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Is God Slow? | Mark Buchanan

Is God Slow? | Mark Buchanan

God is slow.

This is perhaps the most obvious thing about God, though rarely noticed. Of all the divine attributes that we laud or debate, ponder or puzzle over, it’s seldom or never we mention God’s slowness. Yet nothing about God is more empirically verifiable: he just seems in no particular hurry at all.

It’s why, incidentally, I don’t have any philosophical objections to the notion of an old earth: why would God be in a fired-up rush to create, say, all the forests of the world—the arboreal, the coastal, the tropical, the Amazonian, the aspen woods, and so on—in a single go when he never seems in any rush afterward, not with any tree or anything else besides?

No, God appears perfectly happy to let things unfold in a painstaking way. He meanders. He plods. He’s like the Ents in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, never hasty. He’s like Roger Moore’s James Bond, saving the world from catastrophe but taking his sweet time doing it, cracking one-liners as he goes, waiting until the last possible moment to cut the wire that defuses the bomb, as though waiting until the last possible moment is the whole point of the exercise.

Take, for instance, the Exodus. It is the central event in Israel’s history and the model for Jesus’ redemption of humanity. It demonstrates the mighty power of God to save, no matter how hopeless our situation, how total and brutal the trouble we’re in. It displays God’s heart for the oppressed. It shows his rule over history. It shows that there is no human system that God cannot dismantle for the sake of the least of these. It’s good news for the woebegone and woe-begotten, bad news for all who have a hand in that.

But it takes so long. Using Scripture and genealogies, rabbis have debated how long the Israelites were in Egypt, but it was anywhere from two hundred to more than four hundred years before God raised up Moses to deliver his people from slavery. If God can wield powers like this—frogs falling from clouds, locusts devouring crops, darkness engulfing daylight, but just here, while sunlight dances over there—couldn’t he have hurried things up a bit in his rescue of his chosen ones? Why the many years of no show of power at all? And then, why the drama? Why the edge-of-our-seats, nailbiting suspense? Why ten plagues and not, say, three, just to make the point and move on? Why does every event unfold with exquisitely agonizing slowness and only heighten the danger rather than resolve the problem?

Later, God uses a metaphor to capture the whole rescue operation: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod. 19:4).

Eagles’ wings? Really? Sure, an eagle is no swallow, swift and darting. An eagle doesn’t flit about with blurring quickness. But it’s no ostrich, either: galloping, wings askew, trying vainly to get airborne. I live in a part of the world where I see eagles, mostly bald eagles, on a daily basis. Their flight is pure poetry. It is high art. An eagle takes to the air with martial command and rides the winds like Zeus. It rarely seems in a hurry, that’s true—up there in its lofty heights turning wide circles—but it never seems slow, either.

Maybe after Israel busted out of Egypt, the events all compressed in their memory and it did, indeed, feel like one elegant, breathless ride, a smooth arc from suffering to freedom. But in the moment, on the ground, with frogs raining down around them and still no movement up at the king’s house, I think everyone’s inner dialogue must have been a single refrain: How long, O Lord?

I could sketch out many other biblical stories similarly—desert wanderings, settling the land, exile and return, waiting for the Messiah.

Nothing here happens fast.

Especially, think about making a disciple, just one disciple. Think about it personally. Think about you. Think about the slowness, the laboring groaning back-and-forth slowness, of it, the many plodding years, the many lapses and mishaps and detours. It’s taken all this time for you to become even halfway kind or generous or truthful or loving or just. And how many times have you gotten stuck—in resentment, in fear, in scarcity thinking, in apathy?

Or am I just talking to myself about myself? This sometimes happens.

If not, if some of what I describe also describes you, then the question is, How so? Why so? An easy, and mostly correct, answer is we ourselves are the problem. We sabotage our own flourishing. I’ve done this often enough not to argue otherwise. But I also think that the slowness of personal formation appears to be universal, something that recovering meth addicts and reformed porn stars struggle with, but so does everyone. Mother Teresa and Billy Graham and the apostle Paul all took a while to become themselves. I think the slowness is built in. It’s a designed flaw, something God mixed in to the human condition on purpose. He seems to have rigged it. Becoming like Jesus doesn’t happen quickly for anyone.

The way we usually account for our slowness to become like Jesus, as I mentioned, is by simply laying all the fault at our own feet. It’s our sin, our waywardness, our stubbornness that keep us from getting to saintliness sooner. Again, no argument from me.

But is that the whole story?

Doesn’t the sheer universality of our slowness suggest that something else is also at play? I have a guess what that might be: God made people to grow slowly. With most animals, God designed them to go from babyhood to adulthood in a year or so. A chick that comes twitching and gaping out of its shell one week is flitting and swooping on air the next. A puppy that’s womb-smeared and blind on Monday, flopping about trying to find its mother’s teat, is bounding after a cat a couple of weeks later, and soon after that eating everything it can scrounge. But a human child? Even seventeen or eighteen years on, she’s still growing into her limbs, settling into her brain, navigating her emotions, learning to soft boil an egg.

As in the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, so in the spiritual. We are made to mature at a snail’s pace. Though snails, of course, mature much faster.

Maybe I’m making excuses for myself. But maybe not. I think God designed human maturation to be a long arc. But why? Why don’t we grow up all in a hurry, like cats?

I am not entirely sure. I just know my own growing happens at about three miles an hour, at God speed, and more and more I need slow down so that I can catch up.

How to Use This Book

This is an excerpt from my book God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul. The book itself has practical suggestions following each chapter for implementing the book’s ideas.

Use this section to explore those moments in your own maturation that have happened swiftly comparted those that have been much slower.

What do you make of the author’s claim that this slowness is a “designed flaw”?