Nobody likes to sit in a waiting room. We might not mind for a few minutes while we catch up on favorite magazines, but after that, we get antsy and impatient and start to think uncharitable thoughts about whomever we're waiting for.
Maybe you're in a waiting room now, a spiritual waiting room. You're between one thing and the next when you have no recourse but to wait. Perhaps you feel called to missions but are waiting to hear from an agency. Maybe you feel a definite call, but are unsure of next steps. Maybe you're not sure if you're called and you're wondering how to find out. It can be disconcerting—but it can also grow your faith and character in a way few things can.
The experience of being "between two things" has been referred to as liminal space by spiritual formation writers. In an article titled "Grieving as Sacred Space," Richard Rohr defines liminal space as "a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the Biblical God is always leading them." He adds:
It is when you have left the "tried and true" but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. ...If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait—you will run. ...Anything to flee from this terrible "cloud of unknowing."
Many things can propel you into liminal space. If you've had a life-changing experience on a short term missions trip, you may be in God's waiting room as you work integrate your new perspective with choices you're making about your future. You may be in the in-between space as you try to decide if God is calling you to long term work. Or, you may have already committed to long-term service but have had to leave the field for some reason like volatile political changes, or family issues or illness.
As Rohr suggests, our tendency is to push through liminal spaces as fast as possible. But I'm exhorting you to stay. I'm exhorting you to wait well.
Liminal spaces can't be planned or entered into by choice, so when you find yourself in one, take advantage of it. Ask God to show you what you can learn while you're there. Here are seven things you can do to help get the most out of waiting.
1. Wait with trusted companion(s)
Of course, no one can fully share the agony of your waiting, but having a trusted mentor, campus staff worker, therapist, or spiritual director along with you in your journey can help you see things you can't, or (more importantly) a waiting companion can help provide the comfort of just being present. If you're already involved with a missions organization, find out if they have any personnel resources to help people in the discernment process or to give counsel their missionaries. Most do.
2. Keep a journal
You don't want to miss the lessons of this time, and journaling can help you sort out your thoughts in the present and give helpful insight as you look back through them later.
3. Read biographies/autobiographies
I find it helpful to read the biographies and autobiographies of others who have found their place in God's mission. Bruce Olson's Bruchko, Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor, and Helen Roseveare's Give Me This Mountain are three of my favorites. Read one and journal about the discernment process of the missionary in the story and see if it helps you.
4. Be kind to yourself
Eat right, sleep well, exercise. It's easy to feel sorry for ourselves when these times come, but falling into bad health habits will not help you weather this storm. Think of the waiting as a spiritual marathon, and keep up your training. Find others trying to run the same kind of marathon and ask them to partner with you as you wait.
5. Stay in the Word and in prayer
It's easy to believe the accusations of the enemy during a waiting time. Instead of listening to his lies, let Scripture wash your mind with truth and pray out your pain and frustration. InterVarsity Press has some great thematic bible studies on mission like the Lifeguide bible study called Missions: God's Heart for the World. Also, praying through the Operation World prayer guide will keep your spirit attuned to the needs of the world and feed your desire to continue in your path towards missions.
6. Actively resist isolation
Sometimes, when things are hard, pulling away from others and into a protective shell can be a natural instinct. But what you really need when you're waiting is community. Reach out to your friends and be honest with your small group. The journey will be lighter with friends to help support and encourage you. Your church probably has a mission's committee that would love a chance to hear your story and pray for you.
7. Find heroes who have endured difficult times
Ask your parents and relatives about what they've learned during trials. Study the life of Job, Abraham, or Ruth. Read books on waiting itself and on ordinary people who have grown through waiting, like Elizabeth Lesser's Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.
This kind of waiting room doesn't only exist here and now. There may be times when you are serving on the field, and funds don't come in, or co-workers become difficult, or the ministry doesn't grow. We all need to become comfortable with these waiting rooms. Remember, God does some of his best work in deserts, cocoons, waiting rooms, and tombs.
Don't fear this liminal space. Embrace the space!
Jacci Turner is an InterVarsity staff member in Reno. She loves chocolate in all of its manifestations and is a bestselling author.
For more on waiting, check out these resources:
Watch John Ortberg on waiting (from InterVarsity's National Staff Conference 2014)
Read Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent