The late Paul Harvey used to say that they were calling off Christmas because nothing could possibly live up to those expectations. Christians know better because God met every expectation and fulfilled every hope in Jesus.
Speaking of getting out of a hot place, last week I sent the manuscript for my new book to the publisher. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have that finished. The working title is How to Be Right Without Being Insufferable (or How to Speak Truth to People Who Don’t Want to Hear It). The book won’t be out for months and months, and I’m sure the publisher will change the title. (They always do.) However, my part is finally finished and I plan to get drunk.
Actually, I won’t because I don’t drink adult beverages; but if I did, I would. I have a friend who says that everybody ought to get drunk once before they die. Besides, after months of hard work, it would be appropriate to celebrate…not because the manuscript is perfect but because it’s finished.
That’s a joke…sort of.
When I almost finished the book I had an attack of realism and ended up writing an extra chapter. I pointed out something very few (if any) Christian writers will say but all know. I told the readers that what I had written wasn’t going to work. “Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna’ Work Out Right” (the chapter title) is more true than most of us would like to admit. What I wrote and taught in the book is certainly better than what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been acting, and what we’ve been saying. But we live in a fallen world. Hardly anything is fair, hardly anything works the way we want it to work, and nothing is perfect. What Paul Harvey said about Christmas and high expectations can certainly be said about life.
In 1 Peter 4:12-13, Peter wrote about this very thing to those who expected Christ’s imminent return and hoped that the kingdom Jesus was establishing would be fully realized with Christ’s enemies finally defeated. Instead the Christians faced horrible persecution and shattered hopes. He wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” If he were to write a letter specifically to us, Peter would tell us not to be surprised when everything didn’t work out the way we expected. We obviously overlooked something—the implications of living in a fallen world.
Then Peter wrote something quite surprising, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad…”
What’s with that? Suffering and joy? Peter must be a masochist. No, he wasn’t. Peter wrote about the joy we find in unfulfilled and unrealized hopes because he had a secret that all Christians share. He knew how the movie was going to end. He knew the director and, because he did, the plot had meaning. That meaning gave Peter joy.
There are two dangers in writing about unrealistic expectations: the danger of Eeyore and the danger of Pollyanna. The trick is to maintain some kind of balance between the two. One Christmas my friend and a staff member (a major asset to Key Life who oversees our warehouse and product delivery), John Tassos, gave me a gift I treasure—a stuffed Eeyore. If you don’t already know, Eeyore is the donkey in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories who is loyal but walks under a dark cloud all the time. Frankly, with my voice I sound like Eeyore and do a tolerable imitation of him. Not only that, there are elements of Eeyore in my personality. Contrary to Eeyore, there are Pollyanna Christians who deny the unfulfilled expectations. They are like the member of a science of the mind religion who goes to hell and keeps repeating, “It’s not hot and I’m not here. It’s not hot and….”
So how do we stand somewhere between Eeyore and Pollyanna?
It’s important that healthy Christians be aware of the cliff but never jump. We really do live in a fallen world; but as Paul wrote, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved…” (Romans 8:22-24).
In other words, Paul wrote that we should not ignore the groaning…but at the same time, we should never forget the redemption. Eeyore sees only the groaning and Pollyanna sees only the redemption. Both are dangerous places to live. Pollyanna says, “If anything can go right, it will.” Eeyore says, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The balance comes from what Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have tribulation [groaning]. But take heart; I have overcome the world [redemption].”
You’ve heard me often say that I’m a cynical, old preacher. Maybe you thought that was a joke. It’s not a joke.
One more thing. Paul says that we have the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” In Ephesians 1, Paul calls those firstfruits the “guarantee” or “down payment” on what we can expect. In other words, we have been given the message and reality of love, forgiveness, protection, joy and acceptance. It’s often not much but it’s real. It’s what my friend, Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, calls the “glimpses of grace.” Those glimpses often come unexpectedly and sometimes they are fleeting, but they are there and from him. It sometimes happens as you’re reading the Bible, are bored and close to falling asleep, when a verse wakes you and shakes you, shouting, “Hey, pay attention! This is for you!” You sometimes encounter it when circumstances radically change for the better without any explanation. You can feel it in the hug of a brother or sister who reminds you that, as screwed up as you are, you are loved. You can even find it at a wake where everybody should be weeping but starts laughing as they remember Jesus, and the funeral turns into a graduation ceremony. You sometimes get a glimpse in a book or a film (not necessarily a Christian one) or maybe even in a sermon. There are other times when you think you hear the “soft sound of sandaled feet” in the darkness and you can finally sleep, or when Jesus says in the storm, “Don’t be afraid. It’s me!”
Now a confession. You’ve heard me often say that I’m a cynical, old preacher. Maybe you thought that was a joke. It’s not a joke. Frankly, I’m kind of like Eeyore and mostly a “glass half empty” kind of guy. I don’t teach the biblical message of radical grace because it’s a nice message. I teach it because it’s all an Eeyore has. And if it’s not true, I don’t have a prayer.
Eeyore says, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna’ work out right. The culture is going to hell in a handbasket. The sexual predators, dishonest politicians, and manipulative advertisers have all the power and the money. The racists are winning and the predators are everywhere.”
A wise Pollyanna who has stopped rejecting the truth says, “Of course, what did you expect? Did you think Jesus was kidding when he talked about the dark? But try to remember the ‘overcoming the world’ part and quit whining, okay?”
Then Eeyore gets more personal. “I’m a horrible sinner and I’ll never get it right.”
A redeemed Pollyanna says, “Duh—of course you are. It wouldn’t bother you so much if you didn’t have such a high opinion of yourself. You’re probably worse than you think and you just might never get it right. But don’t forget that great sinners need a great Savior…and you have One.”
Eeyore says, “Death scares the spit out of me. All the health food I eat, vitamins I take and exercise I do won’t change that fact. It’s really depressing and scary.”
The Pollyanna who has seen the truth says, “You’re not supposed to be happy about it. It’s what the Bible calls the ‘curse of sin’ and you are that…a sinner. Try to remember when the demons come that ‘death has been swallowed up in victory.’ You’ll feel better.”
Eeyore says, “I’ve broken so many promises to God and to my friends that I’ve given up promising. I’m hopeless.”
Pollyanna says, “You are hopeless but you aren’t without hope. Jesus said he came for sick people. So welcome to the club.”
Eeyore says, “It’s a dark world…incredibly dark.”
Pollyanna says, “Okay, but look over there and see the light!”
As I said I’m writing this in December and you’re reading it in February. So by now you’ve probably broken your New Year’s resolutions.
Don’t thank me. I was glad to help.
And of course, Jesus told me to remind you.