So there I was, sitting in my office in Hampton, waiting for Julia, whilst at exactly the same time Julia was sitting in her office in Twickenham waiting for me! It was 30 years ago and we were both working in Estate Agency at the time. It was one of our first dates and we were going out for a drink, or perhaps dinner. Julia was rather late and I was beginning to think that she had stood me up when the phone rang. It was Julia. ‘Where are you?’ she said. ‘You were supposed to be meeting me at my office 20 minutes ago!’ And she was absolutely right. We were going to a place in Twickenham so why on earth would she be coming over to where I was in Hampton to pick me up? I had got my wires crossed … and so began a lifetime of realising that I was always wrong and Julia was always right! (I jest, of course).
The spiritual application of this little story is this: All too often we are waiting for God to speak, act, move, do something … when the reality is God is waiting for us. We are like the man or woman lying on the beach in the shade railing at the sun to move and shine on them where they are, when what they really need to do is move to a sunnier part of the beach. (Of course there are those who prefer to be in the shade rather than the sunshine but you can work out the spiritual application of that for yourselves).
Now the Bible does tell us that there are times when we do need to ‘wait for God’. Isaiah tells us that it is ‘those who wait for the Lord [who] shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:31 NRSV). Perhaps ‘wait upon the Lord’ might be a better translation implying a ‘prayerful waiting on God’ rather than just a ‘sitting around’ waiting for God to do something (as the Thessalonians did with their warped view of the Lord’s Return).
Waiting for God in this way is not easy as the Early Church discovered in trying to wait prayerfully for the coming of the Holy Spirit in those 10 days between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-2:4). They started well, gathering for corporate prayer in the Upper Room (v. 14) before Peter got all ‘institutional’ and insisted that they stopped praying, and called a ‘church meeting’ instead to elect a replacement Apostle for Judas Iscariot (vs. 15-26). Did they already have a ‘church constitution’ (that must be abided by at all costs) in those days? Now we do need ‘rails to run on’ but at the same time we must recognise that any constitution is meant to be ‘the servant of the church not its master’. Anyway they had a vote on it and elected Matthias (v. 26), who was never heard of again by the way (instead of waiting for the Apostle Paul to arrive on the scene). After Pentecost they never ever again elected anyone by ‘casting lots’ (v. 26) but relied upon being led and guided by the Holy Spirit.
The real problem, however, is not so much us waiting for God, as God waiting for us! God is always willing to guide us – ‘you will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way, walk in it!”’ (Isaiah 30:21). No, our real problem is doing what God tells us to do when he tells us what he wants of us. This came home to me recently meditating on the story of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). We don’t know exactly what this ‘thorn’ was? An ongoing illness Paul suffered with, perhaps failing eyesight (see Galatians 6:11)? Or perhaps a particularly ‘difficult’ person in the church? The only other occasions when this expression ‘a messenger of Satan’ (v. 7) is used (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3) all refer to people? Someone facetiously even suggested it was a reference to Paul’s wife … and that her name as ‘Grace’?
Whatever his ‘thorn’ was, Paul tells us that ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (vs. 8,9). This whole passage is often put forward as (amongst other things) an example of perseverance in prayer – the importance of keeping on ‘asking … seeking … knocking’ (see Matthew 7:7-12) – which eventually brings an answer from God (even if it is an answer we don’t really like). Personally I believe God is kinder, more gracious than that and (as implied earlier) is always willing to answer our prayers promptly – even if the answer is that we need to be patient and (even though the reason may not be forthcoming) keep on praying into the situation.
When it comes to what Paul is saying here in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 I would like to suggest an alternative interpretation. Although I can’t prove this, I would suggest that God didn’t only answer Paul’s prayer at the third time of asking but actually gave his answer straight away … although Paul struggled to come to terms with God’s answer to his prayer. We know that Paul was not perfect and that he did get things wrong occasionally (see 2 Corinthians 2:12,13). So here, I suggest that Paul struggled to accept what God was seeking to say to him concerning his ‘thorn’… and that this interpretation is just as valid (if not more so) than the suggestion that this is all about persevering in prayer. I suggest that when Paul prayed about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ God answered him immediately and that that answer was exactly the same answer Paul records here – ‘My grace is sufficient … my power is made perfect in weakness’. Paul was immensely gifted and the temptation for him was to rely on his natural gifts rather than on God to further God’s work – hence he tells us here that this ‘thorn in the flesh’ was ‘given me to keep me from being too elated (too full of myself?)’ (v. 7) and enabled him in his weakness to be a vehicle, a channel of God’s grace to others!
I would suggest that God actually answered Paul the first time he prayed – but Paul didn’t hear what God was saying – perhaps he was too busy talking to God about his problem to actually listen to God, or simply just too busy? And when Paul got round to praying about his ‘thorn’ for a second time (we don’t know how much later this was after Paul’s first prayer on the subject) God’s answer was exactly the same answer as previously – God doesn’t change his mind on matters like this. This time Paul heard what God was saying but he didn’t like the answer God gave him – he wanted deliverance not a reason – so he resisted what God was saying and refused to accept it. The third time Paul prayed about his ‘thorn’, however – God again gave him exactly the same answer as before – but this time Paul was finally in a better place in God, a humbler place, a submissive place, and he accepted what God was saying to him. Paul moved out of the shadow into the sunshine if you like. Paul got in his car and drove all the way over from Hampton to Twickenham … or whatever his equivalent was?
So, what is it that God is saying to us – individually and as a church – during this period of lockdown? Are we struggling with it … or taking it on board? Resisting it because we don’t like it? Because we are hoping that God will change his mind and come up with a more palatable answer? Or are we accepting that God really does know what is for the best for us. Perhaps our initial prayer needs to be, ‘Lord, help me to be willing, to be willing to do your will!’