I had gifts set aside for every day they were here. My niece and nephew had come to visit me in Colorado and I’d accumulated a small hoard of gifts, some specifically designed to enable them to enjoy the day’s activity, some more for the purpose of long-term enjoyment, some simply because they would delight in them, and, frankly, many were because, let’s face it, I’m cheap and found a good deal.
Well, my darling 5-year old nephew has very specific ideas in mind when you say there’s a “surprise.” My niece, his younger sister, is quite happy to receive anything you want to give her with joy and rapture. My nephew, however, knows exactly what he loves and wants and is easily disappointed when your surprise and what he has envisioned do not match up.
In fact, he famously threatened grandpa once about a surprise. The story goes, grandpa usually gives Gage a “transformer knife” (aka a Swiss-army-type knife) for a surprise. Gage loves anything that “transforms.” (For all you concerned citizens out there wondering why grandpa is giving knives to a boy before he’s even 5, know that he does, at least, dull the blades first. Beyond that, what can I say? It’s a red-neck country kind of thing.) So, when grandpa told Gage he had a surprise for him after he’d fallen off a horse, Gage of course assumed it was another transformer knife. It wasn’t.
We have a tradition at grandpa’s ranch whenever anyone falls off a horse or meets with some sort of injury/accident. We present them with a specific t-shirt to commemorate the event—a t-shirt that says, “The Circle T Ranch: Where People Get Back to Nature, and Nature Gets Back at Them.” To say that Gage was disappointed when Grandpa presented him with his well-earned t-shirt is an understatement. He was disappointed, betrayed, furious, confused, hurt... all of it. To be fair, he couldn’t read, so he didn’t quite see why a t-shirt should be anything special enough to be called a surprise. He had plenty of t-shirts at home. In his mind, T-shirts aren’t a surprise, they’re a basic fact of life.
Later that day, they had a ceremony of sorts with some of the guests who were at the ranch that day and handed out a few of those Circle T Ranch t-shirts to some of the guests, laughing about their mishaps, and celebrating their willingness to get back on and try again, whether it was a horse or jet ski or what-have-you. Gage saw that, and warmed a little towards the t-shirt, beginning to see that maybe there was more to it than he’d realized, but still, it wasn’t a transformer knife and therefore not worthy of being called a surprise.
Later that weekend, Grandpa found another reason to give him a “surprise,” and this time, having learned his lesson, made sure it was a knife. He didn’t want his grandson feeling cheated from the t-shirt, after all. So, when he told Gage he had “another surprise” for him, Gage, who was maybe 4 at the time, immediately says back, “Well, I tell you one thing grandpa, it better not be another t-shirt or I’m never coming back out to the ranch again!” Fortunately, it was a knife and Gage didn’t have to boycott grandpa’s ranch for the rest of his life! To this day, grandpa finds it hilariously unbelievable that his grandson “threatened” him.
So, I know this about my nephew. I know that he has high hopes and clear expectations for any surprises that come his way, and I was giving him surprises, daily... so it was to be expected that I might disappoint him at some point or another. The first day I gave him a net and a bucket, not the coolest surprise, except that it was to go catch crawdad’s in the stream...and he LOVED that. He loved the crème filled Twizzlers for our road trip. He really loved the child’s sized baseball glove I found at a garage sale. He did NOT love the books.
Admittedly, I found a bunch of used kids’ books at a garage sale and bought them because they were available, and cheap. I didn’t buy them thinking they would be Gage’s ideal surprise. However, I knew that they wouldn’t be bringing books with them on their trip to CO and I know how much they like books at bedtime. I thought it would be awesome if we had some books for grandma to read to them at night. But Gage was horribly disappointed—at least, until his sister sat down to read her books with grandma...then he decided we should read his, too. He may not have been immediately thrilled with it, but in the long-term, I know he’ll get much joy from those books, more joy than he will get with the candy which he was quite content with in the moment.
Now, before we all go to pointing fingers and think what a spoiled boy he is that he’s disappointed at a surprise, when many kids never get a book in their life or any special surprise at all, let’s give him a little grace. First off, Gage has very clear ideas about what he likes and wants and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I dare say that quality will turn out to be a very special gift to him later in life. Like most of our personality traits, however, it surely has a positive and a negative to it. Secondly, I love his transparency. His reactions are honest and true. They may not always be “right” in our eyes, but they aren’t false. In a world of people who have learned to pretend the right response even when it’s a lie they are portraying, I particularly value that his response is never dishonest to how he feels.
Thirdly, I would like to point out how much his response to his surprises is very like our response to God’s gifts and surprises to us.
How many people do you know who have threatened God with, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing, if that’s the kind of ‘good God’ you are, then forget it!” Or, “If those are the ‘gifts’ you give your people, then you can keep them, and I’m done with you and your Kingdom.” “If you don’t answer this prayer and heal this person, then I’m never talking to you again!” I know lots of people who have rejected God because they were furious at something He gave them.
Not all of us threaten God or quit Him, but how many times have we been disappointed at something in life? That’s not the same, you say, but isn’t it? Does anything come to me that does not first pass through the hand of God? How many of us are disappointed with our bodies or our health in some way or other? How many of us are disappointed with our families, marriages, living situation, jobs, etc.? Or, how many of us have prayed for something, and been disappointed with the answer, or apparent lack thereof? We had these great expectations for life and for God’s gifts to us, and it’s just not what we expected, it’s so much less.
In America, our typical response to this is to “fix” it. If you don’t like your job, get a better one. That’s not all bad. Sometimes you should. Other times, however, you can’t do a thing to “fix” it anyway. You have to go through it. In either case, first of all, it’s OK to be honest. It’s OK to tell the Lord that this isn’t what you were expecting. He knows anyway and He can take your honesty. And after that honesty, it is good to ask the Lord what He has planned. Why this gift, Lord? What are you trying to give me in this situation?
Gage wanted to change that t-shirt in for a knife, but the gift in the t-shirt wasn’t so much the shirt itself, but the badge of honor that came with it. The books weren’t the real gift, the real gift in those books was precious time with grandma, hearing her voice, cuddling on the couch...memories. Another candy wouldn’t have given him those memories.
I once heard Graham Cooke talking about this idea. He said that we are sometimes wanting to receive one gift, but God is giving us something else. We are sick and we want healing, we want to take authority over our sickness through prayer and be well. That’s not a bad thing to want, but what if God is giving us a gift of patience in our sickness, not of authority? Every time we demand authority we are going against the gift He’s giving us. We’re refusing His gift and asking for another one, which is counter-productive on so many levels. It would be better if we could ask God what gift He is trying to give us in that situation and work to receive it. Then we can look for all the opportunities to receive His patience as we are sick, and, when we have received that gift, we are ready to receive the next one, which may or may not be the healing we were hoping for.
In either case, what it does is teach us to trust that God is a good gift giver. It teaches us to trust His love for us and His kindness as well as His sovereign will. He has a better plan for our lives than we do. It’s hard to set aside our disappointment when life doesn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. All the more so in America where we have such high expectations for happiness in all things. It’s OK to feel disappointed, but what do we do with it? That’s the bigger issue. We can threaten God and quit Him when it seems He has failed us. OR, we can humbly come to Him and confess our disappointment and ask Him, “I had this in mind, but obviously, you had something different. Can you show me what it is so that I can get on board with what it is you are doing, with what you’re giving me? And can you help me to have a grateful, trusting heart for all the gifts that You give?”
 Please note, I’m not saying God causes evil, but that in all things that God allows to come to us, He has hidden a gift. He can work ALL things to good.