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The element of surprise

God has a purpose in the events we don’t expect

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Do you like surprises? My husband didn’t, so I’m still mystified at my decision to throw a surprise party for his 40th birthday. He’s the oldest of seven siblings, and as we would be spending the holidays in his hometown, and as his birthday falls shortly before Christmas, it seemed an opportune time to celebrate a family milestone. All of them could come, all of them kept the secret, and when we walked into his brother’s house for a presumed poker night, they were all there to yell, “Surprise!” My husband almost turned around and walked out—or so he told me later. Followed by, “Don’t do that again.”

But he was a good sport and seemed to have fun once the one-foot-in-the-grave jokes were over. (And that was nothing to what one of the brothers did a few years later for his wife’s 40th: hire a hearse and assemble the guests to arrive in a funeral procession.)

As it happened, my husband’s surprise party was the last time all seven Cheaney siblings would be together. About five weeks later, the fourth brother died suddenly, in his sleep, at the age of 35. That was also a surprise—a devastating one, especially for his wife and two little girls.

Surprises interfere with our schedules and force us to rethink our carefully laid plans.

I recall many happy surprises in my life: the positive pregnancy test, the call from my agent about the book deal, the house on the corner that seemed perfect for us. But then that same house deal fell through because of unexpected job uncertainty, another contracted manuscript was rejected, and my daughter miscarried just weeks after a positive pregnancy test. In some lives, unpleasant surprises outnumber the happy ones, by a factor of two or more.

That’s one reason most of us don’t like surprises. They interfere with our schedules and force us to rethink our carefully laid plans. They wreak havoc on agendas small and great. Think of every president who began his term with ballyhooed goals, most of them derailed within two years: Clinton’s healthcare ambitions stalled by a public that wasn’t ready; George W. Bush’s hopes for education blown up by 9/11; Trump’s quavering approval ratings tanked by COVID-19. And whatever Biden hoped to accomplish in his term, war in Ukraine wasn’t in the playbook.

But if God has a purpose for all things, He has a purpose for surprises too. Not just the content, but the “element of surprise” itself, the rug-pull, the banana-peel slip. “Beloved,” writes Peter, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). He knew about surprises, having experienced a very nasty one when his hopes for Messiah crashed and burned. Even though he was warned. Jesus had told His closest followers at least three times about His death in great detail, but they didn’t believe it. Luke goes so far as to say it was hidden from them, and they could not perceive it (9:45; 18:34).

Could it be that the prediction was concealed and unperceivable so that surprise would do its galvanizing work? God had often surprised His people in the past by showing up: for rescue (at the Red Sea), for rebuke (in battle where the Ark of the Covenant was captured), and for reform (through John’s preaching after centuries of silence). Christ Himself was not at all what the Jews expected. But the greatest surprise of all occurred on the third day after His ignominious death.

He had told His followers about that too, but it’s unlikely they anticipated the resurrection while placing His broken body in a tomb. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been both doubtful and fearful when He appeared among them with wounded hands and side: the happiest surprise in history.

Peter says, “Don’t be surprised,” but we will be anyway, whether by sunlit uplands or fiery trials. I would just add this: In any surprise, God is showing up. Be looking for Him.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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