A while back I ran across a quote from Tomas Halik, a Roman Catholic priest, philosopher and theologian. He teaches at Charles University in Prague, and advocates for religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The quote is: “An atheist is simply another term for someone who doesn’t have enough patience with God.” I’m not sure where I came across this quote, but I have kept it near my desk for the past couple of years, and have used it in several conversations.
Being patient with God is not an easy thing. I struggle with it, and I suspect, at times, we all do. We pray about something—whether we are looking for guidance or clarity, or praying for someone in a difficult situation—and we expect God to respond promptly and obviously to our prayers. I have come to realize, though, that God doesn’t operate on our timeline, or according to our schedule. Unfortunately when God doesn’t respond as we want, when we want, it is easy for some people to lose patience with God, and even to stop believing in God.
I think the above happens because we often view prayer as a transaction. When we approach prayer as a transaction, we think that if we put in the time and make the effort to pray, God is obliged to respond to our prayer. I think, though, that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer. We don’t pray to get God to do things for us. Rather we pray in order to grow in and develop our relationship with God, and to understand how God is working in our lives.
When we understand prayer as relationship with God, and not a transaction, we don’t see it as putting in the prerequisite time so that God will do what we want. Rather it becomes a way for us to come to understand what it is that God wants for us, what God’s vision is for us, and where God is offering us the grace to become the person God is inviting us to be. Spending time in prayer with God is akin to our human relationships. Spending time with others is a way for us to develop and deepen our relationship with them. In a similar way, spending time with God in prayer helps us to grow in our relationship with God.
It is not always easy to be patient with God. And frankly I suspect many people have given up on God because they weren’t patient enough. I do believe, though, that if we can trust in the slow work of God, not only will we not become atheists, but we will become friends with God, and co-workers with God in bringing about God’s kingdom.