Learning to Wait Well

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Pastor, Louisville, Kentucky

I’ve never met anyone who likes to wait. And yet we spend most of our lives doing exactly that.

Sometimes, waiting is just inconvenient. We wait for Uber rides, phone calls, sales, vacations, and doctor’s appointments. We wait in grocery-store lines or for packages to arrive. From our toddler years, we’ve waited, year after year, for Christmas morning.

At other times, waiting involves genuine struggle. We wait for relief from chronic pain, financial stress, or fractured relationships. We yearn for changes in our leaders, our workplaces, our schools, and our hearts. Currently, everyone is waiting for a pandemic to end. And we know all creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19).

So, when I considered recently what psalm I wish every Christian knew by heart, I immediately thought of Psalm 40. It begins, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” Who doesn’t find it challenging to wait patiently? But the words of God, here in this psalm, can help us do just that — and more.

My Painful Season of Waiting

Psalm 40 became uniquely personal to me in the mid-90s when I went through a dark season of depression, panic attacks, and hopelessness. I asked myself repeatedly, Will this ever end?

After nearly three years of waiting and crying out to God, I finally did get my life back. A better life, actually. And it seemed God had inspired David to write the opening verses of Psalm 40 just for me:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
     he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
     out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
     making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
     a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
     and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1–3)

“Our joy and gladness come from the Lord more than from specific answers to our prayers.”

David’s lack of specifics about his trial are a gift because we can apply his words to whatever our situation happens to be. In my case, “the pit of destruction” and “miry bog” God delivered me from were the result of sinful desires for self-exaltation and control. God delivers us from pits and bogs even when they’re of our own making and design.

Ever since then, the opening verses of Psalm 40 have been a recurring refrain for me, bringing hope in the midst of my failures and weakness.

More Than Can Be Told

Psalm 40 gives us invaluable counsel, not just to sit and wait quietly, but to go further and vocalize our praise to God as we wait. It models the exact opposite of a half-hearted, polite, formalistic, introspective response to God’s worthiness and works. Consider what David says:

You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
     your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
     none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
     yet they are more than can be told. (Psalm 40:5)

As he reflects on the divine rescue he’s experienced, David gets caught up in the reality, immensity, and inexhaustibility of God’s goodness. Wondrous deeds. Incomparable thoughts. He recognizes God is always working out his plans for us, even when we can’t see them. And he can’t keep it to himself.

It’s hard to miss David’s commitment to declaring his thoughts about God so that others can hear them:

  • “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3).
  • “I will proclaim and tell of them” (Psalm 40:5).
  • “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation. . . . I have not restrained my lips” (Psalm 40:9).
  • “I have not hidden. . . . I have spoken. . . . I have not concealed” (Psalm 40:10).

These verses challenge and serve me when I’m tempted to complain about my current situation or silently endure it. Just recently, anxious thoughts about an unresolved situation began to weigh me down. In the midst of my self-focus, I said out loud, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us.” It instantly changed my perspective and lifted my spirit.

“Those who trust in God while they wait can be sure they are never out of his sight.”

Waiting for God to act isn’t a time to grumble, but a fresh opportunity to remember that God will not restrain his mercy from us (Psalm 40:11). Even when the kids are disobeying again, when you’ve missed another deadline, and when the world seems against you. God’s wondrous deeds can never be recounted often enough, because they are more than can be told.

Waiting on Waiting

If the psalm ended at verse 11, we could tie a neat bow on it. David has been delivered from his past trial and exuberant praise is gushing forth. The waiting is over! Time to celebrate!

But the verses that follow paint a more realistic picture — one that’s often more familiar.

For evils have encompassed me
     beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
     and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
     my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!
     O Lord, make haste to help me! (Psalm 40:12–13)

David celebrates his past deliverance in the midst of needing to be delivered again. His words and actions confront our tendency to think that once God has brought us through a season of waiting, we won’t have to wait for something else.

David realizes it’s not only God’s wondrous deeds that are more than can be told. The evils surrounding him can’t be numbered. And they’re largely caused by David’s own sins. His iniquities have overtaken him. They are more than the hairs of his head. He’s overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and having a hard time figuring out how to keep going.

Source of Surprising Praise

In the distress of verses 12–13, it sounds as if David has fallen back into the pit he was rescued from in verse 2. Only now it’s worse. He has people who want to snatch away his life, drag his name through the mud, and catch him at his lowest point. But David’s faith in God doesn’t wane. In fact, it seems to be strengthening: “But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” (Psalm 40:16).

How can we be expected to say, “Great is the Lord!” continually when misfortune and opposition stalk us, when confusion and anger rage in our streets, and when the future is filled with a thousand questions?

“God’s wondrous deeds can never be recounted often enough because they are more than can be told.”

Because our joy and gladness come from our Lord more than from specific answers to our prayers. Because we love his salvation and experience his goodness again and again as a result of it. He is always writing new chapters, new stories, giving us fresh reasons to declare his steadfast love and faithfulness. And as we wait through trials in a God-honoring way, rejoicing and praising through the pain and heartache, those around us learn more about the God who is righteous, merciful, and good.

Story of My Life

As David concludes his prayer, we find him waiting once again: “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!” (Psalm 40:17). This is the story of my life. And it’s the story of your life: we are always poor and needy. It’s a condition we’ll never get beyond. But you and I have this precious confidence: the Lord takes thought for us. We focus on him and his greatness. He focuses on us and our need.

And despite our faltering faith and waywardness, we can always have hope. Why? Because in the middle of Psalm 40 David prophesies of the Savior who would one day take on our poverty and need. He is the one, and truly the only one, who can say, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:7–8).

Jesus has done what no other sacrifice could do. Through his perfect humility and obedience, even to “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), he has paid for our transgressions and reconciled us to God. Those who trust in him while they wait can be sure they are never out of God’s sight, never away from his presence, and never absent from his thoughts. And one day we will experience those realities like never before.

Christopher Ash wisely reminds us, “We praise, not because the present is easy, but because the future is glorious.” And in the midst of interminable longings and delays, God is setting the stage for a mind-boggling, joy-expanding, never-ending celebration around his table at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

And more than anything we can imagine, that’s something worth waiting for.