John Piper: Battling the Unbelief of Impatience
I was blessed by someone providing a link to the audio of a sermon given by John Piper, called “Battling the Unbelief of Impatience”. So, to pay it forward, I’m posting the text and audio here, with both available at desiring God (lots of other great resources there as well). The sermon addresses the struggle within ourselves between waiting on God and either giving up or rushing ahead with our own plans. Genuine longsuffering–the fruit of the Spirit–challenges us to the core because it forces us to lay down our will and submit fully to God’s. Many times, even if we genuinely want to do God’s will, our impatience can hinder us from waiting on His timing. A long wait in the checkout lane, a traffic jam, or a slowpoke family member might try our patience a little, but those things are small potatoes when compared to having to wait on God for that which we deeply hope for and that for which He has given a word of promise. In fact, His word of promise tests us, until such time as its fulfillment arrives. (Psalm 105:19). Let us learn patience, that with those saints who have gone before us, we, through faith and patience, might inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:12)
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.
For though his officials are at Zoan
and his envoys reach Hanes,
everyone comes to shame
through a people that cannot profit them,
that brings neither help nor profit,
but shame and disgrace.”
In God’s Place, at God’s Pace
Impatience is a form of unbelief. It’s what we begin to feel when we start to doubt the wisdom of God’s timing or the goodness of his guidance. It springs up in our hearts when the road to success gets muddy or strewn with boulders or blocked by some fallen tree. The battle with impatience can be a little skirmish over a long wait in a checkout lane. Or it can be a major combat over a handicap or disease or circumstance that knocks out half your dreams.
The opposite of impatience is not a glib, superficial denial of frustration. The opposite of impatience is a deepening, ripening, peaceful willingness either to wait for God where you are in the place of obedience, or to persevere at the pace he allows on the road of obedience—to wait in his place, or to go at his pace.
The Battle Against Unbelief
When the way you planned to run your day, or the way you planned to live your life is cut off or slowed down, the unbelief of impatience tempts you in two directions, depending partly on your personality partly on circumstances:
- On the one side, it tempts you to give up, bail out. If there’s going to be frustration and opposition and difficulty, then I’ll just forget it. I won’t keep this job, or take this challenge, rear this child, or stay in this marriage, or live this life. That’s one way the unbelief of impatience tempts you. Give up.
- On the other side, impatience tempts you to make rash counter moves against the obstacles in your way. It tempts you to be impetuous or hasty or impulsive or reckless. If you don’t turn your car around and go home, you rush into some ill-advised detour to try to beat the system.
Whichever way you have to battle impatience, the main point today is that it’s a battle against unbelief and therefore it’s not merely a personality issue. It’s the issue of whether you live by faith and whether you inherit the promises of eternal life. Listen to these verses to sense how vital this battle is:
- Luke 21:19—”By your endurance [patience] you will gain your lives.”
- Romans 2:7—”To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life.”
- Hebrews 6:12—”Do not be sluggish but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Patience in doing the will of God is not an optional virtue in the Christian life. And the reason it’s not is because faith is not an optional virtue. Patience in well-doing is the fruit of faith. And impatience is the fruit of unbelief. And so the battle against impatience is a battle against unbelief. And so the chief weapon is the Word of God, especially his promises.
How the Psalmist Battled Against Impatience
Before we look at Isaiah 30, I want you to see this relationship between the promises of God and the patience of the believer in Psalm 130:5. How does the psalmist battle against impatience in his heart?
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
And in his word I hope.
“Waiting for the Lord” is an Old Testament way of describing the opposite of impatience. Waiting for the Lord is the opposite of running ahead of the Lord and it’s the opposite of bailing out on the Lord. It’s staying at your appointed place while he says stay, or it’s going at his appointed pace while he says go. It’s not impetuous and it’s not despairing.
Now how does the psalmist sustain his patience as he waits for the Lord to show him the next move? Verse 5 says, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and IN HIS WORD I HOPE.” The strength that sustains you in patience is hope, and the source of hope is the Word of God. “In his word I hope!” And hope is just faith in the future tense. Hebrews says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”
So what we have in Psalm 130:5 is a clear illustration that the way to battle impatience is to buttress your hope (or faith) in God, and the way to buttress your hope in God is to listen to his Word, especially his promises.
If you are tempted not to wait peacefully for God, to let him give you your next move—if you are tempted to give up on him or go ahead without him—please realize that this is a moment for great spiritual warfare. Take the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), and wield some wonderful promise against the enemy of impatience.
The Impetuous Side of Impatience
Now let’s look at an illustration of Israel when she did not do this.
During Isaiah’s day Israel was threatened by enemies like Assyria. During those times God sent the prophet with his word to tell Israel how he wanted them to respond to the threat. But one time Israel became impatient with God’s timing. The danger was too close. The odds for success were too small. Isaiah 30:1–2 describes what Israel did in her impatience.
Woe to the rebellious children, says the Lord, who carry out a plan, but not mine; and who make a league, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my counsel, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh, and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
This is the opposite of waiting on the Lord. Israel became impatient. God had not delivered them from their enemy in the time or in the way that they had hoped, and patience ran out. They sent to Egypt for help. They made a plan and treaty, but they weren’t God’s. The key words are in verse 2: “They set out to go down to Egypt, WITHOUT ASKING FOR MY COUNSEL.”
This is a perfect illustration of the impetuous side of impatience. This is where many of us sin almost daily: charging ahead in our own plans without stopping to consult the Lord.
The Warning of the Lord
So the Lord gives a warning in verse 3: “Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh [the king of Egypt!] turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.” In other words, your impatience is going to backfire on you. Egypt will not deliver you; it will be your shame. Your impatience will turn out to be your humiliation.
This is meant as a warning for all of us. When our way is blocked and the Lord says wait, we better trust him and wait, because if we run ahead without consulting him, our plans will probably not be his plans and they will bring shame on us rather than glory. (See Isaiah 50:10–11 and the case of Abraham and Hagar for the same point.)
What Should Be Done Instead?
What should Israel have done? What should we do when we feel boxed in by obstacles and frustrations? The answer is given in verse 15 and verse 18.
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
Here are two great promises this morning that should give you strong incentive to overcome the unbelief of impatience.
Verse 15: “In quietness and trust shall be your strength.” In other words, if you rest in God, if you look to him instead of dashing down to Egypt, if you trust him, then he will give you all the strength you need to be patient and to handle the stresses where you are.
Then verse 18: “Blessed are all those who wait for him.” God promises that if you wait patiently for his guidance and help, instead of plunging ahead “without asking for his counsel,” he will give you a great blessing.
Preaching to Your Own Soul
This is the way you battle the unbelief of impatience. You preach to your soul with warnings and promises. You say, Look what happened to Israel when they acted impatiently and went to Egypt for help instead of waiting for God. They were shamed and humiliated. And then you say to your soul: but look what God promises to us if we will rest in him and be quiet and trusting. He will make us strong and save us. He says he will bless us if we wait patiently for him.
Then you might use the promise in Isaiah 49:23,
Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.
And then Isaiah 64:4,
No eye has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him.
And finally 40:31,
Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
So you battle the unbelief of impatience by using the promises of God to persuade your heart that God’s timing and God’s guidance and God’s sovereignty are going to take this frustrated, boxed in, unproductive situation and make something eternally valuable out of it. There will come a blessing, a strength, a vindication, a mounting up with wings like eagles.
Charles Simeon’s Patient Endurance
Let me close with an illustration of a man who lived and died in successful warfare against the unbelief of impatience. His name was Charles Simeon. He was a pastor in the Church of England from 1782 to 1836 at Trinity Church in Cambridge. He was appointed to his church by a bishop against the will of the people. They opposed him not because he was a bad preacher but because he was an evangelical—he believed the Bible and called for conversion and holiness and world missions.
For 12 years the people refused to let him give the afternoon Sunday sermon. And during that time they boycotted the Sunday morning service and locked their pews so that no one could sit in them. He preached to people in the aisles for 12 years! How did he last?
In this state of things I saw no remedy but faith and patience. [Note the linking of faith and patience!] The passage of Scripture which subdued and controlled my mind was this, “The servant of the Lord must not strive.” [Note: The weapon in the fight for faith and patience was the Word!] It was painful indeed to see the church, with the exception of the aisles, almost forsaken; but I thought that if God would only give a double blessing to the congregation that did attend, there would on the whole be as much good done as if the congregation were doubled and the blessing limited to only half the amount. This comforted me many, many times, when without such a reflection, I should have sunk under my burthen. (Charles Simeon, by H.C.G. Moule, p. 39)
Where did he get the assurance that if he followed the way of patience, there would be a blessing on his work that would make up for frustrations of having all the pews locked? He got it, no doubt, from texts like Isaiah 30:18, “Blessed are all those who wait for the Lord.” The Word conquered unbelief and belief conquered impatience.
Fifty-four years later he was dying. It was October 1836. The weeks drug on, as they have for many of our dying saints at Bethlehem. I’ve learned that the battle with impatience can be very intense on the death bed. On October 21 those by his bed heard him say these words slowly and with long pauses:
Infinite wisdom has arranged the whole with infinite love; and infinite power enables me—to rest upon that love. I am in a dear Father’s hands—all is secure. When I look to Him, I see nothing but faithfulness—and immutability—and truth; and I have the sweetest peace—I cannot have more peace. (Charles Simeon, p. 172)
The reason Simeon could die like that is because he had trained himself for 54 years to go to Scripture and to take hold of the infinite wisdom and love and power of God and use them to conquer the unbelief of impatience.
And so I urge you in the words of Hebrews 6:12, “Be imitators of” Charles Simeon and of all “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
For additional study see the connection of faith/hope with patience in Romans 8:25; 12:12;1 Thessalonians 1:3; Hebrews 6:12, 15; James 1:3; Revelation 13:10. For other texts on patience see Psalm 37:9; Lamentations 3:25–27; Luke 8:15; Romans 5:3; 1 Corinthians 13:4; Galatians 5:5, 22; Ephesians 4:1–2; Colossians 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:14;James 5:7–11; Job 1:21; Luke 2:25, 38; 2 Timothy 3:10. For God’s patience see 2 Peter 3:9; Romans 2:4; 9:22; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Peter 3:20.