Faith in the Wilderness of Waiting

Twenty-five years. Three hundred months. One thousand three hundred weeks. Nine thousand one hundred twenty-five days. That’s how long Abraham waited between hearing God’s promise and holding his son (Genesis 12:4; 21:5).

We can read Genesis 12–21 in one sitting. Abraham and Sarah lived it day by day, nine thousand mornings and more. Three times we’re told God appeared to Abraham to reaffirm his word (Genesis 15:5; 17:16; 18:10). Otherwise, he and Sarah carried the past promise in a land of present silence, waiting with open hands and an empty womb.

Abraham, “the father of us all” (Romans 4:16), was a waiting man; his faith, a waiting faith. As his seventies turned to eighties turned to nineties, he waited. As he moved through Haran to Canaan to Egypt and back, he waited. As his body weakened and his wife grew gray, he waited.

God could have brought Isaac sooner, or he could have given the promise later. Instead, he sent Abraham into the wilderness of waiting for twenty-five years. Waiting was part of God’s good plan for Abraham. And so it is with us.

Wait for the Lord

Like father, like sons: the children of Abraham have always been, and are still, a waiting people. We often walk with empty hands, the womb of our hopes still aching for life.

“Like father, like sons: the children of Abraham have always been, and are still, a waiting people.”

Perhaps, with David, we sit in some spiritual or relational pit, waiting for God to draw us out (Psalm 40:1–2). Or maybe, with Jeremiah, we lie in a ruin of our own making, waiting for God to rescue and redeem (Lamentations 3:25–26). Or possibly, with Isaiah, we walk before the hidden face of God, waiting to see him again (Isaiah 8:17). Either way, we have asked but not yet received, sought but not yet found, knocked but not yet been answered (Matthew 7:7–8). God has promised; we have prayed; still we wait.

Meanwhile, the questions can multiply, captured in the words of waiting Asaph:

Will the Lord spurn forever,
     and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
     Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
     Has he in anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:7–9)

When the hours roll by and the sun refuses to rise, the waiting heart can nearly break. And yet, break it does not — at least not when held by God’s own hand. For as so many saints have discovered, God knows how to make rivers run through the wilderness of waiting, daily refreshing our driest hopes. We read that Abraham “grew strong in his faith” as the childless years unfolded (Romans 4:20). And so may we, if we know where to look in our waiting: not only at our own barren life, but up to God, back to his faithfulness, forward to his promise, and down to his path.

Look Up to God

For many, the deepest pain of waiting lies in the sense that God, who once seemed so near, now feels so far away. We may find ourselves saying with David, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). The heavens were once a window; now they seem more like a wall.

Remarkably, however, Israel’s psalmists and prophets did not take God’s felt absence as reason to turn away from him. In their waiting, they kept a fundamentally Godward posture, their eyes lifted and prayers ascending to the God they could not see. The prophet Micah speaks for many:

As for me, I will look to the Lord;
     I will wait for the God of my salvation;
     my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7)

Though the skies look black as lead, and the heavens seem silent as the grave, yet I will pray to God, my only hope. I will lift my hands to him. I will pour out my heart before him (Psalm 62:8). And though I cannot see his face, yet still I will show him mine.

Look Back to His Faithfulness

After looking up to the God they cannot see, the waiting then routinely look back to God’s former faithfulness. “I will remember the deeds of the Lord,” Asaph tells himself (Psalm 77:11). Similarly, Jeremiah answers his own anguish by saying, “But this I call to mind” (Lamentations 3:21). When the present seemed a desolate land, they plundered the past for hope.

Psalm 89 may offer the most remarkable example of letting the past be heard. Ethan, the psalmist, finds himself in a desperate present, reflected in the outpoured grief of verses 38–51. Yet even as that sorrow churns within, he spends the first 37 verses of the psalm patiently walking the paths of past redemption. Before he laments, he remembers:

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever;
     with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 89:1)

“When the present seemed a desolate land, they plundered the past for hope.”

Back then he goes: to the exodus, to the promised land, to the covenant with David (Psalm 89:9–10, 15–16, 19–37), each an immovable monument to God’s unchanging faithfulness. Given Ethan’s knife-edge agony, Derek Kidner rightly calls these first 37 verses “a miracle of self-discipline” (Psalms 73–150, 356).

God still gives that miracle today. He still takes people like us, bowed down and barely able to lift our heads, and bids us look back. With Ethan, then, trace the ancient paths. Remember again God’s wonders of old. Sit beside miraculous pregnancies and split seas, a Christ born and a cross carried. And in it all, refuse to allow present pain to set the boundaries of your future hopes.

Look Forward to His Promise

With God’s past faithfulness fresh in our minds, we can dare to the look toward the future with hope. We can take our stand like a watchman on the walls, and say with defiant faith, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5). God’s promise now no longer seems like an empty word, a fragile wish: it will come as surely as the dawn (Psalm 130:6).

Abraham shows us the same orientation toward God’s promise in his own long wait:

No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:20–21)

A vague sense of God’s faithfulness was not enough to sustain Abraham’s faith: he clung to a particular promise. He remembered how God had lifted his eyes toward the starry sky and said, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham treasured every letter of that pledge as the years marched on. He carried the promise in his coat pocket like a soldier far from home, stealing glances through the day, sure that his children would one day rival the skies.

Do the promises of God find such a welcome home in your waiting heart? Whatever your need, God has spoken. He may not have promised a particular gift you long for — a son like Abraham’s, perhaps — but he has not left you promise-less. Comfort for the comfortless (Isaiah 40:1), help for the helpless (Isaiah 41:10), provision for the needy (Philippians 4:19), an answer to our knocking (Matthew 7:7–8) — all these and more he pledges to his waiting people. With Abraham, then, turn away from your own frailty, and fix your eyes on God’s promise.

Look Down to His Path

We have looked up, we have looked back, and we have looked forward. Still, however, we find ourselves in the wilderness of waiting. Maybe quiet years still stretch before us, or maybe our wait is nearly over. Either way, we have today to live. And today, we wait.

We might be tempted on a day like today to see life as somewhere in the future, waiting for us at the end of this wait. But then we hear a prayer like waiting David’s:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
     teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
     for you are the God of my salvation;
     for you I wait all the day long. (Psalm 25:4–5)

David looked not only up, back, and forward, but down to the path God had set before him today. “Lord, teach me today, lead me today, help me today. Let today be marked by present obedience, joyful submission, even as I wait for you.”

Today may feel like a wasteland and a blank, a parenthesis between a lost past and a longed-for future. But today, even today, the God of waiting has good works for you to walk in. So rehearse his promises and say your prayers. Do your work and serve your family. Love your neighbors and share the gospel. And trust that one day soon, you will join Abraham and Sarah, Moses and David, Ethan and Jeremiah to sing, “None who wait for you shall be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3).