“Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing.’ It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”
― Fulton J. Sheen
What is God’s desire? To mold our character. How does He do this? By teaching us patience, contentment, faith, and how to trust in Him when His timing is not ours and His ways are higher than ours.
Let’s revisit verse 17 once more. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!’” (Luke 15). We see a very similar attitude of desiring the grass that looks greener on the other side in the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt.
But before we jump to the great Exodus in chapters 12 and beyond, let’s start with the initial issue in chapter 2: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (v. 23-24).
Long story short, the Israelites begged for an escape, so God swooped in via a burning bush through which He spoke to Moses and appointed him as leader over the people. He and his brother Aaron spoke before Pharaoh on multiple occasions, asking him to let God’s people go, to no avail. So God sent various plagues that represented the different Egyptian gods at the time, which obviously made the Egyptians upset, but nonetheless never persuaded Pharaoh to let them go, even when God finally resorts to killing all of the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.
However, take a look at the Israelites’ response when they have finally been freed thanks to God’s miracle of parting the Red Sea so they could walk through it on dry ground: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (16:3). Seriously?
Basically, the Egyptians have just seen God perform multiple miracles – the one right before the aforementioned passage was of God telling Moses to throw a log into the water which turned its bitterness sweet – and yet they still doubt and harbor bitterness. Why? In Egypt, Pharaoh was torturing them. He initially provided for them straw to make bricks, and then he forced them to go fetch their own straw yet still make the same amount of bricks. This was an impossible feat, so they didn’t complete the task and were beaten.
God rescues them, and it’s like they completely forgot about the abusive slavery condition of their past. They know that God promised to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey, but they’re not willing to travel through the wilderness and deal with some hunger and thirst to get there. They’re not patient, and they’re never content – because their desire is for perfection, but we will never get that in this life as a result of sin. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Ecclesiastes 7:10
Grumbling: the opposite of gratitude
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). Just as the prodigal son said to his father, “give me the share of property that is coming to me” in Luke 15:11, the Israelites wanted an advance, too – they wanted their milk and honey given to them immediately. They were unwilling to wait or go through any type of discomfort, doubting that they’d get it at all if they waited. So they grumbled. And what does God do? Makes them go in circles in the wilderness for 40 years as opposed to going straight to the promised land. Why? Their hearts and character were evil in God’s sight, which disqualified them from the promise.
If I were God, I’d be so sick of the people – constant provision of the basic necessities (God rains down manna and quail for the people to eat) and yet constant lack of gratitude from the Israelites. This reminds me of Luke 17:11-19. Jesus heals 10 lepers, and when all but one walked away after this miracle, he responds, “‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”
Patience and contentment have only gotten harder in modern times, thanks to the Internet. Immediate gratification is a relatively new expectation, with answers to seemingly every question available with a few taps of the finger. We’re scrolling through Facebook and Instagram to see if we got any more “likes.” We’re constantly checking our phone to see if we got another text or notification. The distractions are countless now, which also have a way of robbing the mind of contentment when we’re always expecting news and entertainment from our little smartphones.
However, we’re seeking attention in the wrong places. We will never be content or learn patience outside of serving living, physical human beings. We were created for these types of relationships – not digital ones.
If God takes everything away, will you still be content? Do you truly believe He is in the waiting? Is He all you desire? Are you willing to wait as long as it takes for Him to come through and rain blessings on you? Or does the wait cause you to spiral into anger, depression, and ungratefulness for all God has done?
When something bad happens, it’s so easy to forget everything good that God has already done for us, and then we just can’t wait for things to get better so we take for granted the blessings that are right in front of us.
We see an example of what not to do when we get tired of waiting, in the story of Sarai and Hagar in Genesis 16. Acting in haste, Sarai took things into her own hands when she realized she was barren. She didn’t get a child when she thought she deserved one, so she impulsively tells her husband to marry Hagar (the servant girl) and have a child with her, to carry on the family name. Sarai seemed to be confusing responsibility with 100% control and independence.
What Sarai didn’t see was that God was going to do a miracle and touch Sarai’s womb at around 90 years old. If only she’d waited, she wouldn’t have experienced the pain and consequences of her sinful actions, which came out of a lack of faith. She ended up being jealous of Hagar, abusing her, and scaring her off. Hagar and Sarai’s descendants to this day cause war and havoc, due to conflict between modern-day Muslims and Jews/Christians. Theologians believe Hagar and Abraham’s descendents through Ishmael are modern-day Arabs due to the scripture record in Genesis 21:17-21 of Ishmael living in the “wilderness of Paran,” “east country,” or northern Arabia.
So we see how one act on the restlessness involved in waiting for the Lord to act, led to generations of negative consequences.
Made aware of our lack of patience and contentment, and the issue with grumbling against God who loves us more than we can fathom and knows far more than we do, if we repent then God will forgive.
“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” Luke 15:18-19 presents a beautiful picture of a heart surgery: we see the prodigal son make a practically 180-degree turn when he gets to the grass on the other side and realizes it’s not greener! He reminisces on his old life and learns to be thankful for it. He repents, and greatly humbles himself by willing to gratefully live a hired servant’s life.
We see a pattern of God rewarding humility like this in the Bible, hinting at His grace, mercy and forgiving heart: Jacob tore his clothes and put on sackcloth in Genesis 37:34 in response to losing his son Joseph at the hands of his other brothers who sold him into slavery. God then greatly blesses Joseph by making him Pharaoh’s main righthand man, second in command over Egypt, and his father is blessed by him serving the whole family food during a famine.
Ahab “tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and … went about dejectedly” in 1 Kings 21:27. This was in response to the Lord condemning him for worshiping idols, threatening to kill him and “anyone belonging” to him (see verse 24). But because he repented, God relented of the threatened wrath and said to the prophet Elijah, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house” (21:29).
Finally, in the story of the prodigal son, we see him acknowledge the depth of his sin against God – he feels guilt, shame and humility. Then we see a picture of his father responding not out of judgment, as expected, but out of forgiveness in verses 20-24:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him … But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to celebrate.
Living with intention
Sometimes, however, our lack of patience is masked as responsibility. As Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker words it, “Our eternal priorities get subjugated to our temporal responsibilities. And we pawn our God-given dream for the American dream.” Oftentimes we get so tired of waiting on God, we stop praying for our dreams and goals…and we say vague, unspecific prayers thanking God for dying on the cross and for our family and friends, and then go back to going with the flow and the mundane motions of the day. We also want what we want now, and we want what we do not need way too often.
We have to intentionally combat those two things: distraction with the temporal, current moment; and immediate gratification. If we do not, we will unknowingly be swept into the mundane cycle of typical American life just like standing on sand in a rip tide and getting pulled way down the beach. And then we wonder how we got there. We become impatient for God to do something about the problem we created, by being inactive and failing to pay attention and live with purpose. Don’t lose hope. Your miracle may very well be just around the corner if you make it down this hallway.
Discontentment with God’s approval
According to the ESV study bible, “The father cast aside all behavioral conventions of the time, as running was considered to be undignified for an older person, especially a wealthy landowner such as this man.” When God does something so incredible, like bringing back a loved one from an addiction or a terrible pit in life, do you unashamedly celebrate? Or are you discontent with God’s approval to the point where you hesitate to give Him your all, for fear of how you may look in front of others?
My mom asked me one time, “Why do you raise your hands in worship, in public?” I’m not afraid to look out of place or silly with my hands waving up high while I’m singing at the top of my lungs in the sanctuary. I follow the Holy Spirit’s urge to surrender my everything, and that’s what it looks like for me – and that’s not something I’m ashamed of; people can think whatever they want, because God’s opinion of me is the only one that matters. David felt exactly the same way.
“And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod” (2 Samuel 6:14). Some have interpreted the ephod as being underwear, while others have read it as being a robe. Regardless, David’s celebration prompted by God bringing his presence to David (something they didn’t always have in the Old Testament like we do nowadays with the Holy Spirit) caused his wife, Michal, to “despise” him because he “uncovered” himself before his female servants. She was embarrassed and humiliated because of her husband, and expressed her disapproval to him. He denied her accusations, because he was 100% content in who he was called to be in Christ, favoring his approval above all else.
We have to hold fast to the reality that God never withholds what we need. If that’s true, He may have placed a God-honoring desire in your heart that He just hasn’t yet brought to fruition because your character isn’t ready for it yet. God is in the business of molding our attitudes and perspectives, and until those are in the right place, we won’t be able to properly care for certain blessings! We’ll take them for granted.
So God has to do a little operation on our hearts before it’s time to reap the harvest. So keep persevering and obeying the Lord with humility, not forgetting to pray, for in due time it will happen; do not give up hope. He will come through, but not always in the way you want Him to. People still die and get sick, and we don’t know all the answers, but in due time you will look back and understand – maybe in this life, maybe in the life to come. But rest assured that if you’re doing your best with what you have now, aiming to glorify God in everything you do, He will reward you.
Points to remember
~ Our sins are washed clean when we repent of our grumbling, disbelief and rebellion. God always desires reconciliation.
~ When you’re tempted to grumble and complain about your current situation, jot down some awesome things that happened today and a few things you’re grateful for – keeping a regular gratitude journal helps you stay in the right mindset.
~ Practice praying and waiting on God – this will develop a God-like endurance, helping you to have the strength to stay calm and wait patiently amid the chaos.
~ Contentment is a choice you have to make daily – start the day in God’s word to remember that God’s approval, His love and His promises are all you need. He never withholds anything we need, but that doesn’t mean life won’t be hard.
~ Make specific goals and actively, intentionally pursue them daily.