THE LONG VIEW OF THINGS
The Charcoal Grill vs. The Microwave
Slow and steady wins the race.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Patience is a virtue.
Yet we don’t believe any of that, not in our world of microwaves, smart phones, Netflix, and free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime. Almost everything we want is “instant” “and “on demand.” Almost everything. It’s not so with God. We are plagued with the double-disease of pride and hastiness. We want what we want, and we want it now.
We want to be freed from our sins now.
We want others to trust Jesus now.
We want Jesus to return now.
But when these wishes aren’t granted, when these prayers seem to go unanswered, we wonder, “What gives? Why is God so slow?”
He’s not, actually. We’re impatient and ungrateful. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
OK, but if God wants us to come to repentance why can’t it happen a little sooner? Our problem is that we so often misunderstand what is wrong, underestimate our own sin, and are confused about how God works to accomplish his plans.
We need to recover the long view of things. We need a patient faith that entrusts our lives to God as we keep obeying him and doing what’s right.
The Long View of Salvation
The Bible speaks of salvation as a three-fold solution to our problem: salvation is past, present, and future. In Christ, God has freed us from the penalty of sin (past), and he will one day free us from the presence of sin (future). Presently God is at work to free us from the power of sin. That means in addition to being forgiven of sin, we also need to be set free from our slavery to sinful, selfish desires. As Paul explains, “Jesus died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Cor. 5:15).
A brilliant theologian in the early church named Augustine said this about how we are freed from sin: “Without God, man cannot. Without man, God will not.” What he meant was that God does not save us only by doing something to us, but also by doing something in us and through us. In other words, God saves us from our present slavery to sin and selfishness by working in us to change our desires, thoughts, habits, and actions.
The work of ‘freeing us from ourselves’ takes time. After all, we have been cultivating these selfish desires for our entire lives. Why should we expect them to go away in an instant?
The Scriptures call this process “putting to death” our sinful practices (Col. 3:5). We do this in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) as we “put off the old self with its practices, and put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:9-10). This is what Jesus meant he called us to ‘die to ourselves daily’ (Mark 8:34-35). All this is accomplished by working out through practice what God works into our hearts through grace (Phil. 2:12-13).
Sometimes people object, saying, “God can do anything. He could free me from this sin right now if he wanted to. So why doesn’t he?” There are two reasons.
First, Thomas Aquinas, a medieval Christian scholar, wondered if God may not free us from a habitual sin immediately because he knows that we would afterward fall into an even greater sin: total neglect of God. We all know what this is like from experience. When things are going well, it is easy for us to forget God and fall into an even deeper kind of selfishness than they otherwise would. But that kind of selfishness is what God is freeing us from! So, Aquinas reasoned, God may not make our problems disappear immediately in order to teach us lifelong dependence upon him. That’s far from harsh, by the way, since lifelong trust in God will actually lead to even greater freedom from slavery to our selfishness.
The second reason God doesn’t immediately “zap” our sins away is, as we said earlier, God works with us not without us. It’s kind of like the difference between getting a car out of a ditch and teaching the driver not to end up in the ditch in the first place. We tend to think that God simply wants to get us out of the “ditches of life,” when in reality God intends to teach us how to drive. Getting us out of a ditch takes only a moment. But teaching bad drivers to drive well takes a considerably long period of time. A lifetime, in fact.
When it comes to doing the right thing for the right reasons, we are terrible “drivers.” We need the grace of God from start to finish, not only to forgive us, but also to teach us to live rightly. As Paul says, “Grace teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12).
Ah, but some of you are still wondering, “Why doesn’t grace teach us a little faster?” For one thing, you underestimate the depth of your sin. Not to mention, our lack of growth in grace isn’t God’s fault. No one is able to say to God, “I’m immature because of you.” On the contrary, any lack of growth or change in our lives is a consequence of our continued sinfulness and hardheartedness. We resist the Spirit (Acts 7:51), “quenching” his work in our lives (1 Thess. 5:19), even “grieving” him in the process (Eph. 4:30).
Instead of doubt and impatience, we need to have the long view of salvation, one that begins with humble gratitude for God’s willingness to bear with persistent sinners like us. God is richly kind, forbearing, and patient with us so that we might walk in repentance (Rom. 2:4). As Peter says, “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation…” (2 Pet. 3:15).
The Long View of God’s Mission
God has been working through his people for thousands of years before you and I came on the scene, and he will continue doing so for years to come. Maybe thousands of years. Maybe tens of thousands.
Too many Christians, especially in America, run around like headless chickens in our efforts to fulfill the mission God gave us, the mission to make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20).
God has the long view of his mission. He waited thousands and thousands of years from the first sin of humanity until the birth of Jesus. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son. . .” (Gal. 4:4). That is why the apostle Peter writes, “Don’t overlook this fact, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Pet. 3:18).
Those who don’t have the long view of God’s mission often fall into a kind of hastiness that leads to carelessness and shortsightedness. Consider the difference between a man who builds hastily and one who builds with the long view of things.
Most modern homes are built hastily. They use cheap wood from trees that grow quickly. They speed up the building process by cutting corners wherever they can. As a result, many of the homes built in the last twenty years will be in need of very serious renovations after just a few decades—if they are still standing.
Contrast that with the way homes used to be built. My neighbor across the street lives in a home that was built with slow-growing hardwood trees. Though built in the late 1800s, his home still has most of the original wood siding. Similarly, I once stayed in a hotel in Europe that was over 400 years old. The walls and floor joists were original. They were built with the long view of things.
You see, the man who builds his house hastily isn’t concerned about whether or not it will be standing in fifty years. “I just need a home that will last me until I die,” he says. But the man who builds his house with the long view of things will bless many generations after he is gone.
The same is true of the mission of God. We must be people who have the long view of things. God has been working for thousands of years before us, and we benefit from the faithful legacy of the men and women God used to build his church. Our calling is the same as theirs: “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13).
Still some will say, “Shouldn’t we have a sense of urgency about the mission? Don’t lives hang in the balance?” Of course we should! But urgency isn’t the same as hastiness. Hastiness says, “Live as if today were your last!” Urgency says, “Live as if today matters, because tomorrow you will reap what you have sown.” Oh, and so will you children and your grandchildren.
The church has continued into the present not mainly because of a bunch of zealous evangelists, but more because of the faithfulness of everyday Christians who love God and love their neighbor with the long view of things.
Jesus Had the Long View of Things
In Jesus’ first recorded sermon, he quotes the following psalm of David, which tells the people of God to trust and obey as they wait for him to fulfill his purposes.
Jesus says that all sorts of people who don’t look blessed now—mourners, the meek, peacekeepers, the persecuted—will be blessed in God’s future. Jesus could say this because he had the long view of things. His kingdom has come into the world, and it will have no end. All those who accept Jesus’ view of reality will trust in the Lord and do good with steadfast patience and hope.
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong;
For like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the earth.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the earth and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.
For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones.
Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.
The righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever.
Hope in the Lord and keep his way.
He will exalt you to inherit the earth; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it.
I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
But he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.
Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace.
But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked.
The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them because they take refuge in him.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.