It has been decades since our family vacations when our children were young but so many rich and fun memories of those years run through my mind often. It was a tradition that we traveled by car since it was most economical, and we also wanted to see the countryside on our way to the destination. As a result, we often were up by 4 or 5AM and letting the children fall back to sleep for the first few hours of the drive. As the hours went by the question would invariably come up, “How long until we get there?” My husband’s response with a twinkle in his eye would usually be a hundred thousand miles! (Of course, they had no concept of mileage back then.)
Years later we had a grandson who would ask our son and daughter-in-law how long it would be until we arrived for a planned visit. He would ask, “How many night nights?” to anticipate the time. We still recall his eagerness to see us back then even as he is about to graduate from college.
Asking the question, “How long…” is a query that most of us have asked many times across the years whether it is wondering about length of time till Christmas, a birthday, a special vacation, or some other event we look forward to. Add to that wondering how long until we get braces off our teeth, can learn to drive, or go on a date and it all starts to add up. We tend to be looking forward to some next thing.
Adults ask that question as well but the content changes to how long until the next pay raise, how long until we can move to a better house, how long until we can afford a new car, and more. There are also those even harder waiting periods such as how long until I can be done with chemotherapy, how long until I don’t need these crutches, how long until I don’t have to feel this pain, and an endless list of things that impact our quality of life.
We have challenges adapting to injuries and the length of time it takes to regain our physical health. Even when we were young and got hurt it never seemed to take as long as it does as adults. So, we ask the question, “How long?” We may get an answer but sometimes the answer is either vague or very discomforting because it is much longer than we hoped it would take. We don’t like to wait for things we want, wish for, or think we need. We don’t handle waiting to feel better very well either. Suffering was not a part of the plan for our lives at any point we considered what lay ahead of us on the timeline.
But all throughout history that same question has been asked for other causes and reasons. If we look at the waiting time for these issues it can be even more daunting.
The children of Israel asked that question after Joseph died and they became slaves to Pharaoh for 400 years. They wondered when or if their suffering would ever end and if justice and judgment would come and set them free. Periods of such subjugation echo with that question from the beginning of time to the present day. The question echoes during long wars, famines, and plagues.
The longer the wait the more we want to demand judgment for what we are enduring or suffering. We can’t quite accept that life was never promised to be fair or easy for any of us. As a result, we can become increasingly demanding.
The better team doesn’t always win. The best candidate doesn’t get the scholarship. The hardest worker doesn’t always get the promotion or the raise. The kindest person doesn’t get a great deal of credit for all they exhibit in a success driven society. The healthiest person doesn’t always escape illness. The dreams we have worked so hard to see come true don’t always unfold before us despite our efforts and sacrifice. We cannot believe this is supposed to be how life works. But one thing becomes very clear to us before we have grown into adulthood – life isn’t fair and justice doesn’t always come. Judgment is often delayed or shows bias to one person or group or another. And frustration that grows because of it can result in us trying to take on that task of bringing about what we believe should happen while failing to recognize our own inability to see the entire thing as it is.
“The world is not a good place for justice. We learn this early. Children, with instinctive moral sense, ignorantly but accurately paraphrase scripture, “It’s not fair.” Nobody gets what they deserve, whether in reward or punishment. The consequences of both virtue and vice are far out of line with their causes. Sometimes we get less than we deserve and know we are exploited, sometimes more and feel lucky (or guilty). Most of us, throughout the years, develop moral callouses and get on the best we can. Then a radical injustice erupts – political terrorism, domestic abuse – and the question is fresh and urgent again: How long?”Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
How poor we are at our estimations of what we deserve or are owed. Matthew writes one of the parables Jesus uses to teach us about an unforgiving debtor who was forgiven a great debt but goes on to try to extract a very small debt owed him by someone else. It can be easy to read that passage in Matthew 18 and see it as a story without remembering we need to apply it to ourselves as well. If we are believers, we have been forgiven the biggest debt we could ever have, one we could not repay, and yet we exact from other debts of a much smaller amount.
As turmoil increases around the globe in every land and culture and dark storm clouds gather the question of “how long” is on our lips and in our prayers. Reading Revelation, we see that question lingers to the very end of the world. And yet the question itself suggests something very significant.
“The persistence of the prayer “How long?” issues, apparently, from a deep, unshakable conviction that God will bring an end to injustice, even though he shows no signs of calling the court room to order.”Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
It seems clear that our orientation must be off somehow. Looking at where we may be off according to John when he was writing Revelation gives us a direction. His words and truth remind us we have lost the context for the whole of living life. What is the context in the midst of waiting, in the midst of “How long?”
“Worship provides the context for the paradoxical simultaneities of believing in justice while experiencing injustice…”Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
Worship takes us out of the center and puts God back there where He belongs…central to everything and the only One qualified to judge and bring justice.
If we are impatient and our desire for judgment is becoming a desire for revenge, perhaps we need to have our context adjusted through worship before we try to exact what we see as a debt owed us that is small compared to the debt we have been forgiven.