Often ministry seems painfully slow. Church growth is slow; people are slow to respond to the gospel; Christians are slow to grow in holiness. And so we ask, Why, God?
It’s helpful to remember that time is created by God. Time is God’s instrument to achieve this magnificent sovereignty project, at the end of which his will shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven (Matt. 6:10). The core truth is that it takes time to develop and reveal what lies in the human heart. Writing to Timothy to tell him not to ordain a man too hastily, Paul gives this reason: “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” (1 Tim. 5:24)
Jesus spoke of the world as like a field in which weeds and good crops have been sown together; we must wait until both have grown before it is time for the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). This is why Jesus does not return in judgment sooner than he will: “The Lord [Jesus] is not slow in keeping his promise … Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9)
The great patience of God is a wonderful thing. To understand it and embrace it will make some very great differences to our lives and ministries. Here are four.
1. We should be patient when people do not become Christians
We long so much for friends, family and people in our community to come to faith in Christ. There is nothing we yearn for more than this, if we love them. We take what opportunities we can to share the good news with them. We pray for them. Sometimes we feel we are banging our heads against a brick wall: Why can they not see what to us is so clear?!
When Jesus started his preaching ministry, and revealed himself as God’s Messiah, we might think that the whole nation of Israel would have embraced him. Did they not have the hope of the Messiah? Did they not have the scriptural prophecies? And yet, while some received him, many others rejected him—especially the religious elite. So Jesus promised that “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places … in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
The devil says: “They shall not come.” People say, “We will not come.” But when God turns someone’s heart, they will come! Be patient, pray, bear witness to Jesus, and trust in God to do this work in some people as and when he chooses. Some of us will do well to think back to how long a process it was for us to come to a clear and definite faith in Jesus; and yet God brought us there in the end.
2. We should be patient when Christians let us down
It is a terrible and a discouraging thing when a prominent Christian, perhaps a pastor or well-known leader, falls into scandalous sin; or when an older Christian is shown up to be a hypocrite; or when a local church splits amidst acrimony and backbiting. Christians let us down. Why does God allow this to happen?
The Bible warns us: “Do not put your trust in princes [that is, powerful and influential people], in human beings, who cannot save.” (Ps. 146:3). Why? Because people are human, mortal, and—one way or another, suddenly or gradually, tragically or honorably—their “plans will come to nothing”.
We need to remember two truths.
First, that not every apparent Christian is a real Christian. It is terribly possible to look the part and talk the talk without a heart really changed on the inside. Judas Iscariot looked like a disciple, but he wasn’t a true disciple.
But, second, we need also to remember that the work of the Spirit in real believers is not yet finished. It may be that the Christian who failed is indeed a real Christian. It may be seen at the end that God’s grace triumphs in their lives.
It is wise not to jump to conclusions too soon. Remember the great patience of Jesus, and that the process by which God changes a sinner into a man or woman in the likeness of Jesus is a long one. He will do it, for he has promised to do it. But it will take time, and most likely there will be bumps and bruises on the way.
3. We should be patient with ourselves
If we care about living God’s way, we will sometimes throw up our hands in dismay at how little progress we have made. Perhaps triggered by falling into some sin yet again, as our consciences hurt so much, we may cry out, “I have been a Christian for many years—I’m even a pastor!—and still I fall into pride, or selfish anger, or greed … Have I learned nothing?” Remember the patience of Jesus and the promise of God to bring to completion the good work he has begun in us. This will be a great comfort.
4. We should be patient as we wait for a broken world to be healed
“How long, Sovereign Lord?” is the cry of the believer struggling with the pain of a broken world (Rev. 6:10)—a brokenness that those in pastoral ministry regularly come face to face with. It is a good cry and a right cry. There is a sense in which all Christian prayer is the outflow of the longing for the end of the world—for the day when God vindicates his elect, when “Babylon” (that symbol of all that is evil) is destroyed, when Jesus returns in glory to judge the world and rescue his people.
“I wait for the Lord,” cries the psalmist, “more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” (Ps. 130:6). As we wait, we remember that God is sovereign and faithful: morning will come, as sure as day follows night. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” and never will (Jn. 1:5).