Paul Tillich wrote: “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine. I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution. I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
Sixty years ago in chapter eighteen of his book The Shaking the Foundations Paul Tillich declared that: “Both the Old and the New Testaments describe our existence in relation to God as one of waiting.” He went on to say that “In the psalmist there is an anxious waiting; in the apostle there is a patient waiting. “Waiting” he said “means not having … for we have not what we wait for; or, as the apostle says, if we hope for what we do not see, we then wait for it.”
He said that “our relationship to God is, first of all, one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. When a religion forgets that, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, it replaces God by its own creation, an image of God.
He said: “I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed within a doctrine. I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he believes that he possesses God, enclosed in an institution. I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he believes he possesses God, enclosed within his own experience.”
It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God. It is not easy to stand behind a pulpit Sunday after Sunday without convincing ourselves and others that somehow we have God…. It is not easy to proclaim God to children and pagans, to skeptics and secularists, and at the same time make clear to them that we ourselves do not possess God, that we too wait for God. Way before our time Paul Tillich contended that much of the rebellion against Christianity is due to the claim of Christians that they possess God. John Kapsalis wrote that we are not a people ready or willing to wait for things to happen. We make them happen. And we take this attitude with us to Church.
The prophets and the apostles speak of waiting. They did not possess God; they waited for God. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for God in the most absolute and radical way.
The psalmist says that his whole being waits for the Lord, indicating that waiting for God is not merely a part of our relation to God, but rather the condition of that relation as a whole. Although waiting is not having, yet, in a way, it is also having. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess.
When we possess God, we reduce God to that small thing we knew and grasped and we make that into an idol. Only in idol worship can you believe in the possession of God. There is much of this idolatry among Christians. But if we know that we do not know God, and if we wait for God to make God’s self known to us, we then really know something of God, we then are grasped and known and possessed by God. It is then that we are believers in our unbelief, and that we are accepted by God in spite of our separation.
Waiting precludes all complacency about having nothing… waiting precludes our indifference or cynical contempt towards those who have something, and waiting stifles our pitiful indulgence in doubt and despair. Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny. And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.