Everyone’s played the waiting game, but no one likes it. Traffic jams and long lines at the grocery store are maddening, but you hang in there because you know the traffic will eventually unsnarl and the checkout line will gradually recede. Your patience is tested, but you survive the ordeal. All’s well that ends well.
But what if you waited with no end in sight? What if the one thing you wanted most never arrived? From a Christian perspective, what if you waited for Jesus to return—and He never came?
This thought must have crossed Paul’s mind as he sat shackled in a Roman prison. If anyone had cause for dismay, it was this persecuted apostle. After a lifetime of beatings and jailings, he again found himself incarcerated. Yet, in spite of the circumstances, he handed on his unwavering faith to a young leader named Timothy. With conviction, he penned the epic line, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12, NKJV).*
Paul’s resolve in the face of trial is instructive for those of us who wait today. No one was more passionate and enthusiastic about the Second Advent. But how could he be so confident that his patience would be rewarded? Was he delusional, or did he truly understand how to win the waiting game?
To answer this question, let’s fast-forward 2,000 years and consider the experience of a modern prisoner of war (POW). Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale was a Vietnam fighter pilot who emerged from that unpopular conflict as one of the most decorated naval officers in United States military history. Shot down in 1965, he parachuted to the ground and severely injured his knee on landing, and the villagers in the small community where he landed beat him for several minutes. He suffered for seven years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. Often kept in solitary confinement, he had no rights, no prospect of release, and no assurance he would ever see his family again. And he was tortured mercilessly. But he always believed the United States government would come to his rescue.
Years later, Jim Collins, a business professor at Stanford University, read Stockdale’s biography, In Love and War. In his own book, Good to Great, Collins reflects on his feelings after reading Stockdale’s story. “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
Since Stockdale was by then a senior research fellow for the Hoover Institution at Stanford, Collins arranged to have lunch with him. They visited as they walked across the Stanford campus. Getting right to the point, Collins asked him, “How did you deal with being a POW when you didn’t know the future?”
Stockdale replied, “I never lost faith in the end of the story. . . . I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.”
Collins went silent as they continued their slow walk to the faculty club, Stockdale hobbling along on his bum leg. Finally, after about a hundred yards of silence, Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Stockdale said. “The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Again, neither man spoke as Collins walked and Stockdale shuffled. Finally, the vice admiral turned to Collins and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Do you see the tension? Stockdale was at once a pessimist and an optimist. He embraced both perspectives equally—his brutal reality and his faith that he would prevail.
I hear in his wisdom an echo of Saint Paul. Like Stockdale, Paul accepted his brutal reality, but he never gave up on the end of the story—not because he trusted in the Roman government but because he had absolute faith in his Redeemer. It seems paradoxical, but it also rings quite true: anyone who waits for the return of Jesus—is both a pessimist and an optimist. They know Jesus so well that they happily trust Him with their present and their future, certain that that future includes eternal life in God’s kingdom.
Years ago, when I lived in northern California, my family took an annual vacation to the Eureka redwoods to enjoy camping with relatives and friends. Each year my parents would take my daughter over a few days early to set up camp. They would pick her up at our home Tuesday evening and leave early Wednesday morning.
This particular year, my five-year-old daughter was packed and ready to go as usual. She eagerly waited for Grandma to arrive. Tomorrow they would be going camping! But the appointed time passed, and there was no Grandma. Soon she was half an hour late, then an hour. Later we learned that Grandma had encountered unexpected delays, but at the time, her tardiness made for an increasingly anxious little girl—glued to the window as she waited for Grandma.
At one point, as the evening wore on, someone innocently suggested that Grandma was very busy preparing for the trip and that “maybe she forgot.” This was the wrong thing to say! My determined daughter quickly rebuffed that thought. She replied, “Oh no, my grandma would never forget me!” And sure enough, half an hour later, Grandma arrived, and a little girl’s faith was not disappointed.
Do you detect an emerging truth here? It appears that whether you languish in Vietnam or suffer in Rome or just get anxious for Grandma to arrive, the waiting is bearable because of who you know! It’s understandable that we get caught up with the when of Christ’s return. We’re intrigued with predictions about the future, and God has given us clear signs that His coming is near. But more important than the when of the Second Advent is the who of the Blessed Hope. The old adage is true: it’s who you know. Faith follows friendship.
I don’t know exactly when He’s coming, but of one thing I’m sure: my Jesus won’t forget me! And that is the indispensable truth for those of us who wait. “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12, NKJV). Recite it often, and follow the three simple rules that guarantee victory in the waiting game: Never give up on the end of the story. Never give up on the daily battle. And never give up on knowing Jesus.
* Bible quotations marked NKJV are from The New King James Version®.