When our circumstances don’t seem to match what we expect from God, do we need to lower our expectations?
Imagine you were in the apostle Paul’s shoes, having worked so diligently and passionately for so long and having demonstrated such a high commitment to God, wouldn’t you expect God to reward that?
Yet you find yourself in prison, waiting to hear if you will be released, or executed. Today may actually be your last day. What would go through your mind if that were you? Perhaps “what have I done to deserve this?” or “perhaps I should have had less confidence in God all along?”
To be honest, I hear Christians express things in the good times, that make me wonder what will happen when the bad times come. The belief, for example, that because they have a relationship with God, bad times won’t come.
How did Paul respond to his difficult circumstance? Does he respond with “poor me,” and “God is not that great”? Consider his words from prison:
And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ.Philippians 1:12-13 (NLT)
Paul had a very positive attitude, firstly, because he was not just focused on himself. Paul’s focus was not on his own difficult circumstance, but on what God was doing in the lives of others through that circumstance. Because Paul was in prison, everyone was talking about Jesus. That was a great thing!
And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear.Philippians 1:14 (NLT)
The believers in the city were speaking about Jesus with greater confidence, perhaps knowing that with Paul in prison, they would need to take up the slack.
The next few verses are tricky to understand but Bible scholar NT Wright has an interesting proposal: even the Roman non-believers were speaking about Jesus. Perhaps some were saying that Paul was dangerous with his insistence that some man named Jesus had risen from the dead and was therefore now Lord, and therefore Caesar was not. Perhaps others were saying these followers of Christ are actually very good citizens. Either way, the fact that people were talking about Jesus and curiosity was piqued was a positive thing in Paul’s mind:
. . . the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.Philippians 1:18 (NLT)
Paul did not dwell on the potential of losing his life, but on the possibility of others finding life in Christ. They had the opportunity to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. Do we recognise how exciting that is?
Paul’s focus was not on himself and his own troubles, but on others and what God might do for them through his troubles. We do well to remember this when our circumstances are difficult to bear. Without denying the pain that may be ours for a season, perhaps we might take our focus off ourselves for a moment and ask the Lord to help us see the big picture. Can we see what God is doing and can do in the lives of others through, our circumstances?
Did Paul lower his expectations of what God might do for him as he sat in prison waiting to hear if he would be released or executed?
And I will continue to rejoice. For I know that as you pray for me and the Spirit of Jesus Christ helps me, this will lead to my deliverance. For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith.Philippians 1:18-25 (NLT)
Paul’s expectations of God were very high! He would either be released, so that he could continue to pursue God’s call on his life in helping others as an apostle. Or he would be executed and find himself fully in the presence of Christ. Either way he will be released! Either way he will experience the goodness of God!
Are our expectations of God high enough?
We might have low expectations of God if we only consider what he can do for us in our immediate situation. Do we also consider what God can do for others, through us?
Do we have the bigger picture of what is ahead for us in Christ if worse comes to worst and death is staring us in the face. It is when worse comes to worst that we will experience God’s best.
Do we have high enough expectations of God? Do we expect that God will be good whether he uses the difficulties in the present chapter of our lives to bear fruit in the lives of others, or death ushers us into a new chapter of our everlasting lives?
Does the thought of dying, of going to be with the Lord, feel like going to a job interview for a job you don’t think you deserve, or travelling to an exam you expect to fail? Or does going to be with Lord feel like finally being with a loved one after only being able to meet over Zoom?
If we are in Jesus Christ, if we trust him, and if we are concerned that God will not accept us and welcome us, then our expectations of God and his love are not high enough.