As I looked out over the congregation that Sunday evening, I marveled at what the Lord had done. We’d returned to sing, pray, listen to God’s Word, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Such a gathering is nothing in the eyes of the world, but I knew better. Trophies of God’s grace stood before me as I gave the benediction. God saved some from the pit of drug and alcohol abuse. Others he rescued from loneliness. A few he transplanted from other nations and languages. All he redeemed through the blood of his own Son. As one family, united around one gospel, we rejoiced in what our Triune God accomplished.
I arrived at a struggling church in 2008. Mount Vernon Baptist had recently endured a long season without a pastor before calling a man who stayed less than three years. Instability had become the new normal. In the absence of a unified vision, the church tried a little of everything to get people to come and stay. Nothing seemed to work, and the church declined. You could smell fatigue. People wanted change and growth, and everybody had an idea: a recreation ministry, an age-graded choir program, a peppy youth pastor, more humor in the pulpit—these were just a few of the ideas kindly offered to me upon my arrival.
But I knew there was only one way forward: preach as well as I could and wait as long as I could. Or, as Mark Dever so helpfully put it, a faithful pastor needs to be willing to teach and pray, love and stay. Admittedly, it’s not all I did! I visited homebound members, transitioned the church to elders, and discipled younger men. But nothing changed overnight. I had to be patient.
Patience is a Spirit-given mark of every true believer. We must wait, even when it’s hard.
GOD TENDS TO WORK SLOWLY
Can you imagine being a fly on the wall during the six days of creation? With a word, God hung stars in the sky and set time in motion. He gave the moon its craters and populated the earth with elephants, palm trees, and people. The speed with which God worked staggers the mind.
God rarely works so fast today. His redemptive plan unfolds slowly. Just ask Joseph, who spent two years in prison (Gen. 41:1), or Israel, who labored 400 years in Egypt (Acts 7:6). There are times when God is quiet, even when his children suffer (Psa. 28:1; Isa. 42:14). The Hall of Saints in Hebrews 11 is a sobering reminder that God’s timetable is not ours. Though full of faith, these believers failed to “receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39). Their reward is in heaven.
This is how God tends to work, then and now. We are called to trust God is good and sovereign, even when everything around us unravels. A wife is afflicted with cancer. A promotion never comes. A child is confined to a wheelchair. A church never grows. God doesn’t promise earthly success. But even when it does come, it’s usually after an extended time of toil. The NFL running back doesn’t make the big game without years in the gym. The professor doesn’t stand up to teach without years in the library. The pastor doesn’t see growth without years on his knees.
This is how God typically works—and it requires patience.
TEMPTED TO GIVE UP
In 2008, I felt ready to pastor. I’d spent the previous 12 years preparing for pastoral ministry. I’d been part of two church revitalizations and had a good idea, both from Scripture and my own experience, of where the church needed to go. However, a couple years into it, I wasn’t sure if I was the man to get it there.
People slowly started leaving the church. We never faced a mass exodus, more like a steady trickle. Criticisms piled up. Some thought the sermons were too long. Others thought the service lacked joy. A few wanted a larger, more dynamic youth ministry. The prospect of meaningful membership rubbed a handful the wrong way. One person thought I talked too much about the cross. Of course, I’d been in ministry long enough to know a good leader won’t make everyone happy.
Nonetheless, I began to wonder if I had what it takes to move this particular church in the right direction. Was my “skill set” sufficient to bring the needed change to a Bible-belt congregation? Yes, God builds his church; he “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). I knew this intellectually, but my heart didn’t keep up. In my sinful pride, I thought if I could just pastor better, things would turn around faster. I was tempted to give up.
Pastors aren’t the only people who struggle this way. Marriages go through valleys. Friendships endure droughts. There are times when you do all the right things at work only to see every project fail. Those who labor in a fallen world are always pricked by thorns (Gen. 3:18). In the midst of all this, patience is not optional.
In those early days of ministry, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed served me well. He said the Kingdom of God is like “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” yet the one that grows “larger than all the garden plants” (Mark 4:30–32). In other words, success isn’t always visible. When it comes to his Kingdom, God’s work is always present but often hard to see.
I knew from this parable that Jesus’ ministry wouldn’t be what anyone expected—the cross before the crown. But I also realized his words applied to my quandary. It takes years for a tiny mustard seed to grow into the plant that dwarfs all others. Why did I assume I would see fruit in this life? God blesses some churches with quick, radical, and amazing growth. But he tends to work slowly, like a mustard seed growing in rich soil.
THROUGH THE MOUTHS OF DRAGONS
As Christians, we have to wait, even though it’s painful. Paul suffered “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.” But Paul suffered well. How? With patience (2 Cor. 6:5–6).
We will all carry our cross (Matt. 9:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Not all crosses weigh the same, but each one hurts. The pain, however great, must be endured with patience. It’s easy to be discouraged when life is harder than you want it to be, obstacles are taller than you’d prefer, and growth is slower than you expected.
Waiting is part of God’s design. It’s his redemptive plan unfolding over time. Each moment we face a trial, God reminds us of our need for patience. Spurgeon’s words may not be comforting, but they are true:
Do you think you are going to be carried to heaven on a feather bed? Have you got a notion in your heads that the road to paradise is all a lawn, the grass smoothly mown, still waters and green pastures ever and anon to cheer you? You have just got to clear your heads of that deceitful fancy. The way to heaven is up hill and down hill; up hill with difficulty, down hill with trials. It is through fire and through water, through flood and through flame, by the lions and by the leopards. Through the very mouths of dragons is the path to paradise.
LET US NOT GROW WEARY
God, in his kindness, gave me a little peek into the future that Sunday night at Mount Vernon. It took nearly a decade, but I see the mustard seed growing. A vibrant sprout is bursting forth from the gospel-rich ground. God has produced in us a degree of love and unity, peace and joy that I could only have dreamed of years ago. The cross must always be carried, but there are seasons when the Lord lightens it. There are moments when he gives a sense of just how big that mustard plant is going to get. I’m thankful for that.
Are you patient?
Have you learned to wait as you struggle through singleness, marriage, parenting, widowhood, or criticism? Are you able to endure “the very mouths of dragons” as you make your way along “the path to paradise”?
Patience is a gift. It’s a fruit of the Spirit, which means it’s a gift from the Spirit. And yet, as always, we must learn to live and walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). So, how can we grow in patience?
Remember how patient God is. Before you even begin to attack the impatience in your heart, consider just how long-suffering our God is. It’s because of God’s patience Jesus hasn’t yet returned. He longs for many more to be saved (2 Pet. 3:9, 15). God allows sinful rebellion to exist because he’s not done gathering sinners to himself. If he can be so patient with us, can’t we grow in being patient in whatever trial we face?
Repent of bitterness. It’s hard to be patient when we are bitter because God’s timetable is not ours. We tend to think life should be easier than it is. This is why Spurgeon preached: “clear your heads of that deceitful fancy.” If you’ve grown bitter toward God, confess your sin. Pray something like this, “Lord, forgive me for expecting you to do more than save me and prepare me for heaven. Forgive me for demanding more than I need and getting mad at you for not giving me what I want.”
Expect to wait. Expectations matter. If you walk around assuming God is going to alleviate your suffering, change your spouse, or prosper your church, you’ve adopted a version of the prosperity gospel. Who knows, God may bless you in these ways. He may lighten your burden tomorrow! But he may not. It’s helpful to remember God tends to work slowly. Regardless of what he does in the here and now, we won’t see the finished product until Jesus returns. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25).
Find fuel for patience in the power of the gospel. “May you be strengthened with all power,” Paul wrote, “according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11). In other words: no gospel, no patience. Practice is not the path to patience. The cross is. We won’t grow in patience unless our lives have been redeemed and transformed by the cross of Christ.
Keep at it. “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). Impatience is giving up. There is freedom for pastors to leave their churches for new ones; God moves his servants around as he sees fit. And yet I wonder, overall, would our churches be healthier if pastors stayed longer? What about your life? If you’re tempted to give up, heed Paul’s counsel. Don’t grow weary of doing good. Keep at it. Pursue your spouse. Flee ungodliness. Whatever you know God has called you to, pursue it with patience, remembering your reward is in heaven, too.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Holy Violence,” in The New Park Street Pulpit. Sermon 252. Delivered May 15, 1859. The Spurgeon Archive. Found at http://www.spurgeon.org-/sermons/0252.php. Accessed 16 February 2017.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog.