more of it. While standing in line, I’ve sometimes needed to remind myself that impatience will do nothing other than raise my level of stress. Why not just whack myself in the head with a meat mallet? It would make as much sense. Better to take those few moments to remember the things for which I am grateful to God.

Psalm 40 could help.

. . .

Many psalms, as we’ve seen, begin with a lament to God and a plea for help, then at some point pivot toward praise, either because God has intervened or the psalmist has received some reassurance. Psalm 40 moves in the opposite direction: it begins with grateful praise, then cries out again for deliverance, with the problem left unresolved at the end.

We’ll x-ray the psalm over the next several posts. Here, we begin with what we can learn from just the opening phrase. The psalmist, crying to God for help, nevertheless declares “I waited patiently for the LORD” (Ps 40:1, NRSV, NIV).

(Hmm. And I’m counting how many jars of spaghetti sauce the guy in front of me is trying to sneak through the express checkout line.)

In the Common English Bible the same phrase reads, “I put all my hope in the LORD.” All of these English translations are wrestling with a particular grammatical construction in Hebrew, in which two forms of the same verb are used one on top of the other. This construction makes one of the verbs (for you grammarians out there, an infinitive absolute) function like an adverb. If we were to try to translate this literally into English, it would be something like “I waited waitfully.”

Call it the New Wooden Translation.

The psalmist is thus using a perfectly ordinary word for “wait,” but intensifying it. He’s not describing a mindless loitering, standing in line playing games on your phone. This is waiting with purpose, with expectation, with yearning. In English, we have to insert some other word to capture this, hence the introduction of “patience” and “hope.”

It reminds me of Paul’s words in Romans 8:

I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. … We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18, 24-25, CEB)

Waiting, hope, and patience, all held together in the context of suffering.

I’ve always found Paul’s statement here a little puzzling, even frustrating. “We hope for what we don’t see” — well, of course. That’s by definition, as Paul himself argues. But because we can’t see it, “we wait for it with patience”? Really? Personally, I often wait with impatience for things I want but can’t see. Don’t you?

Either something’s wrong with Paul’s understanding of patience or with mine.

I’m assuming it’s the latter.

What I’m learning from the Psalms is that I have a skewed and stereotyped view of “patience.” My version of the patient believer is the one who’s always calm, who doesn’t complain, who takes everything in stride. Such folks recognize the presence of lament in the Psalms — Amen, good sermon, pastor! — they just don’t go in for that kind of thing themselves.

But the psalmist’s version of patience is “waiting waitfully,” a sometimes painful waiting for God in the midst of trouble. In Romans 8, Paul calls it “groaning” and doesn’t seem to think that groaning, hope, and patience are at odds with each other in the life of faith.

Perhaps I need to call my “impatience” what it really is: pettiness or self-centeredness. I want things to be my way on my schedule. I don’t want to be inconvenienced. Maybe what I really need is humility.

Ack. What a humbling thought.

But patience? The calm and unflappable kind? It’s not something we can manufacture in a moment. We have to learn it by experience, through the waiting and longing and hoping. Sometimes, like in the Psalms, it will look messy or sound a bit unhinged. People might even think something’s gone wrong with our faith.

And we’ll have to learn patience in that, too.

So wait for it. And while you’re waiting, consider the reasons you have to praise God, as the psalmist does. More on that in the next post.