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  • Writer's pictureMary Nolte

Living with the Unexpected

“I just never expected my life to be this way.”


It is a common thought, sometimes voiced in the counseling room, between friends, or in a prayer circle. Sometimes it is a thought we keep to ourselves, wondering if it renders our life a failure in some aspect or another. After all, if life is not what you expected, you must not have achieved the goals you set out for yourself. You had a wish- a hope of what your life would be, but it is not that at all.


Recently, as I pondered this reality of living with the unexpected, my four year old granddaughter grabbed me by the hand, excitedly talking about “Mae Mae’s garden.” As she pulled me along, I mistakenly thought she was going to point out the cilantro plant I had discovered just that morning, the only thing that had survived my first attempt at a garden this year. I had been so excited to see it, standing tall amongst an otherwise dreary display of empty pots. It had been a ray of hope in that barren soil, evidence to the fact that I was not a complete failure at gardening. But when we got to said garden, and I found the cilantro hacked to pieces and lying rather forlorn across the surface of the rich soil, I listened to her sweet jabbering about the “weed” and looked at the little garden shovel in her hand and found myself facing the bitter sweetness of the unexpected.


Expectations are a curious thing, because most of the time, we don’t realize we have them until they don’t come to fruition.


We work so hard and wait so long and spend so much time and effort on them- watering and tending and weeding them like a garden, letting the sunshine of hope shine upon them for years, all the while expecting a certain result. But when that expected result does not come forth, we find ourselves standing at a grave of what we hoped would be and struggling to accept what is. Truth be told, we will all find ourselves staring at a lot of hacked cilantro as life goes by, standing beside it in joyous sorrow (2 Cor 6:10).


For it is not that life is not good, it's just that life is not always what we expected.


And when we face various deaths in our lives of the things we expected to occur, things that were seemingly good things, failure is especially difficult to accept. After all, the cilantro was not a bad thing. One could even say it seemed rather necessary when living in the land of Tex-Mex. And many times what we expect is a good, seemingly necessary thing like a good marriage or a healthy child or for the child we have to follow Christ. Maybe we have been hoping for a mended friendship or an end to pain or for success in the workplace. Maybe we just never expected to be alone for yet another year, wishing for companionship.


But when we find ourselves with hopes dashed like so many unsuspecting cilantro plants, how do we, as John Piper said, “Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be… And embrace the life you have.”


I could try to convince myself, I suppose, that I never really cared for cilantro anyways, that I am one of those people who finds it tastes rather like dish soap. I could focus on other things, putting my hope in next year’s garden or the birth of the next calf, but really, there is no guarantee of those things either. I am just trading one cilantro plant for another, still setting myself up for yet another possible failure and the subsequent mourning. Because the death of those things we had hoped for and even thought necessary to our happiness is only acceptable when we focus, not on those temporal things, but on the One who stands over us with an unfailing love.


In the wake of the cilantro’s untimely death, I found myself looking, not at my seemingly barren garden, but at my granddaughter, whose huge smile was overwhelming. It was not that I was particularly thrilled about my cilantro being taken for a weed and hacked up as such. It was just that the one who had taken it away had done it out of such love that my disappointment was rather small in the face of it. I couldn’t help but smile back. How much more should I be able to smile in the face of the unexpected when I behold God, who, unlike an unknowing toddler, has not mistakenly taken our cilantro for a weed. When we look into his face, we see not only a pure and everlasting love, but also an all knowing love- a love that flows from an eternal abundance of mercy and grace.


And when he allows the death of a good thing, it is because he has something much better in store.


As I sat with a friend recently and talked about the unexpected turns our lives had taken, the unexpected sorrows that sometimes kept us up at night, unexpected realities that were so very different from what we had thought they would be, I found that our conversation turned to the love and goodness of God. Because, in spite of everything, we could see his hand tracing a line of mercy throughout our lives; his goodness had been “running after” us, as the song says, spilling grace into the unexpected in a way only he can do. As I am mourning, God is rejoicing over me with gladness. He is quieting me by his love. (Zeph. 3:17) My sorrow over what I “hoped would be” is no match for his endless joy and amazing love.


And though I may be living a life I never expected, God is not surprised. He has been planning all my days long before I lived them, weaving my story into The Story.


Because our lives are not the center of the story. Our victory and success is not what it’s all about. We may be asked to bear a heavy burden for the sake of the gospel. But when following God, we can know that the burden will be lightened by goodness, the unexpected heartache will be surrounded by unrelenting love. And as we bask in that goodness and love, we can faithfully live in obedience to the one who knows all the unexpected turns our lives will take, believing that the work he is doing through our pain and heartache is a good work, a work meant for his glory and the good of his people.


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