Pop Quiz: How long did the Hundred Years War last? (Answer: About 116 years, but I had to look it up1.)
Indeed, how many events in history lasted for days, months, or years; yet we read over them in just a sentence or two? I realize that there are historians who delve into events like the life of Julius Caesar, or the reign of the Ottoman Empire, but many of us just skim the summary and figure that we’ve memorized enough factoids to get us through the next party conversation (or history test).
Still, real people lived through these events. These souls endured years of oppression, decades of tyranny, or weeks of starvation or thirst. In fact, some events that we can easily coast over lasted entire lifetimes: There were people who were born, lived, and died during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Multiple generations labored in serfdom during the Dark Ages in Europe. If you were born after the mid-1980’s, you may be shocked to hear that humanity existed even before the Internet!
I notice this sometimes when reading about events in the Bible. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for generations. Evil kings (along with some good ones) led the divided nations of Israel and Judah after the reign of Solomon for decades. Four centuries passed between the last prophecy about Jesus and the events that immediately preceded His birth.
In each case, there were people – many of them looking to God for direction and help – who spent their entire lives without seeing some of the changes that we read about in the pivotal times of history. I believe that God was with them, and could be found by those who sought Him. However, they didn’t get to witness the parting of the Red Sea, or the resurrection of Jesus. They may have known of defining moments from the past, or looked forward to promises that they trusted would be fulfilled some day, but they labored in their own situations without personally experiencing these inspirational events during their lifetimes.
Imagine the joy of Simeon, who lived at the end of the 400 year inter-testamental period, when he learned that he would be blessed to see one of God’s promises, the Savior for whom his people had waited for many, many generations:
And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
Luke 2:25-26 NASB
As those who have the advantage of history (as compared to generations long before us), we might feel superior. However, we risk having less faith than them, in that we do not have to trust God for portions of His plan that have already been completed. Past generations trusted that God would keep His promises, and went to their graves still believing, even before certain events of His plan took place to fulfill many of those promises (see John 20:29).
While this might be a good chance for us to place our own part of history in perspective, another thing that it reminds us is that we may be in the middle of one of those events.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 NASB
We may labor our entire lives for what we cannot see. Our investment may not result in praise for ourselves from other people, or a global revival driven solely by our activities. It might seem that we are working with no results, and that our contributions are futile. We may even wonder if we’re going in the right direction, and if we are aligned with God’s eternal plan.
However, this does not – in any way – lessen the importance of our obedience. It also doesn’t mean that God’s promises will never be fulfilled. It only means that God continues to have a plan that transcends the lifetime of any one of us, and has purpose in His timing. If He calls us to work quietly, and we don’t get to see the same miracles as past or future generations, He has still factored in our contributions into His history-spanning design.
Our confidence in this – if we are led by His Spirit – is manifested in our trust that we are part of His plan. This is not an arbitrary decision, nor something we tell ourselves just to feel better , but rather the logical outcome of the evidence that we receive from 1) experiencing God’s work in our lives, 2) the testimony of millions throughout recorded history who did the same thing, and 3) the specific examples of history where God dramatically stepped in and proved His steadfast loyalty to His promises (and His creation of humanity).
And, even though we may live – like so many before us – during the “in-between” times of history, our role is still part of God’s plan. He sets the groundwork for His ultimate design, and blesses each person who will follow Him. In return, while we may not see the second coming of Jesus in our lifetimes (although we certainly could, if that is God’s will), God blesses our lives with meaning. He still grants us the day-to-day gifts and providence that remind us that He doesn’t wait until Heaven to work good – for us and by us – in our lives.
When future generations look back at our lives, we might be the Simeon or Anna of our generation (Luke 2:25-38), or we might be laborers whose names are known only to God, working in the fields of His kingdom for His glory and looking forward to a future we know is certain…because He has proven His character in the past and present.