Whale-watching tours are big business in our area of southern California. I’ve never taken one but I know the best time to go is during the winter months. Visitors from out of state will shell out fifty bucks a ticket for a chance to see these magnificent creatures in the wild. Even in the winter, though, whale sightings are no guarantee. Tourists may be disappointed, having only seen a dolphin or two.
Last month, our family took a trip to South Carlsbad State Beach to go rock hunting. My two boys helped my husband comb the shores for interesting stones, every once in a while running up to where I was lounging on my beach chair to deposit their treasures. I was lost in my thoughts, staring at the horizon and listening to the crash of the waves when all of a sudden I saw a large pod of dolphins swimming right off the shore.
I stood and pointed in excitement and the rest of my family stopped what they were doing to watch in wonder. At least a dozen of them jumped playfully in and out of the water, the late afternoon sun glistening off their backs. Watching them was the highlight of that trip for me.
But it occurred to me that the sight of those same dolphins might have been an extreme let down to someone who was expecting to see whales.
When Expectations Don’t Match Reality
When we have our heart set on a specific outcome, when we’ve taken steps and paid good money to ensure that it happens, it can be disillusioning and disappointing if things don’t work out the way we expected them to. We can slide into a state of discontentment and resentment.
Even trickier is when it happens with our faith. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are holding specific expectations until those expectations are not met. Never is this more true than when we are faced with circumstances that bring pain, suffering, sorrow, or fear: what we Christians like to call “darkness.”
Our response to dark times can reveal our expectations around our faith. Wait a minute, we might say, I go to church, read my Bible, and pray. I do my best to serve the Lord, so why is this happening to me?
We think that because we follow God and do all he’s asked of us, we should be spared from job loss, from losing a loved one, from the scary diagnosis, from financial insecurity. We expect blessings. We expect prosperity. We expect abundance. We cherry-pick verses from the Bible and turn them into guarantees.
And if you’re not blessed or prosperous as a Christian, then maybe your faith isn’t strong enough, maybe you didn’t pray hard enough, maybe you’re harboring some secret sin. We are tempted to treat our faith like a contract with God: we fulfill our obligation by checking off all these boxes, now we expect God to hold up his end of the bargain by protecting us from all that we have labeled “darkness.”
God in the Darkness
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, reminds us that our God is the God of both light AND dark:
“The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.”
She goes on to say that when the darkness comes, we are tempted to think of it as a test or a punishment, but this is simply another way to try to control it and get out of it. The alternative, that it’s beyond our control and the only way is through it, is too terrifying to consider.
“One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.”
Wrestling with belief is scary and uncomfortable and most of us would rather avoid it than welcome it. But those who have walked through the darkness and have managed to cling to God’s presence despite every evidence of God’s absence are rewarded with wisdom and a richer relationship with God. Taylor notes:
“…I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
What is the Darkness Teaching You?
In the liturgical calendar, we have just finished the first week of Lent. This season in the church reminds us that Jesus faced suffering and darkness before the miracle and exuberant joy brought about by the resurrection. I came from a church tradition that skipped over the hard and difficult Lenten journey and only celebrated the joy of Resurrection Sunday.
But we avoid the darkness at our own peril. When it comes—as it must—we are ill-equipped to handle our subsequent crisis of faith as we cry out to God (“I thought you were supposed to bring me whales!”)
We avoid the darkness at our own peril. When it comes—as it must—we are ill-equipped to handle our subsequent crisis of faith as we cry out to God.Tweet
In this season of self-reflection and spiritual self-discipline, can we examine our expectations of God and what the darkness might be teaching us?
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