Learning to Trust the Slow Work of God
My colleague Brian and I were discussing the work a promotional agency was doing to encourage people to visit articles on Renovaré’s website. (Renovaré is a Christian spiritual formation organization. I serve there as the director of education.)
“This agency means well,” Brian said, “but they keep suggesting headlines like ‘Four easy steps to spiritual growth.’ If we want to be accurate, what we really need is ‘How to become more like Jesus in 70 challenging years.’ “
I laughed, but I knew he was right. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve become convinced of two important things.
First, it’s truly possible for a human being to undergo genuine spiritual transformation, evidenced in tangible, positive changes in character, behaviour, and inner peace.
Second, such transformation almost always happens at a pace slower than we would expect or desire.
Maybe Brian and I are both so clear on this because we report to Chris Hall, Renovaré’s president, who is fond of saying (quoting one of his mentors James Houston), “Spiritual formation is the slowest of all human movements.”
It’s not a message that sells. But it’s the truth.
God is much more patient than we are. As a general rule He works incrementally – a shift in perspective here, a small breakthrough there, slowly enlarging our capacity to see and receive what He has for us.
Of course, God can and sometimes does transform people on the spot. It’s thrilling to hear about folks who are suddenly cured of an addiction, or healed of an ailment or burden in a flash.
And yet, I wonder if even those folks would testify that after the miracle, it takes a lifetime to fully inhabit the healing.
In his helpful new book God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul (Zondervan, 2020), Canadian theologian Mark Buchanan argues, “Becoming like Jesus doesn’t happen quickly for anyone.” And, while he acknowledges our transformation can be hampered by our own resistance, he also points out the evidence suggests, “God made people to grow slowly.”
After all, where most animals transition from babyhood to adulthood in about a year, it takes the average human 18 years (at least) to grow into an adult body.
“As in the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, so in the spiritual,” Buchanan writes. “We are made to mature at a snail’s pace. Though snails, of course, mature much faster.”
I’ve carried two babies to term. During many stretches (forgive the unfortunate word choice) of those pregnancies, I longed for time to speed up and the baby to arrive.
And yet, I see clearly that the duration of a pregnancy is a necessary mercy. Time is not only required for a new life to develop, but also for the mother’s body to accommodate it. If either of my babies had gone from zygote to newborn in a day, my body would have quite literally exploded.
As in the physical, so in the spiritual. Is it possible God is growing and transforming us as fast as He possibly can without exploding us?
There’s a passage about the patience of God in the third chapter of 2 Peter that I love, especially considering it’s in a letter either written by, or named for, the most naturally impatient of the disciples.
“Beloved, do not let this one thing escape your notice: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8–9, BSB).
Maybe the Ignatian philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had 2 Peter in mind when he wrote his poem “Patient Trust.”
“Above all,” the poem begins, “trust in the slow work of God.”
… Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
Let’s not mistake God’s patience for inactivity. And let’s remember, in the words of Peter’s friend the Apostle Paul, “that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6). Even if it takes 70 challenging years.
Written by Carolyn Arends, published in the September/October issues of Faith Today.