As We Wait: Wishing or Hoping?
As we enter into the season of Advent, I am again reminded that so much of our lives is about waiting. Waiting is not for the faint of heart, but waiting is also not an accident. Waiting is a spiritual exercise that can connect us more deeply with life as God designed it for us. In the perfection of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve waited for knowledge and wisdom from God. The one tree from which they were not to eat was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was pure goodness to wait … to trust that God alone was sufficient for both defining and supplying their need.
As we wait, we have the opportunity to be shaped into people who can receive the true gifts of life and not simply the gifts we’ve been told we should want. The pain of waiting can give way to joy of receiving what we most long for in the depths of our souls. Waiting can feel lonely and disorienting when we are not able to cling to the lesser gifts that have given us comfort over the years. Like a young child “losing” its pacifier, that pain and disorientation is indeed for something better.
What is “the better”? Understanding the distinction between wishing and hoping can give us insight. Henri Nouwen beautifully expresses the difference:
“Waiting is open-ended. Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: ‘I wish that I would have a better job. I wish that the weather would be better. I wish that the pain would go.’ We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes. For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended. Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair … hope is something very different Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes. Therefore, hope is always open-ended.”
What has God promised? As we scan what God has communicated to humanity throughout history, one thing seems consistent. He promises Himself. He promises His presence. “I will never leave you or forsake you” is the comfort given in Hebrews 13:5 in the face of temptations regarding money and sex. Earlier in the letter to the Hebrews we find this connection between promise and hope stated beautifully:
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (6:19-20)
The imagery of these verses is poetic and profound. First, “hope” is an anchor to the soul. Our souls long for hope. Whether in the midst of difficult times or more smooth seasons, our souls instinctively look for hope. We need something to anchor us and keep us in from wandering. We may indeed become distracted by “wishes” as the world around us tells us that “concrete” things like food or sex or comfort will anchor our souls but the hope described here is substantially different.
This leads to the second insight: our hope is to enter the inner place behind the curtain. The “inner place” is an illusion to the Old Testament “holy of holies” where the presence of God dwelled. Because of Jesus, we are able to be in the holy place and dwell there with God.
Our hope, which anchors our souls, is that we are able to dwell in the very presence of God. Our hope in the midst of whatever storm we are facing is that we can be with God, experiencing Him in our hearts. The place that God dwells is the heart of one who knows Jesus as high priest. We might wish that our circumstances were different (but this will leave us unanchored and floating around) but we can live with hope as He is with us, drawing ourselves to Him, anchoring our hearts to His in a way that circumstances can’t touch.
As our hope is in the deepening experience of His presence, we are able to receive what is rather than wish for what isn’t. Every moment of our lives, whether calm or stormy, offers us the gift of His presence and when we put our hope in this promise, we are anchored and filled with a peace that passes all understanding.
One writer put it this way:
“Must we be whiplashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Is it not possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium, to find a deeper and steadier current? The good news is that this deeper current does exist and you actually can find it . . . For me the journey to the source of hope is ultimately a theological journey: up and over the mountain to the sources of hope in the headwaters of the Christian Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change your life in the short range, in the externals. Rather, it is something that will change your innermost way of seeing. From there, inevitably, the externals will rearrange. The journey to the wellsprings of hope is really a journey toward the center, toward the innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God.” (Cynthia Bourgeault)
So, how do we do this? How do we begin to reorient our way of seeing what is rather than wishing for what isn’t? Psalm 27:4 gives us an intensely practical, prayerful way of understanding the “how.”
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”
It begins with desire. The prayer of David in this Psalm is singular in focus: to dwell in the Lord’s presence. In the previous verses, David expressed the circumstantial challenges he was facing but his desire to experience the nearness of God was His desire. Want to be anchored in hope? Make Him your focused desire. In prayer, come back, over and over, to this being your desire. The reality is that this is your deepest desire whether you feel it or not. Honestly, when in the midst of trying circumstances, we may not “feel” it at all. This is when we pray this desire as an act of faith – knowing that this is our only hope.
Next, David, shares what it looks like to dwell. He describes being aware and attentive to God’s presence as “gazing” and “meditating.” The word “inquire” could also be translated as “meditate” (as noted in the footnotes of most English versions of the text). In Hebrew poetry, two concepts are often placed back to back in synonymous parallelism. In other words, the concepts of gazing and meditating are two ways of describing the same thing. We dwell with Him when we gaze upon His beauty, the nature of who He is. How do we do that? Through meditation.
When we “fall” in love with someone, we often find ourselves mentally gazing upon them and mulling over in our minds all the attributes of what make that person so incredible. This is a form of meditation. To meditate is to intensely focus our heart upon something.
If we want to have our souls anchored in true hope, we have to learn to focus our hearts upon the beauty of God throughout our day. Then, we are able to see and receive the gifts of His presence. We will begin to see that the world is filled with the fingerprints of His love if only we are trained to see them. Meditating on God’s beauty in the quiet, routinedspaces of our lives can translate into seeing His beauty in the more noisy, random spaces of life.
As you find yourself waiting, try these daily spiritual disciplines:
- Pay and express to God your desire to experience His presence. Journal your prayer. Write a poem about your desire. Simply tell Him what you want. Be creative each day!
- Meditate daily on the beauty of God. One way to meditate is to sit in a quiet space and focus the attention of your heart on an aspect of God’s beauty. First, try to sit for 5-10 minutes and let all thoughts gently fade except for your focus on God’s beauty. As other thoughts come, gently return to focusing on Him. For example, you might choose to meditate on His love. Simply take the phrase like “I am His beloved” or “The Lord is My Shepherd” and let that phrase come back to your awareness over and over. If other thoughts enter, gently let them go and return to your phrase.
One final thought: experiencing our hope as we learn to gaze upon Him can only happen as we learn to slow down. If we live hectic lives, the old program of fixating on “wishes” will just keep running undetected in the background of our lives. As we slow down, our waiting can be infused with hope because we will begin to see His presence in all of life. Then, we will be able to experience the grace that is always present and available.