When We Do Everything Right, and the Wheels Still Come Off

I’m so confused

I know I heard you loud and clear

So, I followed through

Somehow I ended up here

I don’t wanna think

I may never understand

That my broken heart is a part of your plan

When I try to pray

All I’ve got is hurt and these four words

“Thy will be done”

Hillary Scott and the Scott Family, “Thy Will Be Done”

Have you ever been there?  You did the right thing.  You heard God’s voice, and you followed through.  And what did you get for your trouble?  It all blew up in your face.  Even your friends think you look like a fool.  And your enemies? Let’s just say that they are having a good chuckle at your expense.

I’ve been there.  And the Scott family is right–it hurts.  Sometimes we pray “Thy will be done” because, in the midst of our pain, it is all we know to say.  Sometimes our pain turns to anger, and we pray “Thy will be done” in order to keep ourselves from giving God the cussing that we feel He so richly deserves.  Either way, our hearts are wounded not only by the adverse circumstances but also by the confusion that they create about who God is and about whether He can be trusted.

Our Forerunner

We all know that John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus.  But in one very interesting episode in the gospel story, he proves to be our forerunner, too.  Luke 7:18-23 and Matthew 11:2-6 tell us about a time in John’s life when he almost certainly had doubts about where he was and what it all meant.  You see, John had spent his whole life serving as God’s spokesman.  He had called God’s people to repentance and had chastised their rulers for their sin.  And what had his many years of faithful service gotten him?  Matthew tells us that he was sitting in Herod’s prison, with the possibility of immediate execution looming over him.

Now, those of us who have read Luke’s gospel are not surprised by the predicament in which John found himself.  By the point in the story when John was imprisoned, Jesus had already informed his disciples that poverty and persecution–not wealth and popularity–are the most reliable indicators of God’s blessing (Luke 6:20-26).  His disciples had already seen this principle of the Kingdom at work, for they had been questioned about their apparent lack of commitment to the practice of fasting (one of the pillars of Jewish piety in the first century) and criticized for their lack of conformity to generally accepted Sabbath regulations (Luke 5:33-35; 6:1-5).

But John had not read Luke’s Gospel.  In fact, he probably had not heard Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God or seen how the religious authorities treated Jesus’ disciples.  Like many of us, he expects that good things will happen to those who obey God’s voice.  And, like many of us, his experience of God does not correspond with his theology.

John Asks and Jesus Answers

In the midst of his doubt, John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question.  On the surface, it appears to be a simple and straight-forward one.  “Are you the one?”  But it is loaded with more emotional and theological freight than even John probably realized.  In asking Jesus to clarify his identity, John is really asking, “Is the hope that I have placed in you a vain hope?  Does God still love His people, or has He abandoned them?  Will you fulfill the promises that God made to our ancestors so long ago–and, in so doing, fulfill the deepest longings in our hearts?  Or will you, like so many before you, leave us disappointed and confused?  Will you, once and for all, heal the brokenness of God’s people and redress the injustices that they have experienced?  Or will you leave us even more broken and even more oppressed than when you found us?  And if you are who I think you are, why am I sitting in this prison?”

Jesus’ response is surprising–and, perhaps, a bit unnerving.  He does not answer John directly; rather, he points to the evidence of his ministry and (implicitly) invites John to draw from that evidence the only logical conclusion.  Jesus frames his presentation of the evidence in terms of his own mission statement, drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21).  Ironically, the careful reader will notice that Jesus has already exceeded the expectations he laid out for himself during his Nazareth sermon.  Not only has he preached the gospel to the poor and liberated those oppressed by disease, but he has also claimed the ability to forgive sins (Luke 5:17-26), asserted the authority to reconfigure the Sabbath’s meaning and practice (Luke 6:1-11), and demonstrated mastery over death itself (Luke 7:11-15).

Just as important as what Jesus says is what he does not say.  Jesus’ status as the authentic and authoritative representative of God is beyond question, but this does not mean that John will experience a positive change in his situation any time soon.  The evidence of Jesus’ legitimacy is what he was doing–not what was happening to John.  And it is in this context that Jesus makes a second, crucial point.  Blessing will come to those who do not allow their hardships to derail their devotion to Jesus.  It is an eschatological blessing, to be sure.  After all, John would leave Herod’s prison minus his head.  But Jesus steadfastly maintains that it is a blessing all the same.

Reconfiguring Our Expectations

When John comes to Jesus with his questions and his doubts, Jesus does not reassure him that everything is going to be okay.  It isn’t–for either one of them.  Rather, he sets about renovating John’s understanding of God’s purposes.  In so doing, he shifts John’s focus away from himself and to what God is accomplishing through Christ.  John was a meaningful participant in that work, and he can (and should) take pride in what is taking place–even if he himself will not reap the benefits of God’s rule in this life.

Like John, many of us have certain expectations about what it means to be a participant in God’s Kingdom.  These expectations may not be morally wrong; they may just be inconsistent with the nature of God’s Kingdom or with the work that God wants to do in and through His people.  We have to decide whether or not we can live with the confusion and frustration that following Jesus may well bring.  If we can, then we will receive the blessing of seeing God at work to redeem a lost and broken world.  If we can’t, then we will miss the good that God is doing in our world and may even forfeit the inheritance that belongs to those who have been adopted into God’s family.

Fortunately, God has not left us to face our disappointment and our pain alone.  He has given us examples like John to light our way.  He has given us each other so that we do not have to walk this road alone.  Most importantly, He has given us His very own presence–the Holy Spirit.  God knows better than any of us that life isn’t fair, and, in the midst of that unfairness, God gives us His love and His grace to carry us through.

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