When God Doesn't Live Up to Our Expectations

I find it easy to judge the Pharisees. Until the same finger I point at them comes pointing back at me. 

Consider the scene at the pool of Bethesda. Rumor had it that an angel would occasionally visit, stirring the water with his healing touch. The first sick person to jump into the pool after the angel stirred it would be healed. Even though the hope was built on a rumor, and the chance of healing was slim, a multitude of lame, injured, and ill people congregated around the pool. After all, a slim chance was better than no chance at all. 

Then Jesus entered the scene. And made a beeline for the most hopeless case of them all—a man who’d been paralyzed for 38 years. Think about that for a moment. Thirty-eight years. 

Jesus didn’t mince words. “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:7). 

"’Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ 

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’" 

Unfortunately, Jesus chose an inopportune time to do a miracle—the Sabbath. Everyone knew you weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, let along do miracles on the Sabbath. And not only did Jesus work a miracle, but he asked the crippled man to pick up his mat. Two Sabbath infractions with the same miracle? Shameful. John 5:16 tells us this is one reason why Jews persecuted him. 

Stories like this make me want to throttle someone. Shouldn’t the Jews, who had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come, have been dancing in the streets? This man, Jesus, was performing miracles only God could do. The lame were walking, the blind were seeing, and the dead were being raised to life. And the Jews, instead of celebrating and worshiping, were conniving and complaining. 

I felt quite self-righteous in my faith, until I peeled back a layer of the story that exposed the golden nugget of truth—the Jews rejected Jesus because he didn’t act the way they thought he should. He didn’t measure up to their expectations. He didn’t play by their rules. “If Jesus was the Messiah,” they said, “he’d be following the commands (meaning their commands). He’d honor the Sabbath the way we think he should. He’d deliver Israel the way we think best. He’d respond to our commands, not the other way around.” 

Even the lame man had expectations. What did he say when Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well? “I’ve tried and tried to follow the rules to get well, but it’s not working.” 

Then Jesus pulled a surprise on him. “I don’t need a rippling pool to cure you. I have a different plan. Have faith. Trust me.” 

I, too, have expectations for how God should act. I pray with definite, specific answers in mind. Heal my friend fighting cancer. Make my marriage easier. Help my children always make the best decisions. Sometimes I pray, “But not my will, but yours be done,” but most of the time I know how God should act, and I feel no need to invite God to act differently. 

Sometimes he answers my prayers the way I ask. Other times he disappoints me. 

When I’m disappointed, I have three choices—the same three choices the Jews faced—attack, abandon, or accept. 

The Jews chose to attack. They ridiculed him, undermined his teaching, discredited his miracles, and, ultimately, turned him over to the Romans for crucifixion. As John 1:11 says, “He (Jesus) came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” 

Some disciples abandoned Jesus. When he called them to a life of sacrifice, they bolted. When he warned them that they’d have to come on his terms, not theirs, they turned back (John 6:66). When he cracked the curtain and allowed them a glimpse of the suffering they’d endure for his sake, they rescinded their allegiance and joined the murderous mob. 

The crippled man, however, accepted Jesus. On Jesus’ terms. He recognized he was hopeless and helpless, without a leg to stand on. Although he had imagined how God might answer his prayers, he trusted Jesus enough to act upon his faith, even when it played out differently than how he expected. He turned his back on the pool and took up his bed and walked. By doing so, he received immeasurably more than he ever imagined. 

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). 

I’ve prayed a lot of prayers since my decision to follow Christ at age 18. God has answered some exactly as I’ve prayed. He’s answered others quite differently, sometimes seemingly giving me the polar opposite of what I asked. To others God has said, “Not yet.” 

Sometimes I accept his answers in faith, knowing that his wisdom far exceeds mine. I choose to trust him even when his actions make no sense to my limited perspective. Other times I’ve attacked God, accusing him of cruelty and heartlessness. Sometimes I’ve even been tempted to turn my back on him, wondering if the faith life is worth the effort. 

In those dark moments the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit whispers truth into my doubting heart, “Don't be afraid; just believe" (Mark 5:36). 

For now, we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But there’s coming a day when we shall see “face to face,” without the hindrances of our limited understanding. 

Until then, when the temptation to attack or abandon strikes, we must choose instead to accept, to trust the God who loved us so much that he sacrificed his only Son on our behalf (Rom. 8:32). 

How can we doubt a love like that?

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