Waiting for God?
Randall Smith on the Meaning of "Providentially, Just in Time"
A fellow professor once commented to me on an odd phrase in a piece of student writing. A young woman had written that an event had occurred "providentially, just in time." My colleague thought this expression belonged in the files of "The Department of Redundancy Department." To say that an event was "providential" is, at least on the Christian understanding of providence, to affirm that the event happened exactly at the time it was supposed to. Thus, to my colleague, "just in time" seemed unnecessary.
I'm not so sure, but I see his point. Did our student writer imagine God waiting in heaven as various deadlines come and go? Perhaps she imagined that, just as she balances 101 different tasks and school assignments throughout the day, so God balances all the concerns of humanity. And just as she was able to juggle all those different assignments and somehow manage to turn in her twenty-page paper for Economics "just in time," so, too, God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites "just in time." He stopped Abraham "just in time" lest he kill Isaac.
Haven't you ever waited around patiently for God's providence to "kick in," and then, after a while, wondered: "God sure is taking his time!" That is to say, you know God's time is the right time, but it sure seems as though "the right time" would be now. Or even that "a very good time" would have been, say, two weeks ago. So much so that now it's starting to look as though God's not going to make it "just in time"—that he may, in fact, be more than just a little late.
Waiting & Readiness
Are "providential" and "just in time" synonymous, or not? It all depends upon your point of view. When God's schedule fits with mine, he's "right on time." When God's schedule is at odds with mine, he's late, though he must still be provident.
In this way, I'm like my father, much as I hate to admit it. When he was ready to go somewhere, it was time to go. If you were ready before he was, you just had to wait. But God forbid that, while you were waiting, you should decide to read a book or start a project. Because when he was ready to leave, you had better be at the door, ready to go. "It's time to go right now! Why aren't you ready to go?" he would shout. "Why do you always make us wait for you?"
So, too, I think back on those times when I supposed God was "taking his own sweet time." For example, all those years I waited for him to send me a wife—I have to admit in retrospect that an awful lot of that "waiting for God" was just "me-not-being-ready." God was the one who was waiting—patiently. What did I think? That a young woman was going to show up with a ribbon and a card that said, "To Randy, from God; enjoy the new wife"? Even if he had done this, I still wouldn't have been the slightest bit ready for marriage. Perhaps if I had spent more time asking God to make me ready and less time wondering when he was going to "deliver," he could have sent my wife along earlier.
When we say that something happens "just in time," we don't mean to say that it happened "just"—that is to say, "merely"—"in time," as opposed to something "eternal" or "outside of time." Rather, we mean that there was something especially significant about that particular moment in time. A second later, and the results would have been very different, and much for the worse. Ancient Greek usefully distinguishes between chronos, what we might call "clock time," and a kairos, which is a "critical moment."
A professor of mine used to illustrate the notion of kairos with a story. He had been to a fine glassblowing plant in Europe, and there was a person there whose job it was to watch the glass being blown by another man and then, at precisely the right moment, to "tap" the glass to make it come loose from the blowing tube. This "tapper" was the highest-paid man in the plant, it was said, because his job was the most critical. If he tapped a moment too soon, the molten glass would still be too soft, and it would be deformed. But if he tapped a moment too late, the glass would shatter. He had to know from years of experience exactly the right moment to tap in order to get a perfectly formed glass vessel. In glassblowing, that moment is the kairos.
Most of us spend our days in chronos. The moments tick by without one moment being much different from the last or the next. We live in Cartesian absolute time, time measured by duration. Time measured on a time line.
Every now and again, though, we experience a critical moment—"a moment," as T. S. Eliot says in The Four Quartets, "in and out of time." It's not as though time has stopped. And yet something about the moment reaches beyond time, to "a point of intersection of the timeless with time." In such moments, we begin to understand something about God's time. This is "time not our time," says Eliot again in the Quartets:
For a God who is eternal to act in time is amazing (not to mention difficult to understand metaphysically).
Patience & Perseverance
We wait—in time—for the "right time." Experience suggests that God knows when "the right time" (the kairos) is, even if we don't. The Christian promise is that God will take care of us, provide what we need, and, as it were, "give us our daily bread." There is nothing in that promise that says we will always understand what God is doing or how.
In the "mean time," those of us who travel between the near and farther shore need faith—faith that God's time is always "the right time." That faith will in turn have to give birth to virtues like patience and perseverance—patience amidst the waiting, and perseverance that we might prepare ourselves to be ready when the moment comes. For perhaps the gift is coming at every moment.
"Teach us to care and not to care," writes Eliot in Ash Wednesday. "Teach us to sit still." Since we are required to live in time, we must learn to pray and persevere continually in the faith and hope that, no matter how it seems at this particular moment, God's promises will be fulfilled "providentially, just in time"—but also, I fear, not a moment too soon. •
This article was written while he was a Visiting Fellow at the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. The author is thankful for the center's generosity and assistance.
Randall Smith is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
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“Waiting for God?” first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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