By David Hicks, CFDM Faculty
A poem by John Milton was sent to me recently by a friend entitled ‘On His Blindness’. I confess that 17th century poetry is not normally something that I spent a lot of time with so as I was reading it nothing much was really sinking in. I was having a hard time getting past the phrasing and odd use of certain words. English has become so much more understandable in our day (please see the humor here). I struggled through the poem until I came to the last line. The last line forced me to go back and re-read and re-think each word and phrase that Milton was using.
Before giving away the last line let me try and summarize what my sadly under-developed poetic mind thinks he is saying.
Milton was a gifted poet. He had written the classic Paradise Lost. He was a deeply devout Christian who believed that his poetry was a gift from God and he had a responsibility to use this gift for Him. But in the prime of his life Milton became blind. This poem speaks of his struggle with feelings that he was no longer able to use his gift as God had intended (“And that one talent which is death to hide lodged with me useless”).
He asks God why He would give him a gift and expect him to use it but then withhold the means to do so (“Doth God exact day labor, light denied?”). He realizes that ultimately “God doth not need either mans work or his own gifts”. He says that there are several ways to serve the Lord. Some serve Him by crossing “land and ocean without rest”. They are seemingly tireless in their work for Him. But this is not the only way to serve the Lord. In his last line Milton says, “THEY ALSO SERVE, WHO ONLY STAND AND WAIT.”
Wow! That totally alters my perspective on waiting. Normally we wait for something or for someone and we are finished waiting when that something happens or that someone comes. The only purpose in our waiting is for the fulfillment of something. Have you ever said, “I waited all that time for nothing”, meaning the thing that you were waiting for did not happen so there was no purpose in the waiting. It was a waste of time.
The same thing is true spiritually. In this season of my life I am waiting and wondering. I am waiting for health issues to be resolved. I am waiting for what the next season of ministry will look like. I am waiting for a renewed sense of purpose. I am waiting for the next opportunity to serve the Lord using the gifts and talents He has given to me. In my mind I am thinking, “My waiting will be worthwhile when all of these things have happened”. I am waiting for something.
Milton has shown me that this is a faulty way to view my time of waiting. Not everyone can serve the Lord tirelessly across land and oceans. Sometimes, “they also serve, who only stand and wait”. There is a purpose in the waiting, and the purpose is not the fulfillment of that which we are waiting for. We can serve Him even while we stand and wait. Even while our hearts are breaking at not being able to do what we used to, or what we want to; even when confusion and fear consume our soul and distort our vision; even when our desires for personal fulfillment are frustrated; even then, “they also serve, who only stand and wait.”
Isaiah 30:18 says, “Blessed are all who wait for the Lord”. In our life with God we are never really waiting for something; we are always waiting for someone. So, for all who, along with me, occasionally find themselves standing and waiting, take heart. Your opportunity for serving the Lord has never been closer.
Link to full text of John Milton’s poem