Surprise! A Spiritual Discipline
My husband says I’m difficult to surprise, much to his frustration. I equally love and hate surprises. If I sense somewhere in my gut that somebody is withholding a fun secret from me, it nearly drives me crazy. I confess here and now before God and before my wonderful readership that I am a snoop. Every Christmas of my childhood, my poor mother had to creatively scout out new hiding places for our presents, as I was dedicated to late night excavations in every closet and under every bed. One year she told me plain and simple, “Amy, don’t try to find the presents this year. I don’t have any new hiding places. Just stop looking!” When my husband was planning to propose, I caught that familiar sense in my gut that he was planning something exciting behind my back. I immediately began searching through his closet and interrogating his friends in an attempt to find the surprise. My sister-in-law finally called me out and warned me that I would forever regret ruining this surprise if I did not stop snooping around.
I have a difficult time with surprises, even though I know that the surprise will be rewarding. I believe the problem for me is twofold: (1) I hate the feeling of ignorance, and (2) I don’t like to feel out of control of my surroundings. Surprises require both. When a surprise is revealed, the person who receives the surprise is caught in a moment of revelation, moving from ignorance to awareness. Subsequently, the person who receives the surprise must step forward into a new situation, for which they could not prepare, and for which they are generally ill-equipped. Much of the time, surprises are fun and delightful—conditioning us to become flexible creatures, capable of adapting to unexpected joy. However, life offers us plenty of unwanted surprises as well—teaching us to adapt to unexpected rough terrain and wilderness conditions.
As much as I tend to resist or spoil surprises, I have come to believe this summer that perhaps surprise itself can be a spiritual discipline. Or maybe it’s not so much the surprise itself, but the anticipation of surprise. I realize that sounds oxymoronic, so let me expand what I mean by anticipation.
When preaching from the gospels this summer, I was struck by a couple of themes that emerged throughout the texts: misunderstanding and disappointment. Oftentimes the reader is privy to special knowledge, as the omniscient narrator lets us in on all the secrets. The narrator often tells the reader about Jesus’s intentions, his private thoughts and feelings, and yet-to-be-revealed information. But the disciples, Pharisees, and other unsuspecting characters are repeatedly confounded by Jesus. Surprise! He rides in on a donkey instead of a stallion. Surprise! He prefers the role of itinerant rabbi over warrior king. Surprise! He talks to Samaritans (and women!). Surprise! He can raise the dead. Surprise! He will die, and of course, for the big surprise, he is risen! Any surprise that Jesus offers is inherently wonderful. And yet, oftentimes the people who receive these surprise revelations are unprepared. They had “heard it said” a thousand times before, but now Jesus says something new. They had imagined all their lives what a messiah would look like, but now Jesus does not match their imagination. They had planned for specific results from the arrival of the messiah, but Jesus’s mission took an unexpected direction.
After preaching many of these texts this summer, I kind of wanted to grab each character by the shoulders and say, “Put your expectations aside for once! He’s going to surprise you!” But in the very moment that I felt this frustration wash over me, I looked up from the text and realized that perhaps I needed to shake my own shoulders. Amy, the resister of all surprises, needed a gospel word on this spiritual discipline. Perhaps my desire to keep my ignorance from being exposed, and my constant need to control my surroundings had kept me from embracing God’s surprises in my life.
The fact of the matter is that God is up to more than I could ever imagine in the church, in the world, in my friends, among my enemies, in the earth, and in the future. The spiritual discipline of anticipating surprise means that I assume a humble and submissive posture to those surprises as they come. It means that I expect to find the gospel activating goodness and restoration in the places and people I would least expect. It means that I admit when I’ve been wrong about God, and that I find joy in the new revelation. Surprise as a spiritual discipline demands that I recognize my expectations as idols, which I have obstinately put in the place of God.
So, may we learn to embrace those divine surprises. May we be more excited about the God we are coming to know, than the god we thought we knew. May we have eyes to see the surprising work of God in our friends and foes alike, and may we celebrate when God does what we imagined to be impossible.