It is a question that has settled into the deepest levels of my consciousness over the last few years. I have grown accustomed to its constant hum, learned to live with the slight but noticeable discomfort of uncertainty that shades how I think about the things I most desire.
At first it was an exciting question—I couldn’t wait to see how my life would unfold. What stories would I someday tell my children? But in the last few years I have started thinking about marriage and family as an “if” rather than a “when,” and I have been trying with all I have to accept the possibility that God’s answer to my question might very well be “never.”
Tied to the Timeline
It wasn’t always this way. For a long time singleness was pretty easy for me. Not that I never lost myself in crushes or cried when they failed to materialize into actual dates, boyfriends, or relationships—I have spent more time than I care to admit doing both—but even as the disappointments rolled in over the years, I still believed that God had a plan for my life and that all the pain would be worth it when I finally had what I really wanted.
Even though God’s plan wasn’t unfolding exactly as I’d envisioned, there was still time for it to line up with the plan I had in mind. In this perfect version of my life, I would get married at 25, start having kids between 28 and 30, and write on the side while I stayed home to raise my kids. I knew it was no guarantee, but at 21 and 22 it seemed reasonable to assume this was at least roughly how my “real life” would unfold. I could give or take a few years. My deepest and most consistent desires have always been to get married and have a family, and surely, I knew, God must want those things for me too. He wouldn’t have given me those desires if he didn’t mean to fulfill them, right? But, as I have learned over and over again, these aren’t things you can make happen through sheer force of will.
The years dragged on and my self-imposed deadlines came and went, each hope more urgent and increasingly dramatic in disappointment, and I got tired. Tired of waiting, tired of hoping, tired of watching everyone around me get the things I so desperately wanted, and tired of trying to be happy for them while I grieved getting left just a little farther behind. It grew harder to bounce back. It grew harder to be happy. Eventually, I couldn’t keep the disappointments from chipping away at the joy that had once sustained me. When, God? became a demand, an accusation, a charge that could not be acquitted. Each new frustration was more evidence in the growing case that God was intentionally withholding something good from me, something he had no intention of ever providing.
“When, God?” is not a helpful question. It’s one I can’t help but ask, but it’s not one God can answer other than through the unfolding of time. I can only wait. Waiting isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s okay to hope and to want something more or something different than I have now. But if I let this question dictate how I live my life now, I will miss out on what God is doing in my life in this moment. The real question I have learned to ask is “What does it mean to wait well?”
For me, waiting well has meant embracing community. Part of the reason this uncertainty can feel so unmanageable is because it is supposed to be—we are not meant to bear our burdens alone. This summer I was at a wedding where, during her toast, the maid of honor described a time when she and the bride were both crushed by disappointment and felt unable to hope for themselves. So they decided to spend a few months praying exclusively for the other person and having hope for her when she could not have hope for herself. I had never heard a better description of Galatians 6:2. How freeing it can be, I have realized, to be released from the responsibility to hope for myself and to embrace instead the joy of hoping for someone I love. And knowing that someone else believes for me has allowed me to begin to believe for myself.
In a time of life when I have often felt like I could do nothing to change the things that frustrated me, I have been reminded over and over again that prayer is not nothing. I have tried to deal with the unknowing on my own and I have failed, over and over again, often to laughable degrees. But in prayer it is difficult to forget that life, all of life, is a gift from God. In prayer I am reminded that he has the power to change anything: my circumstances and also my heart.
A Lifetime of Waiting
This past year was a really difficult one for me, waiting-wise. I spent most of it mad at God that he seemed so determined to make me miserable, that he had given me this singularly frustrating burden. Nothing good really mattered because I could only see the lack of the one thing I didn’t have. I stopped believing that things could ever be different. I did not wait well.
I knew something needed to change, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it on my own. I tried giving myself pep talks, I tried to believe my friends’ pep talks, I tried to stop thinking about it, and I tried to tell people I had stopped thinking about it. I tried and tried and nothing changed.
And then it did. For a year I had been praying that God would lift this burden, that he would restore my joy and lead me toward contentment. After all that time, I knew it wasn’t anything I had done when the weight did finally start to lift. It was a gift from God, and he had worked it out in just the way he’s working everything out—in time.
There is contentment and joy to be found in the time of waiting. I still don’t know when, or even if. And I know that even if those things I am waiting for do happen, the question won’t go away because God has built waiting into the fabric of this life—we wait for his return, his kingdom, his redemption of all this unavoidable pain and grief into something new and perfect and holy. But none of this waiting is without hope. All of it points us toward a God who sees our pain and wants more for us—who provides for us while we wait for his plan to unfold. The answer to the question When God? is now. He is here, now, and he does not let me wait alone.
Laura Leonard is managing editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com. She lives in the Chicago suburbs, far away from her family in Philadelphia but close to a wonderful church and friend community God has graciously provided. Follow her on Twitter at @lmarieleonard.