2 Kings 5:1-14
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 10, 2016
The promises of the Bible encourage us to have high hopes and big dreams. Yet, expectations are dangerous things.
Last year The Wall Street Journal reported about a growing phenomenon psychologists are calling “The Paris Effect”. The name derives from the disappointment many first-time visitors to Paris feel due to their unreasonable expectations. Many tourists arrive in the City of Lights anticipating a perfectly beautiful and utterly romantic European capital where good looking and charming Parisians walk around smelling of Chanel and fine tobacco. When they encounter pavements peppered with cigarette butts and aggravated commuters cursing in packed metro trains, they are shocked and thrown into depression, anxiety, and uncontrolled anger. They are upset because Paris, for all its gifts, falls short of the idealized vision of it their imaginations have created.
The eminent historian Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Image, has noted that we Americans are particularly prone to all-too-extravagant expectations. He writes, “We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious, and luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive….We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to ‘a church of our choice’ and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.” He remarks that never have people had such unrealistic expectations, and thus never has there been such disappointment. The Paris effect affects even those who never visit Paris!
New York Times writer Joe Queenan has observed how often Americans resent things just for being less than exceptional. We insist, to use his words, that “every experience be a watershed, every meal extraordinary, every friendship epochal, every concert superb, every sunset meta-celestial.”
This attitude can infiltrate even our spiritual lives. We insist on exceptional, miraculous answers to our prayers and on impressive, dramatic means of obtaining them. Such an attitude almost caused the Syrian general, Naaman, to miss out on God’s cure of him!
To put God at liberty to bless us as He wants, we need to give Him permission to call all the shots. To allow Him to do what’s best for us, we need to let Him both determine our destination and pick the path by which we arrive at it.
Though it’s right to trust God to take good care of us, we do well to hold our expectations about how He might do so with a loose grip (unless God Himself has encouraged us to have the expectation). Though God does perform miracles for some people, He doesn’t for everyone. He may instead – and be equally good in doing so – heal us by natural means or just heal us of our need to be healed, for the purpose of using our pain and difficulty to develop our character and our relationship with Him.
Sheila Walsh had for years hosted various Christian TV programs. Her approach changed radically, however, after she got a piece of “fan mail” from a young woman in her mid-twenties who had cancer and MS. That woman wrote, “Sometimes I watch your program, and I am helped; and sometimes I want to take my shoe off and throw it through the screen.”
Intrigued by her honesty, Walsh called her, and the two struck up a friendship. One day, the young woman said, “One of the things I hate about what you do is you always present people whose marriages get better in ten minutes, people who get healed, people who have the nice, packaged answers…. What about people like me who are dying and still love God? What about people who take very few steps, but every step leaves a big impression in the snow because it costs every ounce of strength they have left?”
This young woman dislodged Walsh from reducing Christianity to a nice “everything’s going to work out okay” optimism. God doesn’t always do what we think He should. He often leaves us in our challenges and struggles. He fails to fulfill our expectations, not because He doesn’t care, but because He knows what is even better. His grace is always constant, but it is frequently surprising and indecipherable.
To liberate God to work in us and through us, we do well to make peace with however God chooses to respond to our wishes or prayers and to make peace with whatever path He chooses for us to travel.
Naaman had some set ideas about how God might work, and was at first offended by the pedestrian instructions the prophet Elisha gave him to effect his cure. If Naaman had persisted in insisting on a more impressive path, he would have kept God from healing him and eventually bringing him into the faith of Israel!
When we are struggling with our health, our finances or our relationships, we may turn to God and then be stunned that His response doesn’t match our expectations. The wise among us understand that, when that is the case, it is because God means to exceed our expectations. Often God has something better in mind than what we think we have to have.
So the wise refrain from trying to manage the all-knowing Lord of the universe and tell Him how to do His job. They give Him the freedom to make what is in fact the best response to their need, and frequently a big upgrade on what they were thinking.
When missionary explorer David Livingston was seeking to bring the gospel to Central Africa, he arrived at the edge of a large territory ruled by a tribal chieftain. The chief would only grant entrance to those with whom he had met, and with whom he’d exchanged gifts. The custom was that the visitor would lay out all his possessions on the ground, and invite the chief to take whatever he liked. If the chief felt good about the visitor, he’d give a gift in return.
At their meeting Livingston dutifully put before the chief all he had: clothes, books, watch, and even his goat. Livingston prayed that the chief wouldn’t take the goat because her milk kept the missionary hydrated and healthy when he couldn’t drink the local water because of chronic stomach problems. To his dismay, the chief did choose the goat, and gave him a carved stick in return.
Livingstone thought God had let him down, and griped about losing his beloved goat while ending up with no more than a fancy walking stick. Then one of the local men explained that he must be greatly favored, for the chief had given him one of his kingly scepters and that symbol of the chief would insure him a welcome in every village. By what at first glance looked only to be a piece of carved wood, Central Africa was opened to the gospel, and waves upon waves of conversions followed.
Sometimes, what disappoints us is a better gift than what we had set our heart on, and the path that seems to leave us at a dead end leads us into the greatest life. So let us give God the freedom to pick our path and so bless us, not as we think He should, but as He knows best. We’ll be far the richer for it. Let us pray.