The God of Surprises

“If You Want to Hear God Laugh, Just Tell Him Your Plans.”

Sam Bush / 8.31.20

Last month, John Dickerson wrote an article in the Atlantic in which he discusses the inevitable surprises of a president’s tenure. Without fail, a sitting president will undergo something completely unexpected, during which their entire legacy will be tested. It’s a fascinating, historical take on the age-old joke, “If you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.”

Dickerson uses three examples, all of which loom large in our country’s history. He notes that, during the campaign the year before 9/11, the topic of terrorism barely came up at all. The actual word “terrorism” was spoken once, in passing, during the three debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore. He then harkens back to 1928 when Herbert Hoover, upon accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention, declared that the country was “nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.” A year later, of course, a majority of Americans were not making enough money to support a family. Dickerson then rewinds to the previous decade when a newly elected Woodrow Wilson said, “It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs, for all of my preparation has been in domestic matters.” A little more than a year later, World War I began.

These examples — with which the current pandemic falls perfectly in line — serve as a warning of hubris, of any type of glorified destiny that we have in mind about ourselves and the world. It makes me want to speak as people did in colonial times, beginning any talk of the future with the phrase “God willing!” as if no one could ever speak confidently of what was to come (as in “Ok, see you for lunch … God willing!”). It also speaks of how the natural flow of life often seems to directly confront our expectations.

“It’s the unexpected that will catch them,” Condoleezza Rice told Dickerson in an interview. “Every candidate promises ‘On day one, I will…’ but the world doesn’t accord with the world that they thought they were going to be able to shape.” It’s a cold, hard truth that fits the mold for almost every area of life.

Take marriage, for instance. On your wedding day, you enter into an eternal covenant with the love of your life while having no idea who this person will become over the next five, ten, thirty or fifty years (it’s hard to believe, but it’s entirely possibility that you may not stay exactly the same either). “For better or worse” you say, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine the latter part as you look into each other’s eyes, surrounded by flowers and loved ones. In one strange sense, you don’t actually know who you are marrying because that person is bound to change. As the saying goes, men marry women with the hope they will never change while women marry men with the hope they will. Inevitably, both will be disappointed (for better or worse). Indeed, one’s spouse does not accord with the marriage you thought you were signing up for!

Or children, for another example. While my wife was pregnant with our first boy, I imagined him being the mild-mannered child that I had once been. He would be my slightly shy and moody child and I would be his slightly moody but understanding father. In reality, from the moment of his birth he has been a total ham with a flair for the dramatic and I have been his dumbstruck father wondering whose child he is. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still occasionally struggle with relinquishing my expectations — who I wanted him to be as opposed to who he actually is — but I have also been privileged to be the audience of his one-act plays and Frozen solos. My son is a testament to God’s power that can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

In May, as the country was still reeling from the early stages of Covid-19, Walter Brueggemann published a book called Virus as a Summons to Faith (just in case you were feeling accomplished with all the sourdough you’ve made during quarantine — how’s your book coming along?). In its first chapter, he describes how the virus ripped away the illusion of control we had grown to love so much:

The reason none saw it coming is because it has come from beyond our world of knowledge or control, from an elsewhere that is laden with inscrutability. We arrive, in our honesty and fear, at the unspeakable for which our faith tradition has provided proximate language. Thus it is possible, when pressed beyond our explanation, to speak according to our faith tradition about the virus. It is possible to pause before God’s raw holiness in a world that is not tamed by our best knowledge.

If there is one thing we can expect out of life it is that we will be surprised and given an assortment of every type — good, tragic, and all things in between. Despite our careful preparations, the unexpected is always looming around the corner. The greatest surprise, however, is that, even still, there is no reason to fear. For our God is the God of surprises of all varieties. As Good Friday was no doubt a shock to the disciples, Easter morning was all the more unthinkable.

Picture yourself as the unaware recipient of a surprise birthday party. At the end of the day, you wearily walk from your driveway to your front door and step inside to a dark and quiet home. The lights turn on before you reach for them and you’re greeted by a chorus of “Surprise!” At first, it’s disturbing. You’re ripped from your comfortable state of affairs, perhaps feeling sorry for yourself that nobody has wished you a happy birthday. In a moment, your feelings range from frantic to livid. But then you lock eyes with God, standing in the back, a party hat strapped around his chin and a foolish grin on his face. At this moment, when you realize that you are, in fact, safe, you may just be able to enjoy the surprise.