How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? — Iago, Othello
Dramatic irony: that moment when, as a reader, you know more of the actual story than do the characters. It’s sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always cringe-worthy. It’s a moment when you wish you could jump into the chambers and tell Romeo that Juliet isn’t really dead so just put down the poison and wait five minutes. Alack, you’re stuck in the most passive role as “ye olde mute witness” to an immortalized scene with an inescapable fate. With no choice but to read on, you’re forced to watch the characters ignorantly botch a situation that they could have easily avoided if only they were a little more informed.
There are certainly people in our lives that give us this same sense of dramatic irony. We see them spiraling down a path that we know (either from experience or just because it’s so obvious) is nothing more than a dead end. They’ve shirked God and everything truly good to pursue a fleeting pleasure or a deceptive false good. We know their enjoyment of this or that will be here today and gone tomorrow, and we want nothing more than to jump into their lives and explain what’s going to happen if they continue their plans, to tell them that this road leads to nowhere, and to give them authentic hope from the true joy and peace that we’ve found in Christ. Knowing they will most likely pay us no mind, we feel just as helpless and passive as the one watching Othello listen to Iago’s lies and smother Desdemona.
Why doesn’t God simply make himself more known to people? Why would he let this all play out, allowing so many to make decisions that he knows—even more than we do—will harm them? Is he simply just as passive as we feel? Such a spiritual half-thought usually leads us to a fundamental frustration as we are tempted to become stuck in our own impatience, give up praying, and forgo the whole project of pursuing the happiness that we once found so attractive.
And yet, if we think a little further, we may remember how patient God was (and is) with us at our moments of conversion. Surely we were once on the side of Romeo, Othello, and others who couldn’t see the whole picture. Perhaps there was someone praying for us to come to our senses and see God in the picture again. Indeed, this may be the case no matter how far along we’d like to think we are in the spiritual life.
Reflecting on the patience of God can do nothing else but guide us to be patient ourselves with loved ones who are being led to misery. The difference between this sort of lived experience and reading a play is that we may already know what the author wrote (or at least where he’s heading). However, only the Author of Life knows the last page for any of us, and so we read on.
Image: Antonio Muñoz Degrain, Othello and Desdemona