Waiting for YearsBy Nathan Mates
Pop quiz: how long did Joseph spend in Egypt before he was put in charge of famine preparations? How long was it between David's anointing as King, and when he assumed the throne? How long was it between Saul's blinding conversion on road to Damascus and when he began his missionary journeys? How long did Moses have to speak to sheep before he spoke to Pharaoh?
Answers: 13 years for Joseph: he was sold into slavery at age 17 (Genesis 37:2), became Pharaoh's second-in-command at age 30 (Genesis 41:46). For David, he was "only a boy" facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17:42), but he was 30 years old (2 Samuel 5:4) when he started ruling, and 37 years old (2 Samuel 5:4-5) when he first ruled a united kingdom. Assuming an age of 16-18 for Goliath, we get a 12 (best case) to 20 year period before he was King over a united Kingdom. Paul says he spent 3 years (Galatians 1:18) after his conversion before returning to Jerusalem. Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness as a shepherd (Acts 7:30, from Acts 7:23 and Exodus 7:7).
While the Bible does compress the stories of some of these great Biblical characters, it is worth noting how long they spent on the process of getting there. In today's "I want patience, God, and I want it by this time yesterday" society, the concept of spending years working towards a goal may seem incomprehensible. And yet, Noah spent the better part of a hundred years (Genesis 5:32, 7:5) working towards a singular goal: the saving of life on earth.
In the interests of balance, let me note that there were also a number of Biblical characters whose calling was almost instantaneous with their ministry. Gideon (Judges 6-8) had a time period between his calling and his seeing action of days to weeks. At the Lord's word, Jonah ran the wrong way, immediately. Most of Jesus's disciples also came immediately when called: "After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him." [Luke 5:27-28]
Most of us will probably fall somewhere in the middle part of the timescale: it may not be days/weeks before we're in charge of things, but it hopefully won't be a century either. Why is there this period of relative downtime? Quite simply, I believe it's a necessary time for God to work in us: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." [Romans 8:29] Like a potter shaping a lump of clay (Romans 9:21), it may take some time for us to be fully ready and transformed (Romans 12:2) to God's purposes.
Some parts of human nature are transformed earlier than others: many new converts are at their evangelistic peak in boldly and shamelessly telling those they know about the gospel. [Unfortunately, that also fades.] Other parts of human nature may take longer to clean out and get right before God.
In fact, God calls for the overseers (deacons, elders, pastors, leaders, etc) of his Church to this period of waiting: "He [the overseer candidate] must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil." [1 Timothy 3:6] God wants experience under the belt of those he's got leading his flock. There's no hint here as to how long until someone isn't a recent convert.
As part of the training for a leader is the learning to be a servant: "Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."" [Mark 9:35] That teaching runs contrary to all the world's beliefs-- except for some martial arts philosophies-- and one of the sticking points that cause so many to have to spend time in learning.
Even in the Old Testament we see this principle at work: Elijah was one of the greatest prophets, after Moses, and Elisha was his designated successor. "But Jehoshaphat asked, "Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD through him?" An officer of the king of Israel answered, "Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Elijah."" [2 Kings 3:11] Elisha's humble service was what was noticed by this officer, and why he was recommended to the King. Moses had spent decades learning how to take care of sheep before he learned how to take care of more rebellious humans.
While we don't know every detail of the years that some of God's chosen leaders spent before their ministry, we can take heart from their examples. This is also not to condone years spent wasted waiting for God to drop something into our lap-- he's given us enough commands to stay busy for years. However, it may be years before our work is recognized and the talents we've been given are spent on (seemingly) bigger things. If you find yourself in such a situation, don't get stuck in the trap feeling that your talents are wasted just like Moses's years dealing with ornery, idiotic, and annoying animals.
God has a plan for all of us, and the more we conform to it, the more we'll see exactly how much we've been doing where we are, and how much more we need to humble ourselves before such a loving and gracious God.