As we approach the end of a year, we face approaching deadlines, often coming more quickly than we had hoped. Many of our goals in our Annual Ministry Plan Season are due at the end of this year. Back in January, we identified some projects we wanted to complete in 2022, and now we just have a few more weeks to do so. I already know that my team and I will not complete some of these goals this year. Hopefully next year, we can finish them.
We also face deadlines in more personal areas. Christmas is just two weeks away, and we still have gifts to purchase and wrap before then. The deadline set by Canada Post for sending Christmas cards within Canada is December 16. To send cards to the USA, our deadline is even earlier – December 12. For sending to most of the rest of the world, the deadline has already passed.
Why do we call it a “deadline”?
The word “deadline” is a strange and sobering word, is it not? Our deadlines may have consequences for failing to meet them. But thankfully, none of my deadlines have ever threatened me with execution! Apparently the word “deadline” comes from the American Civil War. A Confederate prison in Georgia was notorious for shooting POWs who crossed a line within or around the prison. So this “deadline” was a literal line with deadly consequences for those who dared cross it. Since the Civil War, the figurative meaning of the word has totally overshadowed the original meaning. But the word still implies how important it is to stay within the set time limits, although most of us do not think about deadlines in this way.
Missionaries and deadlines
Maybe I am wrong but I think that we as missionaries are less concerned about deadlines than most people. Those of us who have lived and worked in cultures without a strong time-orientation have seen ample proof that the world works quite well even if events do not start on time.
But regardless of whether our host culture is time-oriented or not, missionaries are quite familiar with waiting and delays. We are often forced to delay our departure because our financial support pledges are still inadequate. Or we wait because visas or documents have not yet arrived. In 2020-2022, some of my friends waited for over a year before they could move to Japan to begin their missionary service. They had all of their support, but Japan was not granting visas during the height of the pandemic. Currently, we are waiting for the war in Ukraine to end so that we can return to our home in Kyiv.
But our experience in waiting also includes waiting for our efforts to bear fruit. Whereas in our passport countries, businesses focus on meeting their quarterly earning targets, we take a much longer view of success. In many countries and cultures where we work, progress is slow. We share the Gospel for many years, sometimes for decades before we see people become followers of Jesus. Sometimes we wait a lifetime for healthy churches to emerge and begin to multiply within an unreached people group. We wait for leaders to develop. Then they emigrate to the West and we wait while we disciple and train their replacements.
Yes, sometimes the process of engaging the unreached people group takes much longer than it need have because we did not do adequate research or we employed strategies that were too heavily dependent on Western resources or methods. Nevertheless, waiting seems to be an integral part of the life of missionaries.
Lamenting as we wait
As cross-cultural workers, we have learned that we cannot set deadlines for God. He does not work according to our timelines. God does not heed our deadlines. In fact, sometimes he seems to totally ignore our understanding of timeliness.
This does not mean that we do not struggle with waiting. Throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, we find laments that begin with that troubling question, “How long?”.
How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?Psalm 89:46
Along with people of faith through the ages, we long for God to intervene in times of crisis and distress. We plead with our God to come and save his people, to judge his enemies, to demonstrate that he is God. We want him to act now. But God delays his response. This delay prolongs the suffering of his people. So we experience frustration and discouragement.
Waiting for God
My wife and I are going through a set of Advent readings found in the PrayerMate app, entitled “Waiting for Jesus”. The daily readings talk about how we respond when Jesus doesn’t come at the time we expected him to come. One example is the 400 silent years between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the resumption of God’s prophetic voice through John the Baptist. Did God forget his promise to send a Messiah? Had he given up on his people? Had world events become so complicated that God had thrown up his hands in frustration and changed his plans? The answer is a clear “NO!” But his people waited for a long time.
The Church’s 2000 years of waiting for Christ’s Second Coming is another poignant illustration of God not acting according to our timeline. The disciples in Acts 1 were convinced that now that Christ had risen, this was time that he would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). The New Testament writings give evidence that the first century believers expected that soon Jesus would return to rule (Rom. 13:11, James 5:8, Rev. 1:3, 3:11, 22:6). His coming was near. But God measures nearness in ways that do not conform to our human perspective of time (see 2 Peter 3:8).
Waiting – a sign of maturity
So in Scripture, waiting on God is clearly a mark of spiritual maturity. Believers wait with eager expectation. Followers of Jesus wait patiently, faithfully fulfilling their assigned tasks. But Scriptural waiting is more about depending on God rather than about crossing off days, months and years on a calendar. Waiting on God is the opposite of setting deadlines for God. Instead it focuses on being strong in faith, however long it takes.
I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.Psalm 27:13–14
Did you know that Jesus also waits?
But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.Hebrews 10:12–13
His Father has promised him final victory but he does not yet enjoy that victory in its fullness. So, he waits for his Father to fulfill his promise.
So we learn from the Scriptures and our own experience that we must not set deadlines for God. Waiting is a grace we must cultivate. But all this waiting can lead us to some false assumptions about God and his expectations of us.
God does not procrastinate
He is not indecisive. He is never afflicted with analysis paralysis.
Analysis paralysis is an inability to make a decision due to over-thinking a problem. An individual or a group can have too much data. The result is endless wrangling over the upsides and downsides of each option, and an inability to pick one.What Is Analysis Paralysis? Definition, Risks, and How to Fix (investopedia.com)
Despite having infinite knowledge, God is never overwhelmed with all the options before him.
When he is ready, he moves things along very quickly. In my Gospel reading a few days ago, I noted that Jesus actually seems to speed up the process of his own arrest and crucifixion.
As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”John 13:27
Was Judas hesitating and unsure of what day or night might be the best time to betray his Master? Maybe he was reluctant to make his move on this night because he knew the religious leaders did not want to arrest and kill Jesus during the Passover Feast (Matt. 26:3-5). But regardless of what timeline the chief priests and Judas might have set, Jesus made sure these crucial events stayed on God’s timeline. He was not a procrastinator. Neither was his Father.
In the same way, the day of judgement will come suddenly (1 Thess. 5:2-3, Luke 21:34). When God decides that the time is right, there will be no hesitation and no delays. This should fill us with hope and confidence.
God expects promptness.
Although we cannot set deadlines for God, he does set deadlines for us. He expects us to respond promptly. He warns us about procrastinating. Urgency is a value for him. In John 12, Jesus warned his audience that the time they had to respond to his message was very limited. Now was the time to respond. If they did not do so, it would be too late.
Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.”John 12:35
We find the same message in the parable of the 10 virgins (Matt 25:1-13). The five foolish virgins arrive at a wedding feast after the deadline. They forgot to prepare for the delay and ask for grace.
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.Matthew 25:11–13
In Middle Eastern culture, guests who arrive late are never turned away. But apparently Jesus knew his Father so well that he had no problem with telling a parable that was decidedly counter-cultural. Those who cross God’s final deadlines find out that it is truly too late.
Dealing seriously with deadlines
So in summary, we cannot set deadlines for God. We must cultivate the art of waiting on God. Likewise, we should be gracious toward our colleagues and ourselves when we are not able to meet the deadlines we have set for our team goals. After all, organizational deadlines are not necessarily God’s deadlines. Our timelines are not God’s timelines. We do not dictate when the Spirit will move. Many of our goals depend on circumstances that are in God’s sovereign hand. Although we set deadlines for our tasks, we must hold those goals loosely when they involve factors we do not control.
Nevertheless, I am afraid that this requirement of waiting in God’s service can lead us to become careless about our deadlines. Carelessness about deadliness can point to a lack of our own promptness in obeying God’s direction in our lives. We easily fall into the trap of ignoring deadlines and procrastinating important tasks simply because we were distracted or forgetful. We did not plan the different steps that would be needed to fulfill the goal in the time that we had set. Or we missed our deadlines because we did not have the courage to make difficult decisions. Maybe we stalled out because we kept gathering more information, hoping that somehow the right decision would become so clear that it would be risk-free.
When God is directing us to act, we must move. As Eugene Peterson’s book title says, that movement must become a “Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” This obedience must continue over the span of a year and overcome the distractions that life and ministry throw at us. The deadlines we set for our goals are just reminders that we have an urgent and important task.
So let’s not be afraid to set deadlines for the goals we are setting, and to hold ourselves to those deadlines. Let’s talk about deadlines and treat them with seriousness. Let’s evaluate why we did not meet our deadlines, and take steps in the coming year to overcome our procrastinating tendencies. What we are called to do is God’s work. It deserves our attention to deadlines.