Waiting on the Lord can be one of the most difficult trials a Christian endures in his or her spiritual life. Pope St. Gregory the Great said the cross of waiting may be a punishment or purification from God for sins committed; or it may be a preparation for some greater task or mission the Lord has for you; or it may be an instrument through which God wishes to glorify himself in a special way. Whatever the reason, waiting on the Lord can be likened to a school where the greatest of lessons about life can be learned. It teaches us the humility of being that “worthless” servant Jesus refers to in his parable; the one where the servant works hard in the field only to have to serve his Master at the table at the end of the day. St. Paul had to learn this lesson over and over again in prison and in the setbacks he encountered during his mission.
This blog was originally divided into three posts in May of 2010 and then again in May of 2011. Quite in Tarsus speaks to the St. Paul’s difficult trial of waiting on the Lord before his mission even got started.
Very few Saints have been privileged with a clear foresight of what trials lay ahead. Usually we are made aware of the challenges of life, the trials of a mission or the difficulties of some undertaking as they happen. For St. Paul, however, just after he saw the Risen Lord on his way to Damascus, he was granted a vision of the sufferings which awaited him. After his conversion, he recounted some of what he suffered in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:
"Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure." (II Corinthians 11:24-27)
Somehow, the Lord had to prepare St. Paul to endure these trials. Without this preparation, the temptation of giving into despair would have been too overwhelming. Indeed, this new Apostle, teeming with enthusiasm and fervor, had to be trained to see through short term sacrifices in order to lay hold of the long term gain of saving souls.
It is important to keep in mind that enthusiasm and fervor alone is never enough for perseverance. Such feeling and inner conviction are no match for the uncertainties, opposition, or even the dangers in carrying out God's work. Surprisingly, the preparation which God uses for such a work is often uneventful and quiet. Here, I refer to the simple but painful act of waiting on the Lord. It is in this that faith, hope and love are perfected. It is in this that great Saints are made. And to be sure, St. Paul was no exception.
Before the torrent of St. Paul's preaching was to be released into the ancient world, this newly ordained minister of the Word had to wait in silence. Shortly after his baptism, St. Paul had visited the Church in Jerusalem only to have become the source of commotion and a object of hatred. The Hellenists (those who adapted to Greek culture) wanted to kill him and worse yet, the Christians in Jerusalem did not trust him yet. As a result, a short time after he began his mission, the Apostles sent him home, back to Tarsus. Few people know that St. Paul had to wait a long four to five years until St. Barnabas came looking for him.
For a zealous man like St. Paul, waiting on the Lord was no easy feat. "But God is a great King, and kings often expect others to wait for them."
Scripture is full of waiting: "I waited, waited for the LORD; who bent down and heard my cry." (Psalm 40:2) "Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the LORD!" (Psalm 27:14)
St. Padre Pio once said that waiting on the Lord is like being in an interior room of a ship out at sea. You can feel the ship rocking from side to side; but because the room does not have any windows, it seems the ship is far from its destination. Indeed, the ship seems to be going nowhere. In reality, however, the ship is traveling many miles a day. Likewise, waiting on the Lord can feel like you are losing ground, but in reality the soul makes much progress during this time. The Lord has been known to do his greatest work when things look dormant or when all seems lost. Beneath the surface, Divine Providence is merely getting things ready: "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, Nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds." (Sirach 35:17-18) Just as important, as we wait and trust in the Lord on a day to day basis, he builds-up the soul from within.
For St. Paul, it is probable that the Apostles did not give any indication as to when they would commission him to preach the Gospel. In obedience to them, St. Paul had to wait for their permission to resume his ministry. God leaves us in periods uncertainty for his divine purposes. Perhaps, this is part of what makes the Dark Night of the Soul so difficult.
The Holy Family Waited:
Recall another familiar story: the exile of the Holy Family into Egypt. In order to escape the wrath of Herod, St. Joseph was told by an angel of the Lord to flee with the baby Jesus and his mother to Egypt. St. Joseph was simply told by the angel to stay there until he was told to leave. There was no indication as to how long they would have to stay. A short meditation of this episode will bring to our attention how difficult that must have been! Taking refuge in a foreign land amidst a foreign people for safety is one thing; but to do so without knowing how for how long is a real test of faith. The same could be said of St. Paul. He was told to wait in Tarsus until the Apostles said otherwise. That could have been interpreted to mean one week, a month or several years.
Eyes of Faith:
It was during these years of apparent inactivity that the fortitude, spirituality, and theology of St. Paul were developed. Receiving the vision of the Risen Lord on his way to Damascus was a miraculous, supernatural intervention. Although it was enough to convert him, it did not serve to prepare him for his apostolate. Evidently, God chose a more ordinary means of getting St. Paul ready for his mission; and that was to wait on the Lord in silence, fasting, and prayer.
Through solitude and stillness, the Lord trained St. Paul to rely less on his senses and more on his faith. In order to live in hope when things look hopeless or to even press forward in difficult conditions, the believer, like St. Paul, must grow accustomed to seeing the world differently. He must peer beneath the surface with the eyes of faith, trusting that what appears to be fruitless or evil, can be beneficial for God's purposes. If there is a law that runs through great enterprises, achievements and missions it is that they are more often than not marked by contradictions and suffering. Too many people are quick to dismiss failures and setbacks as having little to no value when in fact it just may be what Christ had willed.
Unless the Lord Builds:
Waiting on the Lord provides yet another lesson; and that is to teach the believer that true and lasting good comes from God himself. It is not so much what we say or what we do that makes this world a better place, it is what God does with what we say and what we do which really counts. For St. Paul, it was but a natural impulse to want to immediately share the "good news" he had received from the Risen Lord. But before the Apostle did act, the Lord wanted to impress upon this new convert a critical lesson: "Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build." (Psalm 127) No matter how good or how eloquent the Ambassador of Christ would prove to be in proclaiming Christ-crucified, such gifts would be useless if the Lord did not use them.
Putting God Above Your Mission:
Lastly, waiting on the Lord served to purge the Apostle of a subtle temptation all too common among the workers of the Vineyard: the temptation to love the work of God more than God Himself. How many followers of Christ- Christians who sincerely want to advance the kingdom of God -end up becoming too preoccupied with the mission while our personal spirituality suffers neglect? We may get too busy for prayer; we may enjoy the success of a mission with the result of becoming complacent; or the disciple of Christ may attribute the fruits of his labor to himself. To help us avoid these pitfalls and illusions so fatal to the work of God, Jesus allows us to wait on him while some petition seemingly goes unanswered. While we endure the "silence of God," the opportunity to affirm and reaffirm our love for the Lord is invaluable! It not only strengthens and validates our relationship with Christ, but it gives the Christian credibility. We know that God listens to those who are willing to forsake all for him, including the very work he has called us to.
That's right! It is the ironies of ironies that the Lord calls his servants to renounce (that is, the willingness to give up some work for his glory if necessary) the very mission he calls us to. This is what makes the period of waiting exceedingly difficult. God first provides the inspiration for a mission but then he permits delays and setbacks. From the days of Noah to the Christian era, this means of testing was frequently used.
Willingness to Sacrifice:
For St. Paul, the Risen Lord provided him the inspiration to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. After his baptism, he was able to act on that inspiration...but just for a short period of time. Unexpectedly, just when St. Paul was ready to join the Apostles to begin a new vocation, he was told to sit down and wait. In other words, he had to die to the very mission God had called him to fulfill just as Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah (the male heir God had promised from whose loins the nation of Israel would proceed).
After each day that passed in Tarsus, the Lord seemed to be asking St. Paul the very question he asked St. Peter: "Do you love me more than these?" That is, do you love me more than the mission I have called you to? With the fervor to proclaim the Good News burning in his soul, St. Paul had to reaffirm his love for the Lord as the highest and the most unrivaled of his loves.
For every Christian who seeks to work on God's behalf, there are two competing loves: The love for God versus the love for God's work. To be a channel of God's grace and an Apostle of his Good News, the latter must be totally subordinated to the former. This right ordering of the two loves can be a painful process. But it is one that is absolutely necessary to glorify God.
Waiting on the Lord in Tarsus played no small role in preparing St. Paul for his mission. More importantly, it prepared his soul for heaven. As such, he could say at the end of his life, "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."