The Doctrine of Delays
He would not for a while–Luk. 18:4
A Freedom Only a Son Would Take
This parable, as the Scripture itself tells us, was meant to teach us importunity in prayer. Christ, who was tempted in all points like as we are, and who had wrestled through many a stern hour of intercession, knew well how the heart is prone to faint when the heavens we pray to are as brass. The judge in this parable is a venal and villainous creature, the kind of man who is still the curse of the East; and anyone but Christ might well have hesitated to compare his actions with those of the Almighty. But a Son can take large liberties sometimes; He will run the risk of being misunderstood. I know no parable that so assures me of the perfect freedom that Christ had with His Father; a servile courtier would not have dared to speak so. Love can be very silent and yet happy, but love has the boldest and the bravest of all tongues. There are hours when only love dares to say nothing. There are hours when only love dares to say everything.
How Long, Lord?
So to our text then, “He would not for a while.” That is to say, this judge delayed to act. And that at once suggests to me for our consideration the great problem of divine delay. It meets us everywhere and in every sphere; there is scarce one heart but has been torn and tried by it. The delays of man may be infinitely vexing, but they are nothing to the delays of God. It meets us in nature, when men may be gaunt with famine, yet God will not hurry the harvest by one hour. It meets us in life where all that a man has toiled for often reaches him seemingly just an hour too late. It meets us in judgment when wrongdoers live and flourish till the cry from the altar rings in heaven, “How long?” Above all, it meets us in the sphere of prayer. How many patriots have prayed for their country’s weal, yet the years rolled on, and there was no arm to save. How many mothers have prayed for their sons or daughters, and been well-nigh broken-hearted by delay. What a world of experience there is, and how the centuries vanish, when we hear the cry of the psalmist, “O God, make haste to help us!” It is as if his faith were flickering out into its ashes, under the torment of delay.
Divine Delay Is an Age-Old Problem
But the very fact that the psalmist prayed that prayer shows that the problem is a very old one. And we are so knit together in this our strange humanity, so touched into strength and courage by companionship, that often just to know the world-old pressure of a burden, gives a certain ease in our own bearing of it. Half of the bitterness of children’s woes lies in the thought that they are all their own. They have no experience of life yet, their eyes are not opened; they have not learned the lesson of comparison. As we grow older, and see a little further, we find strange help in the brotherhood of trial. Now in this matter of delay it seems to me that not a few of God’s people are still children. They think that God has some quarrel with them personally. They forget that the problem is as old as time. Noah felt it when he built his ark and the sun still shone in a heaven of unclouded blue. Abraham felt it when the promise of Isaac was given him, yet the summers passed and the hair of Sarah was silvered, and there was no rippling of childish laughter in his tent. David felt it–had he not been anointed to be king; yet here he was hunted as an outlaw on the hills. Paul felt it when he prayed, and prayed again, that the Lord would take away the thorn out of his flesh, yet he woke in the bright morning to his work; and for all his prayer, the thorn was with him still. Do not say, then, “God has forgotten me,” because the burden of delay weighs heavy on you. We are brought into the fellowship of all the saints, by what we suffer as well as by what we gain. The problems of yesterday are but as gossamer, and a breath of tomorrow’s wind will scatter them. It is the old, old problem, like the old, old joys, that reach the secret places of the heart.
Delay Is the Road to Greater Joy
It is well to remember, too, that the higher we rise, the more intense does the difficulty become. The very measure in which we feel its weight, is a kind of test of the things for which we seek. One summer perfects a flower in the field; but to perfect a child takes twenty or thirty years. And the very fact of the divine delay, in calling into their amplitude these childish faculties, is a proof that there is more of heaven in the child than in the most exquisite flower God ever fashioned. There are myriads of creatures who are born and dance and die in the short span of a bright July day. No one in watching them would ever dream of charging the Creator with delay. But a nation of men which is to serve the high ends of heaven is never fashioned hastily like that. Through pilgrimage and war and struggle and blood and tears, by heroism that oft seems unavailing and sacrifice that is like water spilt, it becomes the polished instrument of God. Delay, then, tends to become more marked, the higher you rise in the Creator’s purposes. Great delays in the mystery of providence are the highway for the chariot of great blessing. The joy that cometh in the morning might be far less thrilling, had not the weeping from which it springs endured all night.
Had Jesus Forgotten Mary and Martha?
We see this very clearly in the raising of Lazarus–that tenderest and most touching of all miracles. When Lazarus was ill–when his state had become critical–Martha and Mary, you remember, sent word to Jesus. Now Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, and the happiest memories encircled that village home; yet the Gospel tells us that when Jesus heard the news, He abode two days still in the place where He was. There are seasons when two days seems like a moment; there are seasons when two days seems an eternity. When a life is in the balance half-an-hour is endless; twice four-and-twenty hours is unbearable. What did it mean? Had Jesus quite forgotten them? Was He deaf and dead to the prayers of the sisters’ love? I think that Martha and Mary, with their eyes on dying Lazarus, knew the burden of divine delay. They knew its burden then; they know its meaning now. They see it irradiated with purpose and with wisdom. A little boon might have been granted instantly, but the great actions of God have tardy wheels. The greater and richer the blessing that we pray for, the more must we reckon on the delays of God.
Nor should we forget–for this is very important–what I might call the moral training of delay. Did we get everything we craved for in the very hour of asking it, I think it would be a long farewell to manhood. The one sure way to ruin a young child is to give it immediately all for which it asks; and to the Ancient of days, whose hairs are white as wool (see Dan. 7:9), I fancy the oldest readers are but as little children. Think of Christ’s treatment of the Syro-phoenician woman when she came to Him praying for her daughter. All her motherhood was on her lips and in her eyes as she pled and interceded for her child. Do you think it was cruel of Christ to answer her never a word? Do you think it was harsh to speak about the dogs? How much we should have missed, and how much Christ Himself would have missed, had it not been for that practice of delay! It was that which called out in her fine persistence, her faith, her wit, all that was brightest in her. She might have been anybody when she began, but she was a woman among women when she ended. And many a person has begun by being anybody, and ended by being a woman among women, because they were kept praying and pleading long for something that was to be granted by and by. Work reveals character, but so does waiting. Waiting shows the baby or the man. We need to be tested to prove if we be worthy just to receive and use the thing we crave. So it often is that God delays, and will not answer us, and keeps us waiting. It is not in scorn, but in the wisest love, that He will not for a while.
There Is Silent Preparation behind God’s Delay
Then it is very helpful to remember that divine delay does not mean inactivity. God is not idle when He does not answer us; He is busier preparing the answer than we think. There have been men of genius who could only work irregularly; for long periods they seemed to do nothing at all. Then suddenly, and as if by inspiration, their powers took fire and they wrought at a white heat. You may be sure of it that the periods in between were not so idle as the world considered them. By thought, by reading, by communion with glad nature, half unconsciously they were preparing for their work. And when the kindling came, and the fire burned within them, when they were divinely swept into utterance or action, they owed far more than we should ever guess to the silent preparation of delay. As it is with men of genius, so with God, only in loftier and nobler ways. His delays are not the delays of inactivity. They are the delays of preparation. In an instant the tropical storm may burst and break, yet for weeks–unseen–the storm has been preparing. The sunshine of May comes, and all the world is green, yet on God’s loom of January that robe was being spun. And the morning breaks when at last some prayer is answered, and the desert rejoices and blossoms as the rose, yet the answer was being fashioned in these very years when we said there was no eye to pity and no arm to save. It takes a million years to harden the ruby, says the poet, yet through all the years the hardening goes on. It takes a century for the sea to wear away one cliff, yet every night when we sleep the breakers dash on it. So when we pray and strive and nothing happens, till we are tempted to say “God does not know, God does not care,” who can tell but that, behind the veil, infinite love may be toiling like the sea, to give us in the full time our heart’s desire? “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.” It is a mysterious word of the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps God, like some of the busiest men I know, is doing most when He seems to be doing nothing.
There Is Love in Delay
And so in closing I would say to you: do not lose heart at the delays of God. Speed, after all, is but a relative term, and there is more love in God’s slow method than you think. I was staying the other week with some friends in Ireland, when word came that our friend’s place of business had been broken into. It was a holiday and he was away in Galway, and was not to be home again until that evening. Well, he came home, very tired and famished, and a foolish wife would have rushed out to meet him with the news; but his wife was not foolish, she was Scotch and sensible, and she let him wash and eat and rest himself a little; and then when he was ready to see things rightly she broke the news, and I saw there was wisdom and love in that delay. You who are mothers here, and who look back on those sweet years when your innocent children played about your feet, had you never some great news to tell your children, yet you deliberately withheld it for a time? “If we tell them tonight there will not be one wink of sleep; if we tell them when they waken, there will not be one bite of breakfast”; and so deliberately you held back the blessing, and you did it just because you loved them so. If ye then being evil, act like that, is it incredible that God should do the same? Is it fair to distrust our Father, to say He has no pity, to charge the heavens with being brass above us? I think it is wiser to pray on, strive on, casting all doubts to the devil who inspired them; believing in a love that never mocks us, and that will give us our heart’s desire in His own time.