In this season, we are both in the beginning of the Advent season for “western” Christians, and in the middle of the “eastern” Advent, the Christmas Fast, for Orthodox Christians. In this time of year, when we can tune out the noise of the commercial mercantile season, we hear notes of hope and waiting. This season is the time where we enter mystically, spiritually the experience of ancient Israel, as well as the entire cosmos, hopefully anticipating, waiting for, the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Although merchants focus us on the joy of the season, so that we’ll purchase their things, the Christmas joy is not yet. We’re in the time of hope and waiting.
It’s important to make sure we keep this distinction. Oh, yes, I know, even the Orthodox hymns of this time are already starting to “turn the corner” with their joyful hints and glimpses of what’s to come. And even though Orthodox traditions in the United States still try to keep a spare and penitential theme during the Nativity Fast, we’ll still celebrate St Nicholas’ day with gold-foil chocolate coins in the shoes of the children on December 6th, St Nicholas’ Day, and it’s not unheard of that Christmas stockings with candy, nuts, fruit and little icons will be passed out to the children near St. Nicholas’ Day. Yet, even so, Orthodox keep this season in fasting and almsgiving. We will feast. For twelve days beginning Christmas Day. But now we wait and hope.
I wanted to emphasize this distinction, because it is an important one spiritually. All of us live in the not yet prior to the return of the Lord. All of us are in, if you will, the time of waiting and hope for the coming of the King and the new heaven and new earth. And this waiting is important for us, for our growth and maturity in Christ. I won’t beat the dead horse of our instant gratification society, however true such deadening reality is in our world. But we are, indeed, a society that does not know how to wait, nor know how to wait in hope.
I was moved to reflect on this waiting and hoping by an article I saw linked on Facebook, which was actually about single women waiting for husbands. This is not going to be about that. But the article did point out something that gave me cause to wonder if we have two unhelpful extremes to waiting and hope.
If I may hijack the main point of the blogpost about waiting for Mr. Right, there is one extreme of waiting wherein one does all the right things and expects what they’re hoping for as some sort of result, even reward (we might spiritualize it as “God’s blessing”) for all the hard work and patience we’ve put in. I don’t think this is necessarily a “name it and claim it” sort of expectation (though I’m sure it can be), but rather, like the disciples casting their nets again and again through the night, we expect some results from our labors. Frustrated and perhaps not a little put out by Jesus’ telling them to cast their nets on a particular side of the boat (“Oh, as if we hadn’t already done that umpteen times, Lord!” you can almost hear them think), they do respond, “We’ve already done that.” And yet, having cast yet again, lo and behold, fish and more fish.
One might point out, “See! They kept at it, they obeyed the Lord, and he finally gave them what they’d been laboring for.” So we’re encouraged, whether in the areas of relationships, our vocation, the raising of children, deliverance from financial constraints, dealing with bad co-workers or bosses, to just keep casting the net, just keep doing what you’re doing and God will make it happen. And yes, the miraculous catch of fish, which happens again after Jesus’ Resurrection, does in fact result after the disciples, having labored through the night, obey Jesus’ word. But we might also ask: how many times had this happened and they took the boats in for the day after not catching any fish?
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it turns “principles” into something like “supernatural laws.” Toss a body out of an airplane and it will descend at a certain rate of speed, calculated for wind resistance. Every time. We read in Scripture, you reap what you sow. You don’t gather figs from thornbushes, and so on. All of which is true. In principle. But principles aren’t laws.
How many generations of faithful Israelites prayed, offered sacrifices, and asked the Lord to send the Messiah? And why didn’t God do it earlier? The generation of faithful Israelites alive during Jesus’ ministry weren’t any more special or doing anything “more right” than the generations before them. Mary is, indeed, a special woman, but were there not other possible “Mary’s” before the Mary who became the Theotokos?
Behind the spiritual principles of waiting and hoping is not some impersonal force we call Grace or perhaps Providence, who operates on cause and effect. Thank God. No behind these spiritual principles is a Person, or, better, a Trinity of Persons. Who happen also to be free, free to choose. And as one of our saints has emphasized, there is not only one monochromatic Good, for these Trinity of Persons to choose, but rather an infinity of goods for them (and ultimately us) to choose.
So, yes, we might do all the things we should, casting that net appropriately over one or another side of the boat, we might be faithful and obedient, just like that other person over there who is, indeed, blessed with a wonderful wife or husband, a fulfilling job, faithful and beautiful children, financial blessing and so on. So, if we’re doing all the same things they’re doing, why aren’t we seeing the desires of our hearts fulfilled? Because we’re not dealing with impersonal principles, but a radically loving Person who is blessing us and will bless us. Even if it’s not yet, and even if it’s not precisely with the desire for which we have longed over so many years.
But although there is the extreme of a sort of mechanistic, do x, get y, way of waiting and hoping, there is also another extreme we would do well to avoid. I have often seen those who have come to realize that do x, get y is not really Christian, and on a practical level is just frustratingly haphazard, go to a different extreme. They simply give up and give in to a sort of fatalism. They spiritualize it with a sort of “I don’t need anybody but Jesus” response. But as I listen to them describe their heartbreak and what they’re doing in response, it looks more like denial of the heart. This, too, is unhelpful, an unhealthy repression in some cases. Don’t get me wrong, “the right spouse,” “the right vocation,” “godly children,” can all be idols we erect at the expense of our devotion to Christ and to living the faith. And it is right to reorient our lives properly with the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and, with that proper orientation, love our neighbor as ourselves.
That is to say, while it is right to give up a mechanistic approach to God blessing our obedience, trying to discover just the right combination of actions, just the right balancing act between working and waiting–it isn’t necessarily better to then shrug one’s shoulders, deny one’s true longings and to say, “I just need Jesus, that’s all, just Jesus.” Because while our desires can be distorted in unhealthy ways, nonetheless, back of our desires are things that are good, noble and true. It is good, while in this mortal flesh, to eat healthy foods. And the desire for food is a good thing. Can that desire be distorted? Of course. Does it make the desire for food bad? No. Similarly, the desire for sexual union with one whom we love, is also a good thing in this life. Can it be distorted? Absolutely. So, it is not the case that an unfulfilled desire is a bad thing, and we need to just give it up and get with God. It may simply mean that the desire we have is being fulfilled right now in ways we don’t see, because we have our eye on a different target, or it is going to be fuflfilled in a way different than we now imagine. Or, and let’s not give up hope: it will indeed be fulfilled, we need just continue to wait.
Between these two extremes, it seems to me is the proper place to be. Waiting and hope go hand in hand, and both must be fueled by a living faith, a trust in God that God will both be who he is for us, and do for us exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we can think or imagine.
So, to return to the blogpost article that initially catalyzed these thoughts: if you are a single person still waiting on that spouse for whom you’ve longed all your adult life, or to anyone waiting on the fulfillment of a particular desire, keep doing what you’re doing. Now, you may stop one or another activity (a single person may stop going out on dates for a season, a jobseeker may stop posting resumes for a time). That’s fine. No one can be operating at “game on” intensity all the time. Take a break. You probably need it. Just don’t forget: The waiting is for our sifting and transformation, which transformation is an end in itself, irrespective of the right spouse or right job, and wonderful godly two-point-five children. But while you continue along the general lines of your efforts, while you continue your prayers, you must remember, you are not dealing with principles and formulas, you are dealing with Persons, who are free to respond how They will to your efforts. Just because you do all the right things doesn’t mean you will get what you long for. You might get something even better, something you do not yet even see as better, but will far exceed your current expectations.
On the other hand, don’t spiritualize fatalism. A desire delayed isn’t necessarily a desire denied. But even more to the point, desire in itself isn’t evil. This delay of a desire may be much more about your transformation. And at the end of this current transformation, you may find also your desire transformed. Maybe it truly is now “just about Jesus,” but be careful. A fatalistic denial is a poison, where giving up plants seeds of hidden resentment and bitterness, or may hide the tiny shoots of such seeds already sprouting. Some are eunuchs because underneath the facade they are bitter.
If we listen to the songs of Advent, the hymns of this pre-Christmas season, we can hear the longing, we can hear the frustration, we can hear the sorrow. It is good for us to experience this. This is why it is good for us to wait, and to hope. This is why we must not succumb to a mechanistic understanding of our how longings are fulfilled. This is why we must not succumb to a “just Jesus” turn of the heart that is really a mask hiding underneath a lingering resentment of unfulfilled desire or hurts. Let’s weep out our frustration for hunger not sated, for thirsts not slaked. Let those tears transform our hungers and our thirsts. But let us not deny our hunger and our thirsts all the same. Let us continue to hope, and to pray, and to wait.
Messiah will come. In him is truly the fulfillment of all desires.