When we really get our hopes up for God to do something, we occasionally set ourselves up to be badly disillusioned, so how can we avoid this?
The story of this Sunday is very familiar.
Jesus rides into town on a donkey. Lots of overexcited people wave palm branches and hail him as king. They thought he was going to clap his hands together, summon five billion angels and three thousand soldiers and blast the Romans right out of town. They believed that their prophesied king had arrived to make Israel a force to be reckoned with among the nations again.
Silly people. Didn’t they hear Jesus say his kingdom wasn’t of this world? It’s obvious he wasn’t going to actually wear a gold crown and sit in David’s ancient, crumbling house.
We have the benefit of hindsight, sure; but we wouldn’t demand anything so ridiculous of Jesus if he were to come today.
We definitely wouldn’t, right?
“The whole world yearns for a steadfast hope,” David Wilkerson pointed out in a sermon. “The inner cry of multitudes around the globe right now is, ‘Somebody, somewhere, please, give me some hope, something that will last.’
“We long to hear someone preach an all-powerful, life-changing message of hope. We want a message that will lift us above all our fears and trials, something that will set our feet firmly on steadfast hope.
“Many wonderful books have been written by people who maintained hope through their awful tragedies and hardships. Their testimonies encourage us, giving our faith a great lift. But, again, our hope fades whenever a severe trial arises in our own lives. The sufferings we endure dash whatever steadfast hope we thought we had. Why?”
Why does God let us struggle? We’re asking for good things, so why doesn’t he just give us what we want?
The Palms’ Secret Significance
The familiar story of Palm Sunday is more complex than many of us realize.
Bethany, the town where Lazarus lived, was very close to Jerusalem, and people would’ve been intimately familiar with the miracle story of Lazarus’s resurrection.
They also would’ve been well versed in the prophesies about David’s heir and word had probably started circulating about how many of these ancient predictions Jesus had already fulfilled.
Above and beyond these symbols would’ve been historical significance to the current crowd that isn’t often discussed when this story is brought up. Christianity Today writer Jonathan Merritt explored this in his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.
“The palm branches signaled the crowd’s high expectations,” he writes, “a symbol largely lost on those of us who are separated from the culture and chronology of the story. Jewish history told of a man named Judas Maccabeus, a freedom fighter who entered Jerusalem 200 years prior to Jesus. As he approached, people waved palm branches and sang hymns.
“When Judas finally arrived, he defeated the Syrian king, recaptured the Temple, expelled the pagans, and reigned for a century before the Romans took back the city.”
Not only was Jesus fulfilling biblical prophecy, but he was also echoing history for those living in the city. Everyone thought they knew where this was headed.
Everyone’s hopes were riding high.
It’s a sensation with which we’re probably very familiar. Every time a new political candidate arrives, every time a new scientific study comes out, every time we see a breakthrough in prayer—this is going to be the moment God finally removes that thorn in our side. We’ve been waiting for freedom for so long, and this is how God is going to accomplish it at long last.
Rational thought points to this being the solution; faith is holding strong that God’s going to do something great; other spiritual people are telling us that the moment has arrived. Wave those palm branches harder. This is it, folks!
Anybody else also felt this? Anybody else here with me?
Building Our Towers of Expectations
Let’s be honest about expectations; we have a lot of them, and the pile grows exponentially when we throw God and our problems into the mix. The ancient Israelites’ behavior was nothing new.
Crosswalk writer Debbie McDaniel noted, “When the people shouted ‘Hosanna!’ they were hailing Christ as King. That word actually means ‘save now,’ and though in their own minds they waited for an earthly king, God had a different way in mind of bringing true salvation to all who would trust in Him.”
How often have we cried out in prayer, “God, save now! Fix this heart-breaking situation. Heal me in this area of spiritual failure”?
We see the pain or problems in our lives or in those of people we love, and we can’t imagine how a good, loving God would permit these issues to remain. He must be dealing with problems in some other part of the world, or he’s just waiting for us to ask him to solve our dilemma.
“Maybe you picture God as a heavenly bellhop whose job is to satisfy your deepest desires,” Jonathan Merritt wrote in his book. “Or perhaps God is a holy matchmaker who will secure you a spouse. Maybe God is a cosmic bodyguard who protects you from harm….
“People tend to assume that God is the deity they want. All you have to do is snatch up a couple of verses that seem to support your preferred version. Then you spend a few years listening to a pastor reinforce them through selective storytelling. Before you know it, the cement of those assumptions dries, and you begin expecting God to work in particular ways in your life. Not unlike the people of Jerusalem.”
Less than a week later, these were the very same people baying for Jesus’ blood with a viciousness that feels vindictive and shocked a Roman governor who’d surely seen his fair share of humanity at its worst.
As Anne Lamott sagely said in a social media post, “I've heard it said that expectations are resentments under construction…”
Rarely are pithy little sayings so true.
Pain and Disappointed Hopes
God’s solutions often have very little to do with how we would like our salvation to look. When he gently says, “No,” we’re hurt and furious.
We knew exactly what we wanted and how the situation was going to play out, and God ignored our plan. How could he? This was the best way, and he swept it aside. Is he ignoring our problems? Does he not care about our suffering? What is he doing?
I hoped in God, but he didn’t relieve my pain. Why not?
“The fact is, you can have no settled peace, no true hope, until you no longer waver about your acceptance in Christ,” David Wilkerson states. “The path to hope leads to ‘tribulation and many afflictions.’ The path toward hope is one of suffering, sorrows and pain. It doesn’t matter how pious, loving or good you are. If Christ is in you, you will become a partaker in his sufferings.”
In a quick list, he lays out the steps we need to take to have this kind of peace.
Trusting in our justification by Jesus’ blood (Romans 5:1).
Setting our souls at peace with our confidence in Christ (5:1).
Accessing God’s throne at any time (5:2) and calling on the Lord with prayers ‘whereby we stand’ (5:2).
Rejoicing in the hope of glory.
Allowing ourselves to glory in tribulations.
“It is one thing to rejoice in the hope of heaven,” David points out. “It is something else entirely to rejoice in tribulations. And this notion of glorying in tribulations is impossible to the human mind. It becomes possible only to those who believe what God’s Word says about suffering: that Christ is at work in us in the midst of every trial.
“Oh, how we need the Holy Spirit to lead and comfort us in our trying times. Without his presence, his guidance, his outpouring of strength to us daily, none of us could make it. No human determination, no setting of our mind to the task, can survive the daily testings we endure on the path.
“If God created all things with his word and his breath, will he not, in his time, speak hope to you in your trial? He knows just how to bring such hope, real and lasting, sure and steadfast.”
God has a plan, far larger than we could ever imagine. It will not necessarily be the easiest path for us, but it will be the best because God is good.
When he comes to us on a lowly donkey and does not free us from our occupied state and does not explain why, we must trust that God is good and he might even know what he’s doing.
Even in the midst of our pain and disappointed hopes, God is good.