I smoked my first cigarette in high school and continued for seven years. I so thoroughly enjoyed smoking that I overlooked the ridiculousness of my hiding the habit with breath mints, perfume, and darting from disapproving eyes. It took seven years for the hypocrisy and enslavement to exhaust me. I cried out to God and within two weeks I had quit–cold turkey. No patch. No pills. It was a miraculous deliverance that sparked my fledgling faith in God.
Many people have shared similar stories of God working in their lives, usually at a point of their first coming or just returning to relationship with Christ. I think God sometimes acts swiftly to bolster our faith. But, is he honor-bound to work that way?
My Christian sub-culture seemed to think so. Spirituality was tightly-constructed to fit nicely within modern, overly-planned lives. Church services looked more like drive-thru dining than communing. Expedience was called excellence; excellence was considered righteousness. Ministries sacrificed authenticity on the altar of predictability. God was expected to work at the methodical pace of human haste.
The Israelites had similar expectations. Consider the end of their enslavement in Egypt when they witnessed a quick succession of supernatural events that ultimately convinced the Pharaoh to release them. The climactic event occurred when Pharaoh’s army closed in and the Israelites watched a sea instantly part before them.God was moving swiftly. But, pick up the story in Exodus 23. God gave instructions for his people encamped on the outskirts of Canaan, ready to enter the land of promise:
“’Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him…’” (v20-21)
OK, so there would be an angelic guide. Hoorah! Involvement of the supernatural! Continue reading:
“’…When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces…’” (v23-24)
There would be elimination of enemies! Deliverance! Yeah! Then, the record scratch moment…
“’I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land’” (v29-30; compare Deut 7.22).
Humph. This little by little business was a far cry from the instantaneous-and-comprehensive deliverance they’d grown accustomed to. When they were hungry, God quickly sent quail and manna. When they were thirsty, God gushed water out of a rock. This little by little method would test their faith in the person and promises and power of God. It would test their dependence on him and his Word. And, it would be a context for their spiritual transformation–the process by which God aligns the attitudes and actions of his people with his own.
I need to ask: how do you handle God working little by little? Has haste infected your concept of God’s sovereignty? Look, I’ll be the first to admit my awkwardness–and frequent ugliness–in navigating this little by little process of sanctification. Though God has done so much work in my heart, I am still intense and restless. Though I’ve uttered numerous prayers, spent hours in solitude, filled countless journals, retreated into nature, sought counselors and advisors, I am still an anxious gal who fights the narrative of shame.
Which leads to my point: theological understanding and biblical community are vital for our sanctification. We desperately need people who provide the grace and space for us to be transformed by God, gradually. This is especially true as we struggle with the same habits and hurts. So, rather than expecting God to work instantaneously and believers to mature rapidly; rather than letting human haste set the pace, let’s re-evaluate the significance of little.