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The Unfashionable Virtue Of Delay

To hesitate is considered a sign of weakness today, but conscious waiting often allows for our real frailty, and God’s will, to be shown

On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Index lost 700 points in the space of 15 minutes. It became known as the flash crash, a harbinger of what might happen as trading in human institutions is entrusted to the impenetrable algorithms of insanely fast computers. On that single day, 19.1 billion shares were traded, more than in the entire 1960s. The average length of time a share is held in the US today is 22 seconds. So much for long-term investment.

Rapid, assertive decision-making is extolled as an alpha-male virtue in the professional world today. Those who take their time are considered lost; those who see two sides of an argument belong only in academia. To hesitate is deemed a sign of weakness and so today’s leader should be bold, quick and decisive if they are to command respect. Frank Partnoy emerged from this world in finance, working for Morgan Stanley, but he has authored a book called ‘Wait: the Useful Art of Procrastination’ where he confesses to being shocked by the ‘horrific snap decisions’ many bankers and regulators made in the financial crisis. If the computer is our age’s defining idol, is it surprising that we seek to imitate it in the ruthless and unsentimental speed of its calculations?


The impulse for quick decisions received quirky intellectual underpinning by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 book, Blink, where he argued that gifted and trained professionals can make instantaneous decisions in the heat of the moment that are unerringly accurate, citing the art expert who can sense a sculpture is fake in a flash and the fire-fighter who makes a split-second decision to get out of a building just before it collapses. Human intuition undoubtedly contributes to the right outcome in many cases. We cannot articulate why something is right at a precise moment but our instincts tell us; if this happens frequently, it is perhaps inevitable that some begin to trust implicitly in the gut reaction. Yet to be human is to err; those who complacently assume they are always right are most at risk of falling short.


Wisdom is one of the most precious of God’s gifts. Its beginning is found in the fear of the Lord; our relationship and obligation to God is the source of good decision-making. Many of our decisions are rooted in fear, anxiety and self-interest; by consciously laying an issue before God we allow his Spirit to sift our motivations and more readily to hear that quiet but unmistakeable word in the ferment of our thinking. This is an aspect of the priority of delay. We may still lack conviction in our decision, but the sense of having submitted it to God can release a peculiar feeling of peace.


The dramatic reign of King Saul in Israel was marred by rash promises and choices. In 1 Samuel 13, with the nation imperilled by the Philistines, he has to wait for Samuel to arrive in order to perform the ritual sacrifice before battle. When the prophet is delayed and the people begin to drift away from Saul, he is overcome by impatience and self-interest and performs the duty, thus bringing judgment on himself. To wait in this case was a test of his obedience; instead he arrogated the battle to himself, the first suggestion that his reign would be short and inadequate. Sometimes to wait before acting is an indication not of our weakness but of our strength in God.

Saul had a week in which his rashness festered, waiting for Samuel. There are times in which brief delay performs an important tactical role. When a woman allegedly caught in adultery was brought cynically to Jesus by his opponents to test his adherence to the law against his love for the sinner, it says he ‘bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’ (John 8:6). There is speculation over why he did this and why it is included in the story at all, being such an incidental detail. A robust case could be made for Jesus slowing the pace of this drama down to a speed where he is in control, affording him time to think through his answer. There is no inherent spiritual merit in responding to a problem at the rate a sprinter does to the starting gun. To delay can be an unconscious admission of our frailty and the need for God’s grace in unlocking a dilemma. It may also allow for God’s will to be demonstrated in the unfolding of events, where he saves the situation rather than us taking the credit for decisiveness.


There is no argument to be made for chronic indecision, where we become too afraid to make choices, and there will be times when to delay misses a key moment of transformation. Yet if we are to imitate God in his creative and redemptive powers, rather than the latest technology in its unimaginative certainty, the ethic of delay, however awkward, should always play a part.



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