Sunday, January 03, 2016

Worth Waiting For

“Time preference” is an economic term that expresses the relative value of having something now as opposed to having that same thing later.

People with high time preferences focus primarily on their well-being in the present and in the immediate future. They choose now over later more often than average.

People with low time preferences, on the other hand, look further down the road. They most often choose later over now.

The economic application of this is obvious: if I withdraw what is in my RSP today, it has a certain value. If I withdraw it in 30 years, all else being equal, it has a much greater value. The lower time preference choice is, in most cases, the more sensible option.

For those who love God, learning the discipline of lower time preferences kind of comes with the territory.

That is not easy. We want what we want now. That’s natural.

Joseph in the Slammer

Joseph, for instance, wanted to be out of Egyptian prison. Totally understandable. The story is found in Genesis 40. He interpreted a dream for Pharaoh’s cupbearer, his fellow prisoner. The dream came true only three days later. As Joseph had correctly foretold, the cupbearer was released and restored to his former position of service to the king of Egypt.

What was the first thing Joseph did? He expressed a (very natural and entirely understandable) high time preference. He said to the cupbearer, “Remember me ... mention me to Pharaoh”. Translation: I want out now.

The ungrateful cupbearer promptly forgot. For Joseph, this meant two full extra years in prison. That was a big chunk of his life and potentially the source of more than a little frustration. But this is sort of how it works. Things happen at the right time in God’s plans and purposes, not necessarily when we’d like them to.

Which means learning to love lower time preferences.

Needs and Perceived Needs

This is not an unkindness. God is not insensitive to our needs and desires. In fact, quite the opposite. He cares about our practical needs:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
He knows those genuine needs much better than we do:
“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
More than that, he knows our perceived needs and fears, even those which may not have a basis in reality:
“… casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
And so on. We know this. These are not unfamiliar scriptures to the Christian.

Time Preferences and Faith

But if God has the believer’s needs and desires in view and responds to them in his own time in the best possible way, it puts the Christian in a very different position from the pagan stoic, realist or even the natural phlegmatic. After all, what is the value of low time preferences if the events in our lives are truly random; if the very best we can hope for in the long run is no more than good luck? Why not seize whatever is before our eyes now? Carpe diem and all that.

But if we really believe in the infinitely wise, caring, attentive Father in Heaven described by the Lord and the apostles, we will find ourselves with the freedom to operate in reverse from the rest of the world where time preferences are concerned.

Faith enables an ability to wait for God’s intended good will that sets us apart in both attitude and action.

Taking the Long View

Joseph was going to get out of prison one way or another, but some things needed to fall into place first. The timing needed to be right. Pharaoh was a powerful man, and a request from a cupbearer at the time Joseph wanted it and asked for it might easily have fallen on deaf ears. Pharaoh’s head needed to be in exactly the right place before God introduced him to Joseph.

So God was not the least bit unaware or uncaring about what those two years cost Joseph, but he had something much bigger in mind, and that something was well worth waiting for. God intended to promote Joseph to the second-highest position in Egypt; to make Joseph a testimony to the Egyptians of his own superiority over all other gods; to save the nation of Egypt from a famine through Joseph’s God-given wisdom, and other nations besides; to save Joseph’s entire family from the same famine; to restore Joseph’s brothers to fellowship with the sibling they had sold into slavery; to reveal to Jacob that his son was alive; to provide a place where Israel could grow into a great nation in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and even to allow the Canaanites ample opportunity to repent before using Israel to judge them for their sins against God.

That’s just for starters.

On the less obvious side, the sons of Israel had already started to intermarry with the Canaanites living around them. Had this tendency not been thwarted by many generations in Egypt (where segregation occurred naturally due to the prejudices of the Egyptians), Israel’s bloodlines would have been diluted beyond recognition.

Lower time preferences starting to look a little better yet?

Now or Later?

Christians deal with time preferences every day of our lives.

We all want our children to like us. We can have them like us now, for a few seconds at least, if we give them whatever they ask for. We may even get a smile and a thank you. Alternatively, we can discipline our children in the hope that we will have their love for the rest of our lives. The low time preference choice is probably the better deal.

Corporately, we want our churches to grow. We can probably have at least the appearance of growth, if that is important to us, by mimicking the techniques of the world around us and offering people what they say they want from Christians. Alternatively, we can look to the word of God for our methods and build for the long term with less flash and more substance. Which is better: that our church is perceived as a “happening place” now, or that its members be built up over time, mature in their faith, and go off to serve the Lord wherever he may lead?

The question of time preferences is always relevant.

What Would Joseph Say?

So what would Joseph say about those two extra years in prison? Well, we can’t ask him about prison specifically, but he was only in an Egyptian jail in the first place because his brothers had sold him into slavery. When his brothers feared him and wanted to know if he harbored any ill will toward them, he had this to say:
“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear.”
Whatever resentment we (and they) might reasonably have expected from Joseph was nowhere to be found. Those two years were well worth it ... not just to God, but to Joseph too.

The Christian can say something even more amazing, because he looks to an eternity about which Joseph had no explicit revelation, and as Paul said, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.

That sounds worth waiting for.

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