Growing up in evangelicalism, I often heard preachers talk about “the time of God’s patience.” They used it to encourage us to repent while there is still an opportunity for sinners to get right with God. When human history comes to an end, and the Great Judgment Day arrives, they said, there will be no more divine patience. We will be stuck with our basic choices — for or against salvation — for all eternity.
Those calls to repentance still shape my basic spiritual outlook. But when I participated in dialogues with Mennonites in the 1970s about political engagement, I heard them use “the time of God’s patience” in a somewhat different way. It is not our task as Christians, they said, to eliminate all the evils in the world. That will only happen when God decides to bring things to the final culmination. In the meantime, we live in the time of God’s patience. That’s not a reason simply to accept the social and political status quo. We need to be witnesses for peace and justice, speaking truth to those who are in power. But our calling for the present is not to be successful. Rather, we should act in a way that we will be found to be faithful when the final accounting happens.
This call to patience helped me much when many of my fellow evangelicals, having been content for over a half-century to stay on the margins of social-political life, suddenly declared themselves in the 1980s to be a “Moral Majority” — thus entering “the culture wars” with the confidence that they could win some significant battles. Some of those folks eventually became disillusioned with trying to shape public policy, although many of them have revived their warring spirit in the recent presidential election campaign.
I don’t identify with all of the causes of the religious right, and even when I agree I strongly dislike the warring spirit. A pluralistic democracy provides us with many opportunities to influence public life, without having to resort to “take no enemies” crusades.
The culture wars seem to have been heating up again in the past year or so, and as someone who has never signed up as a culture warrior, I have been thinking a lot about the present requirements for living in “the time of God’s patience.” Three decades ago that idea motivated me to encourage my fellow evangelicals not to be too triumphalistic. These days, however, I need to use it to encourage myself not to be too defeatist.
Martin Luther King was clear about the fact that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, things really are moving in the right direction. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends towards justice.” That’s a profound basis for keeping at the struggle in the time of God’s patience.