“Impatience or Urgency”

This year, as a way of reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the first time. (You can read or listen to Dr. King read the whole text online.) One thing I was struck by was Dr. King’s exploration of when it is appropriate to take action and when we should wait a little longer. Near the end of the letter he writes, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” When are we being unreasonably impatient and when are we complacently settling for something less than what God wants from us? 


With the benefit of hindsight, it might feel clear now that Dr. King was right to take action when he did, to not patiently wait for a better time to act. At the time, however, many people (including fellow Christians) did not agree with him about the timing or his methods. When we are trying to figure out the right course of action in the present, we should expect a similar range of strong opinions (even just within ourselves) about what we should do and when we should do it. Part of what I gained from reading this letter is a reminder that there are times when a sense of urgency is the appropriate response. It reminds me of when the Lord said, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49,50).


Do you have a fire kindled in you? Are you distressed that the Lord has not yet accomplished His baptism in you? I am thinking particularly in regard to your own spiritual work. Do you have a sense of urgency about it? It is good to know that regeneration is a lifelong process and that we shouldn’t expect instantaneous salvation but that shouldn’t make me complacent about working on my garbage. As long as the hellish love of self and love of the world reign in certain parts of my life, there will be injustices and people will be hurt. I should have a sense of urgency about working on those things.


Dr. King wrote, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …. Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above His environment.“ I have no great insight into how to address the problems of the world, except that we all need to be starting by working on our own issues and I’m going to be trying to do that, not with impatience, but with a greater sense of God-kindled urgency.