The Element of Surprise: Surprise as a Metaphor for Spiritual Growth

Surprises. Is the prospect of being surprised something that you tend to look forward to, perhaps with delight, curiosity or even hopeful anticipation, or does it tend to make you a bit skittish or uneasy?

When our kids were just weeks old, we used to cover their faces with a piece of cloth so they couldn’t see, quickly pull it away, and then watch as they reacted with smiles and laughter as our faces unexpectedly appeared once again and we were recognized. As they got older, we still enjoyed providing them with new and unexpected experiences, some of which were as challenging as they were fun. Sometimes those moments also turned out to be opportunities to see things in new ways or to grow, and at their best, still reflected those qualities of curiosity, joy and delight.

But as we all know too well, as exciting as the prospect of encountering the unexpected can be, not all surprises are either enjoyable or welcome. No one likes to be surprised by tragedy or loss, or by things that are hurtful to us or those around us. At times we might even hear the phrase “the element of surprise” being used to talk about a tactic to employ when launching an attack, or trying to win at something. No doubt, if we’ve been unpleasantly surprised enough, it’s understandable how we might develop some general uneasiness, or in some cases even a tendency toward suspicion or concern, even in regard to things that might otherwise provide us with opportunities to learn and grow. In fact, on some level, I suspect most of us probably have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with surprises. One moment we might say, “What a wonderful surprise, I love it!” (and really mean it), and at the next exclaim with equal conviction “I hate being surprised like that!”

What adds another layer to this experience is the reality that since, for better or for worse, surprises are by definition something you do not see coming, we are generally in the midst of them and already reacting before we have the opportunity to think much about how we might like to respond. At least one of the things this means, is that what we bring with us will probably have quite a lot to do with shaping how we respond. If we are already somewhat surprise adverse, it would not seem unreasonable to assume that we might have a tendency to react in ways that are characterized more by concern and wariness, than with curiosity, intrigue or even delight. We might be more likely to gasp and take a step back, than to laugh and take a step forward; fight or flight vs. embrace and invite. So what makes the difference in how we might be predisposed to respond? Is one kind of response more appropriate than another? Those are intriguing questions that are well worth pondering! But even though I’ll not attempt to answer them fully here, what I would like to suggest is that the experience of surprise itself may provide a helpful metaphor, or perhaps a window through which we can view, one of the major contexts in which God speaks to us and invites us to grow.1

At the heart of most Christian theology is the conviction that we live in a world that is both good and filled with God’s presence in amazing ways, and yet at the same time bears distortions and scars that have impacted us on levels that are profound, pervasive and devastating – a world in which we experience both good and evil. It is a place where the Kingdom of God has already come, and yet one in which other forces are also at work, and so we still look forward in anticipation to a new heaven and a new earth in which the distortions of the old have been removed. We live in the tension between the already and the not yet, and it is in such a world that we are often surprised.

In terms of our spiritual growth, one of the things that is significant about this tension, is that even though we are too often surprised by less than benevolent forces in our world, the experience of surprise itself still often appears to be the context in which God speaks to us. This means that thoughtful and prayerful discernment is needed to help us avoid, on the one hand, the pitfall of a naiveté that does not take the impact of evil seriously; and yet on the other, a kind of anxious resistance that undermines our ability to be responsive to God’s leading. While both surely exist, it has been my observation that we too often find it easier (perhaps partially because it sometimes feels safer) to become so focused on the first, we can too easily become vulnerable to the second.

In the later case, if we have already developed a predisposition to be somewhat surprise adverse, as might be reflected in a stance that assumes that we already know the truth and therefore really have nothing new to learn or understand better, it is not difficult to imagine how hearing or responding to anything God might be saying to us in addition to that could be challenging. This is especially true if we also live with a heightened sense of conviction about that truth being under constant attack. In fact, in some cases, seeking to guard against our ability to be surprised in this way at all might even come to be seen as a virtue. What’s more, for those of us who appreciate, and perhaps even derive a certain sense of security from, having everything all figured out ahead of time, it can be especially troubling when we are surprised in ways that suggest that we may have to revise or rethink some of those things. Perhaps that is at least part of the reason why our initial reaction to surprises like that can sometimes take the form of irritation, anger, or in more extreme cases, the imagining of all kinds of plots, threats or conspiracies against us.2

These dynamics surrounding the experience of surprise seem to be born out when we open the pages of scripture and look at what is going on in the lives of the people whose stories are recorded there. In doing so, we quickly discover that the Bible is indeed literally full of surprises. God is not only frequently at work in ways that were not entirely anticipated (sometimes creating both joy and consternation in the process), but the rich insights we gain into who God is and how God works are wonderfully surprising as well.

For example, it would be difficult to think of the creation story without seeing the elements of delight and surprise woven through its fabric as each day is pronounced as good, and human beings as very good, and with Adam’s exclamation of joy when first beholding Eve. Even in the midst of the profoundly dismaying choices which are recorded in the chapters that follow – which were devastatingly surprising in their own ways – amazingly we still continue to encounter God’s love and gracious provision as central themes in those stories. A gracious element of surprise remains remarkably central.

Later in Genesis, as the story continues to unfold, just as Abram may have been surprised by God speaking to him and inviting him to begin an open-ended journey to an unknown destination, we cannot help but be surprised by the story itself. When God decides to establish a chosen people in the area around Palestine – a people whose story we will continue to follow through the rest of the scriptures – it is some distance away, to Ur of the Chaldeans, that God goes to begin that process. There in the midst of a culture, and apparently an extended family, that were not exactly monotheistic, God invites Abram to come and follow Him. Well, I guess you have to start somewhere, right? Yet, one of the truly surprising things in this story (which we notice in more detail in a moment) is that it appears that there actually were other options available. But, whatever God’s reasons for choosing Abram may be, the journey begins, and the surprises continue to unfold.

We are familiar with most parts of the story. As time goes on, tensions develop within Abram’s extended family.3 This is finally resolved by Lot, and those closely connected to him, separating from the others and settling in the land around Sodom and Gomorrah, while Abram and the rest of the extended family continue on to Hebron. Lot, however, hardly has a chance to move in before he finds himself in the middle of a huge military conflict involving a number of kings with competing interests – the upshot of which is that Lot, his family, and a number of others are carried away as captives. Abram hears about this, and with 318 trained men from his own household and a number of like-minded neighbors, mounts a successful rescue, and returns Lot and those with him safely back to Sodom. The King of Sodom, who delighted to have his citizens returned safe and sound, comes out to meet them. And it is at this point that the story takes somewhat of an unexpected turn. Genesis 14:18 records what happens next – and it is quite surprising.

Then Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

Melchizedek, for most of us, is a bit of a surprise. According to the passage, he is a priest of the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, which would seem to indicate that Melchizedek was a part of a religious group that was at least organized enough to have a priesthood. Further, as a priest, he worshiped and was in the service of the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, which Abram seems to affirm by the way he responds to him. What catches us a bit by surprise, is that these verses indicate that there were already people there who were part of an organized religion and who are worshiping the true God. This was long before there was a Jewish people (Abram was the first Jew) or a priesthood to go with them. As chosen as Abram clearly was, and as his descendants would be, Abram and his family were clearly not the only ones in town in whose lives God was at work.

While the scriptures may not tell us much about their story, whatever it was, it appears that God did not have to go all the way to Ur to find someone to follow Him. There apparently were already people in Palestine that He could have chosen among. So why didn’t God just use one or more of them to develop the story line we have in the scriptures? And what became of them after this? We simply aren’t told. But what does seem clear is that, whatever our own stories may be, God is at work in places and ways that we might not know or even guess, sometimes outside of the story lines that we are most familiar with, and in ways that might well surprise us. So as much as we might be surprised to find Melchizedek in the middle of what we often think of as a predominately Jewish story that we think of as ours, you also have to wonder how many of the people in Palestine at the time might have been just as surprised to find Abram in the midst of theirs? Perhaps if we are open and willing to pay attention to what is going on in the world around us, we might just find God at work in places and ways that surprise us?

As we continue to follow Abram’s story, we find that the surprises continue. In the face of his dishonesty in regard to Sarai, we discover a presumably pagan king who is not only responsive to God speaking to him, but who also as a result acts with a greater sense of integrity than did Abram. In this case, it was Abram who got it wrong, and an “outsider” who got it right, and who had some valuable insights that Abram needed to hear.

Further along, we are surprised with Abraham and Sarah when God provides a son in their old age. And then, as we stand alongside of Abraham at the altar where he is preparing to offer that same son as a sacrifice, God surprises him yet again with an unforgettable revelation of His true character by proclaiming that it is God who provides the sacrifice – a revelation of grace and a way of relating to God that would not only have been amazing to Abraham, but revolutionary to those who lived in a culture whose view of the gods was quite different than that. As startling as they may be, and as off balance as they may make us feel, God often speaks to us by showing up in ways that surprise us. But when we find our feet again in the wake of those moments, we discover that we are standing on firmer ground than before.

This same pattern surfaces over and over again throughout the scriptures in the form of burning bushes, parting waters, daily manna, encounters with angels, still small voices in the wake of powerful forces, and even in acts of grace extended to places like Nineveh. In more ways and places than we can enumerate here, God continued to show up in ways that were surprising – often with invitations to grow, encouragement to endure, opportunities to serve, or even to perhaps just stand in awe of His love and grace. But what also becomes evident as we follow these stories, is that even good surprises are not always appreciated. Even when God is at work in amazing ways, there are people – sometimes chosen, committed, serious, religious people – who respond with various levels of resistance. While we get whiffs of this in situations like Jonah’s reaction to God extension of grace to Nineveh, nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the response to the greatest surprise of all – Jesus, His life and ministry.

While the coming of the messiah had long been anticipated and longed for, if Jesus was anything, He was a surprise that both fulfilled and shattered expectations in profound ways for everyone. For some, He was indeed good news of great joy for all people. But for others, Jesus was a threat to be resisted. Ironically, as the gospel narratives repeatedly point out, it was often those who would have been considered “outsiders” by most, who were the most responsive to the teachings of Jesus; while those seemingly in the best position to see and understand were the greatest sources of resistance. This in itself is a surprise worth pondering, particularly for those of us whose default settings when encountering new things may predispose us to move more in the direction of anxious resistance than healthy curiosity.

But, as scriptural stories illustrate, and as our own corporate and personal stories confirm, it is often in the midst of being surprised that we grow. Whether it is a sheet containing all kind of troubling things being let down from heaven, God getting ahead of the brethren by pouring out His Spirit on gentiles, the discovery that the earth orbits around the sun, the disappointment of Jesus not returning in 1844, or the amazing insights of 1888, or even the continuing realization that we still have things to reconsider and think more carefully about; however much the things that surprise us may throw us off balance, they may also be the very avenues through which God is inviting us to grow. And not just in how we think about or describe on paper what we believe, but also in our ability to be aware of and responsive to God at work in our midst.

But it’s not just the high profile moments that may serve as milestones for movements that surprise or impact us in profound ways. In the scriptures we also find Jesus drawing our attention to a poor widow and her offering; speaking about the significance of a cup of water being offered in His name; or configuring judgment scenes in terms of simply finding time to show compassion for those whom others have long since lost interest in. We find him inviting us to notice and ponder things like lilies, sparrows and people – to sense God present and at work there – and to live in response to what we discover. We find Him inviting us to adopt a posture that remains aware – one that does not ignore or turn away from pain, hurt or injustice, and yet one that is also attentive to and appreciative of beauty, kind words, gracious acts, and the willingness to extend understanding and healing. He challenges us with suggestions like the possibility that new wine may need new wineskins, and cautions against allowing the weightier matters of the law to slip into background behind less significant things. When those predispositions are among what we bring with us as we encounter the surprises that come our way, it cannot help but impact the way that we respond. It may not be entirely without significance then, that when describing what Jesus invites us to, that the author of Hebrews suggests that in Jesus we have a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

One form of an old spiritual practice suggests that if we were to take a few moments at the end of each day to prayerfully remember and reflect on the ways that day that we noticed grace being expressed, extended and welcomed; and then took a few moments to consider the ways that it was blocked, resisted or rejected, that we would be surprised at how aware we would become of the ways that God was active in our lives, and how our lives would be changed as a result. It is a practice that not only makes us more aware and attentive, but also opens the door to the way God may be at work to bring about transformation.

Those same sentiments are reflected, indeed they are embedded, in our own Adventist religious heritage as well. They are what we need to bring with us as we continue to encounter things we may not have been expecting but which provide us opportunities to stretch and grow. Even though we have not always done it as gracefully as we might, we are in fact a movement that has made its most significant progress when we have responded together to the surprises that have come our way, not out of an anxious or fearful clinging to what we have become accustomed to, but out of a gracious willingness to learn and grow. Perhaps it is not too late to recover and reclaim those parts of our heritage, and discover what surprises God may yet have in store for us?

Notes: 1. A number of years ago as a part of my master’s thesis, in harmony with the usage in much of the literature at the time, I used the word Acrisis to describe this experience. One of the criticisms I sometimes heard about the use of that term was that the word itself often carried somewhat of a negative connotation, conjuring up images of disaster and loss more easily than opportunity and growth. I have since wondered if the word surprise might not have been a better word. 2. If you have ever tried to point this out when that reaction is in full swing, and subsequently been accused of being part of the conspiracy for doing so, you know how powerful it can be. 3. You can read about the tension between Abram and Lot in more detail in Genesis 13.

Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7550

I am a father, a grandfather, and a great grand father, I have seen war up close and personal, I have been in the midst of two race riots. I now live in a sheltered community as I watch the world come apart. The Gospel of John and the Psalms sustain me. My prayers are for all of my issue and from them the world they have inherited. Now I pray can the church tell me anything but (I told you so?) The One Who stilled the storm and call Lazarus forth, is my anchor. May He be yours as well. tZ

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