The Urgent Task of Waiting: Blumhardt and Barth on the World-Shaking Power of Patient Expectancy (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.


On 15 February, the Gospel Coalition blog featured a fantastic article by missionary Josh Manley entitled “Be Patient, Missions Is Urgent“. If you have not read this article, please go and do so right now! Manley cuts against the grain of the tendency, common to most missionaries, to pursue their vocation through a back-breaking busyness carried out at a neck-breaking pace. Against this, Manley wisely reminds us that it is precisely because the missionary task is so urgent that “it demands men and women with the patience to commit to God’s means in order to accomplish God’s ends”. This is so true. How often we think (regardless of what we might say) that it really is the quantity of our time and the quality of our work upon which the spread of the gospel depends! It is obvious what we truly believe by what we actually do. More energy devoted to “doing for God” rather than “waiting on God” reveals that our trust really reposes on ourselves rather than on God.

This is something about which I am becoming increasingly convicted in my own life and to which I am seeking to dedicate more concentrated effort: the urgent task of waiting on God. As one of Karl Barth’s formative influences, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, knew, waiting on God does not mean inactivity or indolence but rather the arduous cultivation of a humble expectancy on the power of God in Christ and through the Spirit that disparages any presumption on our part to be able to usher in the kingdom of God through our best and most well-intentioned labors:

Christ is the beginning and the end of God’s kingdom. Therefore we can say with all confidence and certainty, “The Savior will come again!” He is bound to complete his work, and it is our task simply to be servants until his return, to be in the service of him who is coming. We are, as it were, to represent by our lives the coming of Jesus Christ. We must not, therefore, be so concerned and active, or make such tremendous efforts, as though we were able to achieve the victory of good on this earth. This, of course, we are quite incapable of doing. Only the Lord Jesus can bring it about, he who came a first time and is going to come again a second time. He will complete it – not 1456946697we. If we are loyally and firmly set upon this – “He will come again” – then the gospel of the kingdom will become personal and living to us. We must never separate this gospel from Christ’s person. Without his personal presence, no talking about the gospel, no talking about his coming kingdom, is of any value at all.

So we must be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, which is not only something in the future but a present reality in those who wait for it in their hearts. We are to be servants watching for his return. Not that we get everything nicely arranged for ourselves, but we can and we must postpone our main concerns until he comes. His servants have a twofold task: they are to wait for him in the sense of being active and doing something, and they are to be stewards. The waiting for the Savior involves a personal relationship to him as to a living person, making the gospel living and relevant. There are many people who are always waiting for something new in Christianity, as if something could be achieved through a new faith or a new church. We leave all that alone. We hold fast to the promise of a personal Savior, whom God will send as he has sent him before. And we know that we as persons are quite unable to lead a faithful life unless our Savior is personally with us…

“‘I am the beginning and the end,’ says the Lord.” Do we believe that? Believing is one thing, but getting down to living it out – that is something else. Let each one of us be earnest with himself and get off his soft bed. Even if it costs you your life, go right in, into the thick of the fight! Jesus is alive, and Jesus is victor, and he has given us our part to carry out. But as we do our part, let us not forget that what finally matters is God’s deeds, not ours. “With God we shall do valiantly!” (Ps. 108:13) This was said by David, who went to war without putting his trust in weapons. Sad to say, our faith does not bring about such deeds. The only kind of deed of God we know is something like founding an institution without the necessary money. If, after energetic begging, the money comes in, we call this a deed of God! This, and other things like it, are all that we know. These, however, are our deeds, not the deeds of God. They are all right, but we have to admit that they are but a makeshift solution until God comes and intervenes. To hope for deeds of the kingdom – that is faith. We must be beggars in the kingdom of God and not go away from the door until we have been given something from God. And we really need drastic deeds of God.[1]

Servants, stewards, warriors, beggars. This is all that we are or can ever be in the cause of Christ. We work, we fight, we sweat, we bleed, but ultimately we trust not in our working or fighting or sweating or bleeding but only in that of Jesus Christ. This goes against every arrogant fiber of our fallen human nature that seeks every opportunity to exalt itself at the expense of dependency on God. Yes, even missionaries are guilty of this! We want to be capable of peforming drastic deeds for God rather than waiting for drastic deeds from God! But alas, we are not capable of such deeds, and until we are crucified with Christ so that we abandon all confidence in our own efforts and fervently beseech the Lord of the harvest to act, we are ultimately doomed to labor in vain. Thus, Karl Barth comments:

But how shall all this [new creation] become reality? Blumhardt has two answers: the one he gives to God, “Only you, O God, can help, none other!” The other he gives to us, “Ask. Ask and you shall receive. And in asking we share in, we help with, the new creation.” Blumhardt sees the coming kingdom being prepared in a double movement in heaven and on earth, and the actual decision lies not in the visible but in the invisible world. If something new is to arise on earth, God ultimately has to do it, but young-barth-1for our part we can sow truth and justice. In quite a natural way, therefore, Blumhardt comes to a concept that is very important to him – the biblical concept of the little flock, God’s Zion, who gather around Christ not for their own salvation but for the redemption of the world. They are to represent God’s cause, God’s future, in a special way. Gathering and waiting fit hand in glove.

What will such people have to do? One thing above all: to know and to become deep and firm in the knowledge that “our actual doing must come from the strength of God.” Such people are best described by what they do not do. This attitude – quiet, eagerly expectant, and directed toward God – is what Blumhardt calls “waiting.” It would be good not to pass lightly over the profound depth of what he means by this, because all too often a comfortable sort of nonsense is made out of this concept. Blumhardt’s meaning is that waiting, although turned inward at first, is in its essence revolutionary: “Lord God, make new! Make us new!” To act – to “wait” – means just the opposite of sitting comfortably and going along with the way things are, with the old order of things. For Blumhardt, divine and human action are closely interlocked, not in a mechanical but in an organic sense. It is our calling, our task in everyday life, that people can see the Savior through us. When we “hasten and wait” toward God like this, the consummation is prepared, coming from God himself. Out of what is now present, and in those who live expectantly in the power of God, the future is built up quietly and inconspicuously. When will it finally appear? What is needed for this to happen in an outer way? Such questions are irrelevant. For those who await God’s coming, behind everything lies the great future of God.[2]

As I read this, one phrase in particular stands out to me and cuts me to the quick: “Such people [that is, such people who are truly useful in the kingdom of God] are best described by what they do not do”. Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole here to make a point. Barth is clear that “waiting” does not mean that we “sit comfortably”. Yet it does mean that we do not become so immersed in doing work for God that we neglect time better spent in waiting on God. Ideally, we would desire to be able to do both simultaneously: work while waiting, wait while working. However, for many like myself, it is extremely difficult to cultivate an attitude of waiting while drowning in work. This means that, at least for me, I need to set aside more concentrated time for learning to wait on God, primarily through extended and uninterrupted periods of prayer, fasting, and meditating on his Word. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and I must mortify the latter in order to vivify the former. I am growing increasingly convinced that my best work as a missionary will be accomplished on my knees. If I truly believe that my work is really God’s work and will be effective only when it is done through his power, then why would I not dedicate the most time, not to talking about him to others (as important as that is) but to talking about others to him?

I would like to conclude with an anecdote recounted in the biography of John Hyde, an American missionary to India who was often called “praying Hyde” or “apostle of prayer”. His biographer notes that the impact of his incredible commitment to prayer extended far beyond the amazing results seen in his own ministry:

Behold how much was wrought in the life and work of one lady missionary. She had worked hard for many years in her district, and none of the work there was bearing real fruit. She read the account of Mr. Hyde’s prayer-life, and resolved to devote the best hours of her time to prayer and waiting on God in the study of His Lord and will. She would make prayer primary, and not secondary as she had been doing. She would begin to live a prayer-life in God’s strength. God had said to her: “Call upon Me, and I will show thee great and mighty things. You have not called upon Me, and therefore you do not see these things in your work.” She writes: “I felt that at any cost I must know Him and this prayer-life, and so at last the battle of my heart was ended and I john-hyde-5had the victory.” One thing she prayed for was that God would keep her hidden. She had to face being misunderstood and being dumb and not opening her mouth in self-defense if she was to be a follower of the Lamb.

In less than a year she wrote a letter, and oh, what a change! New life everywhere—the wilderness being transformed into a garden. Fifteen were baptized at first, and one hundred and twenty-five adults during the first half of the following year! “The most of the year has been a battle to keep to my resolution. I have always lived so active a life, accustomed to steady work all day long, and my new life called for much of the best part of the day to be spent in prayer and Bible study. Can you not imagine what it was and what it is sometimes now? To hear others going around hard at work while I stayed quietly in my room, as it were inactive. Many a time I have longed to be out again in active work among the people in the rush of life, but God would not let me go. His hand held me with as real a grip as any human hand, and I knew that I could not go. Only the other day I felt this again and God seemed to say to me, ‘What fruit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?’ Yes, I knew I was ashamed of the years of almost prayer-less missionary life. “Every department of the work now is in a more prosperous condition than I have ever known it to be. The stress and strain have gone out of my life. The joy of feeling that my life is evenly balanced, the life of communion on the one hand and the life of work on the other, brings constant rest and peace, I could not go back to the old life, and God grant that it may always be impossible.”

Another year passed, and she wrote again: “The spirit of earnest inquiry is increasing in the villages and there is every promise of a greater movement in the future than we have ever yet had. Our Christians now number six hundred in contrast with one sixth of that number two years ago (before she began the prayer-life and gave herself to it). I believe we may expect soon to see great things in India. Praise for His hourly presence and fellowship!”[3]

May God give us the strength, as he did to these his servants, to practice the difficult discipline of waiting on God. The need of the world is immense, and the task of missions is urgent, so let’s get busy waiting!


[1] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 15-18, 33-34. Kindle Edition.

[2] Karl Barth, “Afterword” in Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 145-6. Kindle Edition.

[3] E.G. Carre (ed.) Praying Hyde (Alachua: Bridge Logos, 1982), pp. 33-34. Kindle Edition.