From the May/June 2023 Discern issue of Discern Magazine

How Long, O Lord?

God’s faithful have often waited—for healing, relief and deliverance—while asking, “How long?” What can we learn while waiting for God?

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Have you waited a long time for an answer to your prayers? Have you asked God, perhaps in tears, “How long?” as you’ve waited for healing or for a spouse or for a better job?

You aren’t alone.

“How long, O Lord?” is a plea for help repeated throughout Scripture. Wherever these words appear, they are expressed with great emotion, and they have resonated with the faithful through the centuries.

Asking God, “How long?”

One such passage, referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, declares that the enemy has “laid Jerusalem in heaps” (Psalm 79:1) before asking, “How long, LORD? Will You be angry forever? Will Your jealousy burn like fire?” (verse 5).

This was a national issue, but the Bible is peppered with similar statements that are very personal. Feeling as though God had unfairly persecuted him, Job asked, “What is man, that . . . You should visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long? Will You not look away from me, and let me alone till I swallow my saliva?” (Job 7:17-19).

It’s easy to feel the way Job did. Absorbed in our own fear and pain, we think that God has not noticed our suffering or that it doesn’t matter to Him.

That isn’t true! David wrote: “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:17-19; see our online article “God Hears Our Prayers”).

God does hear, but He does not always act when we think He should. While we cry out to God, asking Him how long before He steps in to heal us or to deliver us or to grant us some sort of help or relief, we may miss the fact that sometimes God also waits, asking, “How long?”

When has God asked, “How long?”

Very early in the history of the nation of Israel, God asked, “How long?” The tribes had barely left Egypt when their behavior prompted this question. It happened shortly after God blessed Israel with manna.

He supplied this miraculous “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4) every day, but He provided a double portion on the sixth day so His people could rest on the Sabbath (verse 5).

Some of the people, in defiance of God’s clear instructions, attempted to collect manna on the Sabbath. God then asked, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws?” (verse 28).

This is not an isolated case of God’s asking, “How long?” The question also came up when:

  • Samuel, a judge and prophet of Israel, mourned for King Saul (1 Samuel 15:35) after God had rejected him as king. God asked Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel?” (1 Samuel 16:1).

Even God’s prophets were inspired to ask this question:

  • God’s prophet Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal and asked the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).
  • God’s prophet Jeremiah wrote: “O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?” (Jeremiah 4:14).

Scripture makes it plain that God has also waited for His people to repent.

Why does God wait?

One major reason God waits is because He is merciful. This concept is vital for us to grasp as we grapple with our own personal suffering or with the suffering of so many other people. Accidents and time and chance cause suffering. But even more, sin causes suffering. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person suffering has sinned and caused his or her own suffering. We can and do suffer because of others’ sins.

From the time of Adam and Eve, humans have lived in a world cut off from God. It is a world living under a curse we brought upon ourselves (Genesis 3:16-19). If God were to punish every sin immediately, we would all die, because we are all guilty of sin (Romans 3:10-12, 23).

But God is merciful, and as the apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

In His mercy, God—the master of perfect timing—gives all of us time: time to come to our senses, time to learn that we are sinners, time to realize that we need Him, and time to come to repentance.

Most of us, however, are like a pair of brothers who were among the original 12 disciples. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, earned the nickname “Sons of Thunder” from Jesus (Mark 3:17).

Once we trust God, who always has our best interests at heart, then we can step back from our own pain long enough to try to see the world as God does. We can pray for understanding and faith. And then we can more readily wait, patiently enduring what comes our way.Jesus may well have given them this title because of their attitude after a Samaritan village turned them away because Jesus was headed for Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-53). James and John asked Jesus whether they should “command fire to come down from heaven” (verse 54) to destroy those Samaritans. Jesus rebuked His two disciples, explaining that He “did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (verse 56).

Most of us have a hard time showing mercy to anyone who has hurt us, but being merciful is God’s nature. We simply do not think the same way that God does.

The prophet Isaiah pointed out this disparity between our desire for immediate justice and God’s willingness to give all of us time to repent:

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:7-9).

All of God’s thoughts are higher than ours, but this passage is specifically highlighting God’s desire for mercy. This passage is telling us that we do not desire mercy as much as God does. As we grow in the fruit of the Spirit of longsuffering, we should also grow in mercy.

It’s not always just about growing in mercy

What about situations that don’t call for forgiveness? What about when we ask for healing or a mate or financial relief?

The truth is, we don’t always understand why we wait. It might be so we can build faith, or it might be so someone else can build faith. On the other hand, it might have nothing to do with growing in faith or mercy, but the trial might fit into God’s plans in some way we can’t yet comprehend.

The disciples, who, like so many people, saw all trials as punishment for sin, asked Jesus why a man they encountered was blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).

Jesus surprised them with His answer: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (verse 3). God was not punishing him for sin. This man’s blindness was being used to reveal the power of God.

What this means for you and me

We know from personal experience, as well as from Scripture, that the Christian walk is not without suffering. In fact, Peter wrote that “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

But along with the suffering, God also offers comfort and help. Study more about this in our articles “Father of Mercies and God of All Comfort” and “21 Encouraging Bible Verses About Comfort.” In the end, God has great blessings in store for those who patiently wait for Him: “Blessed are all those who wait for Him” (Isaiah 30:18; see our online article “Joint Heirs With Christ”).

Whatever the reasons for not yet receiving an answer, we need to prepare ourselves spiritually. This preparation begins when we accept the idea that we are not in control. God is, and that fact should actually give us confidence.

Once we trust God, who always has our best interests at heart, then we can step back from our own pain long enough to try to see the world as God does. We can pray for understanding and faith. And then we can more readily wait, patiently enduring what comes our way.

None of this means that waiting will be easy or that it will be painless. On the contrary, we may still ask, “How long, O Lord?” But when we do, it won’t be out of desperation. It will be with understanding and faith.

On top of that, as we strive to align our will with God’s will, we can know that God won’t need to ask us, “How long?”

To delve deeper into this subject, see our online article “Why Am I Suffering?

About the Author

Bill Palmer

Bill Palmer attends the Birmingham, Alabama, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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