Moses took care of a bunch of sheep forty years before God let him do anything else. We may not enjoy learning patience, but we really have no choice. The forty years Moses spent tending sheep were not a waste: they had to happen in order for Moses to become the person that God needed to lead his people from Egypt. In that time he got married to a beautiful young woman named Zipporah, the daughter of a priest of Midian. They had a son named Gershom, and he had a career working in his father-in-law’s sheep business.
But God had not forgotten about his people back in Egypt; he knew he had a covenant with them; he heard all their cries for help. But it wasn’t yet time for God to act. He had to finish training the man who would rescue them. As the forty long years passed, the Pharoah that had issued the death sentence against Moses for the crime of murder.
The man who killed an Egyptian overseer who had been beating a Jewish slave, was not the sort of man God wanted to rescue his people. The man God needed was the one who had been a shepherd for forty years, who was married, who had a son, and who no longer had much interest in rescuing slaves from their masters. But the events and circumstance of Moses’ life, his time with the sheep, gave him just the skills he needed to lead a bunch of slaves to freedom.
From the point of view of the Israelites suffering during those forty years–many who spent their whole lives without rescue and then died in slavery and oppression–God’s patience looked like inaction and unconcern. Where was God? Why wasn’t he doing anything? But of course God was doing something: he was busy training their rescuer.
We can look at the methods God used to rescue his people after four hundred years of slavery and wonder why he did it the way he did it. In the first place, why allow them to be enslaved at all? Why did Moses have to be the one to rescue them? Why did his training take forty years? Why did it take ten plagues to convince the Pharaoh to let the people go? Why did they have to spend another forty years wandering in the desert? Why did they have to fight a series of wars against the indigenous peoples of Canaan before they could move in? Why all those problems and years before the Israelites could take possession of their Promised Land? Couldn’t God just have snapped his fingers, waved his hands or said some magic words and made it all perfect instantly?
I think the story of Moses and the Israelites reveals something about God and about how God works in his universe. It also illustrates the importance of patience: God seems not to be in the habit of doing things quickly. The creation of the universe, despite what Creationists argue, did not happen very fast. Nothing in the Bible happened quickly. Even Jesus lived thirty years as a carpenter before he began his public ministry—and God hadn’t even sent the Savior to Earth in Bethlehem until quite late in human history. Just like how the Israelites had to endure slavery before God saved them.
Just because you don’t see God doing anything about your problems, just because your dreams seem far from ever coming true, it does not mean that God is not there, or that he is not at work on your concerns. You just have to be patient.