Do I Act or Do I Wait? Lessons from Two of My Favourite Poems

Deborah Sybil   |   March 17, 2023 

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton composed this poem somewhere in the early 1650s. After 40 years of having vision, Milton turned completely blind and he wrote this sonnet a couple of years after he lost his vision. The title of the poem "On His Blindness" was given a century later by Thomas Newton.

In the first half of the poem, Milton reveals his frustration of not being able to use his talent to serve God. He was translating foreign literary works for the commonwealth government when his blindness set in. He is saddened by his inability to use his gift of literary translation because of his blindness. He wonders if God expects results without providing the means. The second half of the poem is revelatory where he answers himself saying that God does not need man’s work or returns from His gifts. The last line of the poem summarises the message clearly "They also serve who only stand and wait."

I was introduced to the works of John Milton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Wordsworth and many others by my father when I was in high school. For a long time, my favourite poem was "A Psalm of Life" by H.W. Longfellow. If you read this poem, you will know why it appealed to my young blood then. The poem encourages you to "act in the living present" so that "each tomorrow finds you farther than today." Longfellow asks his readers to be "heroes in their strife" taking guidance from the great people around them. He encourages his readers to "be up and doing", achieving and pursuing! This message is a stark contrast from the message of Milton's poem.

As a teenager, I was torn apart by these two messages. Do I act or do I wait? Do I persevere and achieve and succeed or do I stay still? I still face these situations in life where I am torn between wanting to actively do something to solve the issue at hand and waiting for the Lord to act in His good time. At times it is frustrating to wait and stay still especially when I have the ability to act with "my heart within and God overhead." There have been times when I have acted in my own understanding and things had turned out fine but there were times when my actions had brought disastrous results.

How do we decide when to act and when to stay still? I do not know the answer to that question but with my little experience this is what I have realised – there are seasons in life. Seasons of growth and seasons of rest, seasons of action and seasons of inaction. God created the world that way I suppose. Look at the rings of the tree trunk, there are wide light-coloured rings corresponding to maximum growth in spring and narrow dark rings corresponding to minimal growth in the fall and winter seasons.

The Bible in one place asks us to "Be still and know that He is God" (Psalm 46:10) and in another place asks us to "Go into the world and make disciples of nations" (Matthew 28:19). Yes, there are seasons (and situations in life) when we need to act and then there are seasons in life when we need to refrain from action and stay still and let God’s work unfold itself in our lives.

As I was writing this, I re-read both poems and this time my eye caught the last line of the poem by H.W. Longfellow,  "learn to labor and to wait." The last word of the poem, whose message was to act in the living present, is to wait. How did I miss that in all these years? Longfellow asks us to "be up and doing, achieving and pursuing" and at the same time "learn to wait." Milton ends his poem with these words,  "they also serve who only stand and wait." Both poems end with the word wait. And that’s when it dawned on me that staying still and waiting is also service to God. Waiting on the Lord is not doing nothing but it is the action of standing still in His mighty presence.

May we be blessed with the strength to stand still and wait.


Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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Deborah Sybil

Deborah loves reading, enjoys cooking and is ready with book/restaurant suggestions for all who ask. She likes travelling and interacting with almost anyone she meets. Nothing interests her as much as the riches of God's word and His work in the present times. She is a professor of Oral Surgery by vocation and lives in Delhi with her husband, Augustine and two adorable sons, Caleb and Bryan.

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One comment on “Do I Act or Do I Wait? Lessons from Two of My Favourite Poems”

  1. Waiting is active not passive, we are waiting for the right time act.
    And in waiting we learn to hear his voice for the next step.

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