I lived my teenage years at the height of the True Love Waits movement. While purity culture missed the mark in some ways, I was—and still am—grateful for the lessons it provided on two particular virtues: first, the wisdom to slow down long enough to make good decisions, particularly in the face of strong emotion; second, the love to care for my neighbors by seeking their good and not just my own pleasure.
Many of the same institutions that taught me that “true love waits” are failing to speak wisely or lovingly to the current moment. They rush to big gatherings, ignore scientific consensus, and eschew public health guidelines as symbols of government overreach. The tune has changed from “stay home, save lives,” to “well, we’ve waited long enough.”
As someone who was shaped and formed by these church leaders, I feel deeply disheartened watching them prioritize personal freedom over love of neighbor. But while these libertarians have been loud and their lawsuits prevalent, I’ve seen a quieter and perhaps sadder cause of noncompliance at play as well: that of despair.
If COVID-19 might always be with us, the logic goes, what are we waiting for? With all the uncertainty around variants and vaccine effectiveness, why be patient when the thing we wait and hope for may never arrive?
I recognize that despair as something I saw and heard from my ex-evangelical friends who grew jaded with the True Love Waits movement. Many of them threw out the pearls of slow wisdom and love of neighbor in the midst of their eagerness to reject its admitted foibles, failings, and cultural excesses.
I see a similar sentiment lurking in many believers these days: “Why be patient? What are we waiting for? It might all be for nothing anyway.”
As a pastor in California, I know firsthand what it feels like to face intense pressure from church members who want me to cave in to demands for more indoor activity. Among my ministry colleagues, I haven’t spoken to a single one who doesn’t hate preaching sermons to an iPhone, a tablet, or a camera. I pastor from home the vast majority of the time and I, too, abhor preaching to my iPhone. (In late summer our congregation added outdoor services with required masks, social distancing, and capacity limits, but the bulk of our congregants and pastors continue to worship from home.)
In the midst of this malaise and loneliness, where might we look to stem the tide of despair? How can we press on to embrace wisdom and love in this next pandemic season?
First, the majority of scientists point to the hope that we will at some point see the other side of this pandemic (and maybe not too far in the future), but even if these respected epidemiologists are wrong, the church is still be right to wait.
By way of illustration: Nowhere in my True Love Waits curriculum was I promised a spouse. It was implied but never assured. We studied Paul’s invitation to singles in 1 Corinthians, and we talked about the fact that many figures in Scripture—Jesus included—never wed. Waiting for sexual intimacy wasn’t to assure good sex later. It was to follow Jesus in chaste faithfulness now. Obedience and love of neighbor are their own reward.
Second, although the waiting aches, it also forms us. The crucible of painful perseverance molds us and will mold our people if we can help them through it. “The waiting itself is beneficial to us,” writes Charles Spurgeon. “It tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission, and endears the blessing when it comes.”
The church has a unique opportunity to practice and model the quiet, transformative virtues of patience and perseverance. We look to Christ’s suffering “so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3).
This pandemic Valentine’s Day and every day after, our greatest act of affection for each other is following health guidelines. In doing so, we express deep care for our Christian brothers and sisters, and we also witness to our unbelieving neighbors.
Last summer, I spoke with a couple of atheist doctor friends alongside my husband, Daryl, who is also a pastor.
“What is your church doing?” one asked, itching for a fight.
“We’re online only,” Daryl said.
Tears sprang to her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Let this be our message to a watching world—that God loves them so much and we love them so much that we’re willing to wait.
Courtney Ellis is an associate pastor at Presbyterian Church of the Master, a speaker, and an author, most recently of Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit (Rose Publishing).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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