Pretty much all of us have expectations about how life will turn out – at least those of us who live in the West and who grew up in reasonably normal homes. The interesting thing is, we may not even realize we harbor these expectations until they’re upended or threatened in some way.
My hairdresser and her family have been enduring a nightmare that has gone on for over five years. Totally out of the blue, her husband fell victim to an exceedingly rare autoimmune disease that causes all the muscles in the body to cramp, producing excruciating pain. It took years to even get a diagnosis – and there isn’t a whole lot that can be done for it. Whether they had ever articulated them or not, like all of us, this couple had expectations about their life together that didn’t include a chronic, totally debilitating – not to mention expensive – illness. They may have had “for better or worse” in their wedding vows, but I doubt this was the “worse” they envisioned.
Close friends of ours saved their money diligently in the expectation that they would be able to travel and spend time with their grandchildren once they retired. Then the husband developed a rare form of dementia and the wife spent seven exhausting years caring for him and watching him deteriorate until God mercifully took him home a month after his 69th birthday. A month after that, their only child and her family moved nearly 700 miles away, leaving our grieving friend missing not only her beloved husband but also her beloved daughter and grandchildren.
A young woman who used to work for me – a talented artist with all her life ahead of her – was hit with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and various other neurological issues that have made it almost impossible for her to function in any normal way. Yet she’s continued her education online and is close to graduating from college. She works on her art when she can. Her life had been hard even before her diagnoses, but her illnesses have short-circuited any expectations she might have had of the kind of life most people her age take for granted.
In my own household, my husband has been fighting cancer and living with the devastating consequences of the treatments that have kept the cancer at bay. A rare cancer in the mouth inflicted on a man who has never smoked.
The one thing all of us in these situations – and I could name multiple more – almost certainly have in common is that whatever expectations we had about how life would turn out, none of us expected it would turn out quite this way.
The apostle Paul never expected his life would turn out the way it did either. Paul called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and a “as to the Law, a Pharisee.” He was a fanatical persecutor of the Jewish Christians. He stood by at Stephen’s stoning and even sought permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and bind and drag any Jewish followers of Jesus he found there back to Jerusalem. Then he met Jesus, and his life was never the same. Instead of being the persecutor, he became the persecuted, one who was reviled, jailed, beaten, and ultimately executed for his faith.
Yet in Philippians 4:11, Paul says that he had learned to be content in whatever circumstances he found himself. We may think being content in such difficult circumstances is a lot to ask, but in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul goes beyond contentment and exhorts us to be grateful in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Some interpret 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to mean that we should give thanks for everything that comes our way because it’s God’s will for us – and perhaps it does mean that. But what I believe Paul is saying is that it’s the spirit of gratitude in the circumstance – not necessarily the circumstance, itself – that’s God’s will for us.
Either way, these are hard sayings when the circumstances of our lives differ so radically from our expectations. Giving up on those cherished expectations is tough enough. Developing a spirit of contentment and gratitude while relinquishing them can seem a bridge too far. But Paul has a word for us there, as well.
“Indeed,” Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8, ESV) For Paul, the circumstance that makes all other circumstances bearable is the priceless treasure of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. And the great expectation that overrides all others is the expectation of spending eternity with Him in heaven. Whatever our life circumstances, if we put our trust in Jesus, that’s an expectation that’s available to us all. And that great expectation can make the circumstances we never expected easier to bear.