What emotions come to mind when you hear the word “surprise”?
Maybe you have a good memory associated with a surprise birthday party or an unexpected blessing … but that’s not always the case. Life is full of surprises, both good and bad. In my experience, it’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes you just don’t know what kind of news the day will bring you. At some points, I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude. At other times, I’ve been left helpless and breathless, faced with difficult decisions and heart wrenching realities that just don’t make any sense. Yet in the midst of those ups and downs, I’ve been continually surprised (in a good way) by God. He’s someone I set out to know more fully over twenty years ago. Sure, it’s all been his work but I’m glad it happened and I’m better for it … all of it and here are seven pleasantly surprising things that I’ve learned about God though life’s triumphs and trials (the roller coaster) in which we so often find ourselves.
1. God is REAL: Sometimes it might not seem like it. I’ve been skeptical before, especially when I first committed my way to Jesus, a man who lived 2,000 years ago and whom I’ve never physically seen. Sound crazy to you? If not, it should. Because that’s what we people of faith are doing. We’re trusting that the things in which we believe are firm, that we can stand on them without falling. Well, twenty years ago, it kind of freaked me out. After all, it’s one thing to have sentimental feelings about the cute baby in the manger at Christmas time. But it’s something else entirely to commit your heart and soul to that baby, to that King. But that’s what I (and many of you) did. Can you relate with that feeling? Sometimes I’d wonder, “What if none of this is real?” or “What if God isn’t real?” Well, I can assure you (along with my twenty-year-younger self) that he is! God is so real and, to be honest, I think it far more unreasonable and irrational to believe otherwise.
In recent years, the complexity of life has challenged and changed traditional origin theories. In other words, many scientists (atheist or otherwise) have moved away from a belief in blind chance-inspired life and postulated, instead, that we are the product of intelligent design … at least “intelligent” as in the extraterrestrial kind. That’s right, aliens. This might in turn lead you to ask, “Who created the aliens?” That’s my first question, as I’m not a believer … in aliens that is. Another good question is, “What or who caused the first effect in the universe (the big bang, maybe)?” I’m certainly not scoffing, just asking … thinking, hopefully critically. Nonetheless, here’s my point: It is far more reasonable to believe that a supremely intelligent and all-powerful “God” created the complexity of all that we see and know in the universe. The delicate balance of life as we know it and the functionality of our solar system are inexplicable without that core concept, without God. Imagine someone telling you that your wristwatch or (in modern terminology) your smart phone just magically assembled itself by chance, without any help. That’s right. All of the pieces just came together without anyone creating it, without anyone thoughtfully designing it. It doesn’t make any sense, right? In philosophical terms, this reasoning is called the teleological argument for the existence of God or the “watchmaker theory” championed by people like Isaac Newton. So the surprisingly simple truth is this: God is one hundred percent real. He’s like the concrete blocks that keep the roller coaster frame firmly fixed in the ground. At many points in my life, I’ve only had him (a giant concrete block) to stand on. And just like me, you can rely on his “realness” wherever you’re at in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
2. God is REALISTIC: I think that one of the unfortunate sides of church life, or religion in general, is that it can make God and his desires for us seem completely unrealistic. That’s what we got from religion: a list of dos and don’ts. God, on the other hand, wants an actual relationship with you. He’s not an overzealous school teacher that just doesn’t want you to have any fun. God’s grander narrative informs us that things won’t always be the way they are now. Yes, it’s unfortunately true that this opens the door to suffering and pain in this present world, or at least, until God changes it. On the flip side, since things aren’t now what they will eventually be, we can also embrace the fact that God has realistic expectations on us in many senses. God, for example, isn’t surprised (or offended) by your doubts. I didn’t catch him off guard twenty years ago when I questioned his existence. Likewise, you don’t surprise him today with your fears, questions and range of emotions. He’s not shocked that you yelled at your kids yesterday. He’s not horrified that you wondered if he’s all-good, all-knowing or all-powerful because of that terrible story that just came across your newsfeed. Quite frankly, he’s not surprised by anything, ever. He knows about your difficult situation and he’s helping you in it. Those HUGE expectations you have are not from God but from you, your religion, your friends or your crazy out-of-control culture that is great at telling you that you’re not good enough. Instead of causing me to question God, life’s unique challenges have helped me understand the opposite. God is reasonable and he loves me. Maybe you deal with the same things I have. If you do, maybe you just need to hear that you are doing a good job. And maybe, the person telling you that all along has been the one you didn’t even know was there, God.
3. God is REACHABLE: Have you ever felt like God is just out of reach? I have. This spiritual isolation is also another unfortunate side effect of empty religion. Rules, rituals and regulations make God seem unreachable. But exactly the opposite is true. I don’t know if you realize it but the cross is a sign of peace. It means that we can be friends. We’re not at war anymore, with God that is. Or at least he’s not at war with us. Did you ever wonder why things are the way they are out there, at least the bad things? There is an ancient narrative that explains where all the bad things in the world come from. The good news is that things won’t always be this way. But that story also tells us that things weren’t always this way either. In the beginning things were good and harmonious. Then this thing called “the fall” happened. Among other things, people were separated from an intimate connection with their Creator. But they (our ancestors) knew there was still a problem. That’s why they created religions of all kinds. These religions tried to connect them to God and, at times, included stuff like extreme measures of sacrifice. The cross, however, shows us that God wasn’t interested in our human attempts to know him. Instead, he sent his Son in the fullness of time as a peace offering to be received by faith. God has reached out to us. He has made himself near, touchable, reachable, through Jesus. Yes, he did all of this through that man that I, and you, have never seen. That man is right there with you right now. He always has been. Maybe you just didn’t notice him. And if you simply ask, he will reach out to you in a special way. He will! He’s been doing it for me over the last twenty years and he’ll do it for you too!
4. God is a REBEL: Typically, though not always, God is portrayed by different faith traditions as the ultimate authority figure, force or sense of karma in the world. Through cultural perceptions, he, she or it establishes, defines and upholds justice in the world. So regardless of your religious background, it might be kind of surprising to think of God as a rebel. This is, however, exactly what God is. God stood radically opposed to the established cultural order of his time. And he did it publically and often. Jesus did things that people didn’t expect him to do. He was kind to those who had been cast out. To others, like religious leaders, he engaged in spectacular verbal debates that eventually got him killed. Read about it. It’s in Matthew chapters 21-27. The last week of his life began with a quickly escalating argument that went on for days while Jesus taught his disciples in the temple. Crazy! Yet he never backed down. He was hard core. Dare I say it, Jesus was a little bad a–! Yes he was! I couldn’t have done it. I’m not that tough and neither are you. He rebelled against the established systems of the world that were so upside down and oppressive. He rebelled against those who had hijacked God’s system – his system – the system that pointed so intimately to his coming. And he’s still a rebel today. He’s alive, remember. King Jesus is righting wrongs. He’s tearing down the powerful and lifting up the powerless. Right now at this moment, God is governing the people groups of the world in a rebellious way – a way that doesn’t make sense to us because he’s not us. He’s better than us and he loves people so much more than we do. This surprisingly rebellious side of God has caused me to look harder and deeper at myself and my love for people, ALL people. I hope it does the same for you too!
5. God is RESPECTFUL: I don’t know about you but I’ve had more than one encounter with a rude, arrogant or judgmental person. These kinds of people make you wish you never knew them in the first place. They’re like Job’s friends.[i] In their eyes, they are doing some incredible service to God. In reality they are hurting you, me and others. They are misguided, misinformed and clueless. Well surprisingly, yet thankfully, God isn’t like that at all. I find it amazing that in the midst of his righteous zeal, Jesus never could be characterized as disrespectful. “Seriously?! I though you just said Jesus was a rebel?” Yes, it’s true that Jesus was a rebel. Never, however, could Jesus be branded rude … and neither can God for that matter. God is the ultimate respecter of persons. Jesus was always incredibly loving, inviting and accepting of those who crossed his path – including the violent thugs he engaged in the temple during the last week of his life. Don’t forget he prayed as he was being martyred that God would forgive them – his enemies. “That just doesn’t make any sense!” I know. It doesn’t make any sense to me either. He should have judged them all … at least hurled some juicy curses at them. Right? To be honest, he should have just allowed our fallen humanity to tear itself apart since we’ve messed things up so bad through the years. But he hasn’t. He doesn’t. And he never will. He’s patiently winning us over one at a time (or sometimes in groups and in waves) to see him and to know him more. His great respect for you is a significant reason to show that same respect to others whom he loves just as much. Though I wish I were better at it, this surprisingly superior quality of God has helped me to more frequently engage others (specifically those I perceive as enemies) with humility and grace. If we can behave like that, we’ve already won our battle.
6. God is RELEVANT: Religion practiced wrongly makes God irrelevant. In reality God is very practical. He meets us where we are. Thank goodness! If he didn’t, we could never meet him where he wants us to be. That’s the point of the whole virgin birth thing – the whole God-made-flesh thing. God condescended to our circumstances, to our hurts. God’s not into irrelevant rules. He’s into real relationships, real life. He’s into practical application. The good news, in this regard, is that God’s great condescension means our ability to have right relationships with one another. It means our ability to put Jesus first in our relationships – not politics, religion, ideology, social standing, money, appearance and so on. No. Instead, we can put Jesus first and people first all the time. That’s the Gospel – God’s great Gospel – in a nutshell. Our Gospel informs us that God is uniting all the people of the world through faith in him. For you right now, that means you can have good relationships with others through him because you are both in him and have been accepted by him. God’s relevance means that God cares about the practical things, the simple things you do every day and (especially) how you relate with other people.
7. God is REVEALING: I always tell people that when I was a kid I thought God was on the far side of the universe somewhere. That really doesn’t make complete sense because I’d still pray to him at night before I went to sleep. Nonetheless, that’s how I pictured him. For a lot of people though, God can seem confusing or at least unknowable. Where is he? Who is he? He’s not necessarily someone we can see, smell or touch. Or is he? Maybe, like I’ve been saying, he’s a lot more active in our lives that we know. Maybe he does reveal himself to us often. The problem is that we just didn’t know how or where to look. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ life in the Bible, there is an interesting story about two men who walked a few miles down the road with a stranger. During his life they knew him, or at least they knew of him. They were sad because of the events that had recently taken place on Good Friday. Well, the two men didn’t realize it but they were walking with Jesus who had risen from death. They didn’t know until they arrived at their destination and ate with him. They didn’t know until he revealed himself to them. Yet, the entire time they walked something drew them more and more to this man. Something about the way he spoke drew them in, welcomed them, and gave them a deeper sense of fulfillment on the inside, “true life” as Jesus put it. Then, once he opened their eyes to perceive him, he disappeared. And they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?”[ii] What a surprise it must have been! Maybe you’ve had similar surprises in your life. I have and those experiences have reminded me that God’s not done with me yet.
In our lives, we experience both tragedy and triumph. Sometimes we don’t understand why. At least I sure don’t. But don’t doesn’t mean won’t. The last book of the Bible is commonly referred to as John’s “Revelation” – It’s a revealing of things. It explained to an ancient audience the passing away of the Old Covenant order and the emergence of God’s glorious kingdom along with the present reign of King Jesus. It explains why the temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, for good. Today we are the temple and the earth belongs to the God. Today God is revealing himself to people all over the world on a scale that would have been unthinkable in generations past. In that book, God says to not conceal his message.[iii] In the words of Paul the Apostle (quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah), “Today is the day of God’s favor!”[iv] In the fullness of time God revealed Jesus. In the fullness of time he’s going to reveal his plan for this broken world and for you as well. In the meantime, every expression of faith on our part in his is just such a revealing. It’s an illumination of sorts. God caused that faith in your heart. He’s got a great plan for your future. But he also wants a great relationship with you so that’s why he doesn’t show you all at once. As you walk with him day-by-day you learn to trust him and to love other people more, just like those disciples he walked with on the road to Emmaus. God changes you. He reveals each day what you are becoming until the time comes that you know him in full.
Faith Application: Were any of these things surprising for you? I feel with each passing year as though God surprises me more and more in amazing ways. So where does that leave us? How do we expect the unexpected from God? Well for one thing, it should teach you to count your blessings and to be more humble in your relationships. Maybe for a next step, read about Jesus’ encounter with those two men traveling from Jerusalem in Luke 24:13-35. Ask yourself what that story says about the nature and plan of God in the midst of seemingly tragic things (like the cross). Does that story make you look differently at your life, particularly the unexpected parts of it? If you’d like, leave your own God-surprise in a comment. I’d love to hear about it!
[i] In the Bible, Job’s “friends” tried to help him with good advice and common wisdom. Instead, they only hurt him though placing blame and carrying a judgmental attitude.
[ii] Luke 24:32 NIV
[iii] Revelation 22:10
[iv] 2 Corinthians 6:2