When I hear a statement like “It was even better than I could have possibly imagined,” I find myself suspecting it likely has more to do with a lack of imagination than the quality of the actual experience. More often than not, I have the opposite issue: I imagined something far better than it could possibly be. I wonder if it’s true of many of the world’s skeptics; that they started as vividly imaginative children who found themselves, at first, startled by the way reality so often turned out to be a disturbingly dulled or distorted version of whatever they’d carried in their heads. But after enough repetition of that theme, perhaps they found it easier to simply not expect the best from life in order to avoid being wracked over and over again by the jarring pain of disappointed hope.
I want to be able to whole-heartedly encourage the dreamer in my own children but sometimes I wince before I can get the words out, “God wants to give you the desires of your heart,” because I can’t help but cushion the statement in several layers of theological stipulations until the sentiment is virtually unrecognizable as something you’d ever want to impart to preschoolers.
As a parent, I want to protect my children from pain. I start to wonder if I should warn them: Don’t let your dreams get too big. You’ll too often be disappointed if you attempt to drag those gangly creatures through life, trying to push and pull larger-than-life things through the standardized doorways of the real world.
I was reading this week about John the Baptist’s future parents. A lifetime’s worth of at least monthly disappointments and suddenly an angel appears to an elderly Zechariah and delivers the incredible news that not only will they have a child in their old age, but that “he will be great in the eyes of the Lord… He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.”
Those are some pretty spectacular promises! There’s no soft-pedaling. No attempts to provide plenty of caveats to ensure nobody is disappointed if something goes wrong. So I wonder, as he grew, what Zechariah and Elizabeth told John about his future prospects and then how they felt when the child of that promise turned out to be a wilderness-dwelling semi-recluse who eats bugs and honey and clothes himself in malodorous camel’s hair.
The ministry to which John is appointed is not an easy one. John’s message is often harsh and he’s so unabashedly critical of wrong-living that he dares to confront King Herod about marrying his brother’s wife and is thrown in prison as a result. Then, he sits there. For months. And months. And at this point, John himself must have begun to wonder if something went wrong. Had he gone out of favor with God? Had Jesus forgotten him? Or maybe Jesus himself was not who John originally thought he was?
So John sends his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the expected One or do we look for someone else?” I’m projecting a bit but it almost sounds like John is saying: “If I’m so important to you and you’re so fully able to save, then why haven’t you delivered me from this lonely, dark place so that I can continue your work freely?”
But Jesus doesn’t even come in person to reassure John. Instead he sends a message back that basically says, “I’m fulfilling prophesy and working miracles every place I go, of course I am the One!” But Jesus doesn’t deliver one of those miracles to John. Jesus leaves John in prison until he eventually dies there, beheaded on the whim of a manipulative woman and her adolescent daughter.
How could one not be disappointed when promises of favor manifest themselves this way? Again, I’m projecting here but do you think John ever wondered: Doesn’t it seem cruel sometimes that God’s promises to us are so unequivocally majestic when His plans for us so often have us inhabiting a barren wasteland or feeling forgotten in prison?
Like the feelings I have towards my own children, it seems reasonable to think that a loving God might wanted to spare us from suffering. Yet He did not even spare His own firstborn Son from pain, but gave him up for us all. That verse continues on to say, “how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” What an amazing love! But part of me keeps wondering, can I trust a God who wraps some of His best gifts swaddled in rags or burial clothes drenched in the blood of a sacrificial Lamb?
Receiving the gifts of God as good gifts, even when they’re not at all how I expected good gifts to come, is an act of faith. And honestly, living out faith kind of sucks sometimes. Disappointment after disappointment, and He just keeps saying, “Trust me! You can trust me!” He reminds me. I remind myself. I remind others. Others remind me. But saying those words, even doing those words, doesn’t end the suffering or give closure to a difficult situation. In some ways, faith is inherently unsatisfying. At least for now. It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. We don’t yet have the fulfillment of it.
I wonder about John the Baptist in those last moments as he’s summoned from his prison cell and greeted, not by a Savior to rescue him from pain, but instead by the gleaming glint of the blade that would sever his head.
Sure, I’d like to believe that John felt nothing but faith-fueled serenity in that moment. But even Jesus felt forsaken by God as he faced death and it wouldn’t surprise me if John experienced deep sorrow as well. (In fact, his whole life- the angel’s glorious promises to parents all the way through the gruesome death- was a forerunner to Christ’s.) And I bet that after a lifetime of dealing in the twisting, rising and falling inclinations of the human heart, it would not have surprised John that they were each present there- the sorrow and the disappointment and the faith. So as it seems many of us must perpetually do, he may have had to bring his heart before the Lord and ask Him that the one might overcome the others. The the One might overcome the others.
This prayer from Ephesians comes to mind. If you find yourself now in a place of disappointment, sorrow or suffering I pray this for you as I’m praying it for myself:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.