Timing is everything in music. No one wants to be the one who miscounts the measures of rest and comes in at the wrong time. Take the iconic ending of G.F. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” for example. The music is climaxing with the singers repeating, “Forever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” (Dramatic pause) “Hal-le-lu-jah!” It’s that rest right before the last “Hallelujah” that makes the ending. If the singers ignored that final rest or sang one too many “hallelujahs,” it would ruin it. Like I said, timing is everything.

As in music, so it is in life. Timing is everything. But the catch is that our timing may not be what God has in mind. Think back with me to the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. His jealous brothers sell him into slavery, and he performs his duties faithfully but gets thrown into prison when Potiphar’s wife lies about him. But even in prison, he finds favor with the jailer and ends up in a position of authority there. Then he correctly interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and baker, and he sees a possible “get out of jail free” card to play. He urges the cupbearer, who is restored to his position with Pharaoh, to speak of him to Pharaoh so he will be released. By human standards, this is a great plan. Joseph is using the abilities God has given him to get himself out of a bad situation. Smart, right?

Only it doesn’t work. Genesis 40:23-41:1 makes the transition for us. “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. After two whole years…” Imagine poor Joseph’s disappointment when he realized the cupbearer wasn’t going to commend him to Pharaoh after all. He was stuck in this prison. For two more years. You see, it wasn’t God’s timing. God had a much greater plan in store. Had the cupbearer put in a good word to Pharaoh and had Joseph released from prison, he would have come out as a virtual nobody, completely unknown in Egyptian society, and likely gone back to menial work as a household servant. God’s plan was so much more dramatic. Instead, Joseph waited two years until Pharaoh had dreams that troubled him, and then correctly interpreted the dreams, saved Egypt from a dreadful famine, and was placed over everything in Egypt save Pharaoh himself. Definitely a better plan than Joseph’s short-sighted one. But timing was everything. Specifically, God’s timing.

I’ve been in Joseph’s position before. Well, okay, not really. I mean, I’ve never been in prison unjustly after being sold into slavery by my brothers, thank goodness. But I’ve been in situations I thought were unfair or at least not ideal. I’ve tried to “help” God along by putting my own plan into action, only to be disappointed when the results weren’t what I’d hoped they would be. I’ve tried to rush God’s timing. And not surprisingly, that hasn’t worked.

Discerning God’s timing is awfully hard. There are times when yes, we should act. God gives us abilities and intelligent minds that we are to use to serve our fellow man. If we see an injustice we know we can fix, we shouldn’t stand by idly, waiting for a neon sign from God before we do something. There’s a time for waiting and praying, and there’s a time for action. So how can we tell the difference between the two? Let’s look to Nehemiah for an example.

Nehemiah was another cupbearer, but he served King Artaxerxes in Persia many years after Joseph lived, during the period of the exile. King Cyrus had allowed some Jews to return to Jerusalem, as recounted in the book of Ezra. But even though they had been allowed to return to their homeland, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for them. Jerusalem was in great disrepair, and Nehemiah heard the report that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and its gates destroyed by fire. The people there were in “great trouble and shame” (Nehemiah 1:3). Nehemiah had a good position in Persia, but he knew he could—and should—help in Jerusalem.

At this point in the story, I would likely have jumped right into action. Okay, so they need help in Jerusalem? Great! I’ll ask the king tomorrow if I can go. I’ll start packing tonight. Clearly this is from God, right? But look what Nehemiah does instead. “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” Nehemiah 1:4 reports. Wait, what? He just…prayed? (It’s a great prayer, by the way. Check it out in Nehemiah 1:5-11). Yes, he prayed. And waited. He had to be sure he was acting on God’s timing and not his own. Chapter 2 opens with Nehemiah still serving Artaxerxes, in the month of Nisan. He’d originally heard about the trouble in Jerusalem in the month of Chislev. Translation: three months have passed before he gets a good opportunity to ask the king for permission to leave and go back to Jerusalem. He’s had plenty of time to pray and plan. When the king asks him how long he’ll be gone, Nehemiah has an answer ready. Not only this, but he also has the prescience to ask the king for letters for safe passage on the journey. Those three months of waiting have allowed him the opportunity to think through the logistics and get a clearer picture of what his plan needs to be. And now that the timing is right, he’s ready to act.

Whatever your situation, pray for God’s discernment to tell whether you need to wait on Him or whether it’s time to act. Take time to reflect and pray before jumping straight into a course of action. God knows the big picture, and He will grant you the wisdom you seek. Yes, timing is everything, and God’s timing is always perfect.