Suffering and Our Expectations
Expectations color our reality in tangible ways every day. This is especially true in our relation-ships with others. What we expect someone to do or not do will have a big impact on the way that we get along with that person. There is nothing that will cause more trouble in a relationship than unmet expectations.
The same is true in our relationship with God. Whether we realize it or not, most of us have some type of expectations about God. About who he is or how he will act in our lives. When things are good it’s easy to think that we accept God as he is and follow him without question. But it’s when things go wrong, when we experience suffering, that our expectations of God begin to surface. It’s in those moments that we realize that we have expected God to show up in a particular way and he just seems to have not come through for us.
We’re Not Alone
We aren’t the only ones to struggle with these types of expectations of God. When Jesus came to the Jewish people there was much confusion about who he was. Though they had heard prophecies about who the Messiah would be, they seemed to have their own expectations of what Jesus should have done. Jesus just didn’t go about things in the way they expected him to. This is further illustrated by a story about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2-6.
“When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account me.’”
Matthew tells us that John has been thrown into prison by King Herod and it is clear to John that he is unlikely to get out of there alive…apart from a miracle. It is in the midst of this suffering that John hears about all of the things that Jesus has been doing and sends his disciples to Jesus with a question. It’s significant to understand that what prompted John’s question doesn’t seem to be the suffering only, but perhaps also the fact that he’d heard about Jesus helping others. As so often happens, despite all that John knew and believed about Jesus, it was in the midst of his own suffering that his expectations of the Messiah began to surface. Suddenly, he found himself wondering why Jesus would help others and but he wasn’t rescuing him. He wasn’t setting him free.
Struggling with a Question
Out of John’s expectations of Jesus arises a question that is not uncommon. He sends his dis-ciples to ask, “Are you the one?” It’s an odd question coming from a man who had preached about Jesus being THE ONE. But it’s not that unusual to us. In fact it seems like a logical way to feel when you’ve expected God to show up and he doesn’t.
But the key to understanding and navigating this question is to understand the reason we ask it in the first place. And that goes back to our expectations. As we said, we have trouble in our relationships when we have unfulfilled expectations. When we expect God to help us in a situa-tion and he doesn’t come through then we are left with this question or why. Why doesn’t God come? Is he really God? Is he really good? And even people who know and believe in God can find themselves asking these same questions of God.
How Jesus Responds to Our Suffering
At first glance, Jesus’ response to John may appear harsh. In essence, he affirms what John already knows. That Jesus IS the Messiah, the Son of God. And, that Jesus is NOT coming to help John. But why would Jesus offer this as a response to John, someone who he loved and respected?
While it’s true that Jesus was telling John that he wasn’t coming, he was saying much more than that. In Jesus’ description of what he was doing, he wasn’t just giving an itemized list of his activities. Rather, he was reminding John of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He was reminding him of who the Messiah was and pointing out that he WAS, in fact, doing the things the prophecies said he would do. He was showing John that John just didn’t quite under-stand who the Messiah was. He was inviting him to let go of his expectations.
And then Jesus invited John to see him as he really is. His final words to John were, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” What he is basically saying is,
There is joy for the one who can see Jesus as he is rather than stumbling over their own expectations of what they want him to be.
Joy in Suffering
While it’s understandable that we should let go of our expectations and instead see God as he truly is, it’s hard to see how that would allow us to have a sense of joy despite our suffering. Yet the truth is that seeing Jesus as he is, means that we understand a fuller picture of God and of his plans and purposes in the world. And it is from that perspective that we can abide in him despite our suffering. Jesus helps us to see this in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
When we see Jesus as he is, we can know and believe that though we experience some suffer-ing in this world, it is only a temporary struggle. Ultimately, we know that God’s love and justice will be prevail. We know that this is NOT the end of the story. And it is in the confidence of this truth that we can have peace and joy in midst of our suffering and pain.