When I was in high school, I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with a friend. We knew absolutely nothing about the film, including the key detail that it was based on a book divided into three volumes. The cinematography and costumes were impressive and engaging, but over the course of the movie, we felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of characters and struggled to follow the complex storyline. The problem really came as we were approaching the two-and-a-half-hour mark. I checked my watch and thought to myself, “This story doesn’t seem anywhere close to wrapping up.” The band of travelers that had set out for Mordor began to split up, and suddenly Frodo and Sam were standing atop a mountain, eyeing their destination…in the far distance. Soon, the screen faded to black, and the credits began to roll.
We sat there in the dark, stunned and dumbfounded. “What in the world…?” “What just happened?” Our incredulity quickly turned into annoyance. “That was the worst…movie…ever!” “I can’t believe I wasted three hours of my life on that!” We fumed as we exited the theater, vowing that if a sequel was forthcoming, we would certainly never watch it.
Twenty years have passed and I still ponder: Why were we so upset? The intensity of our response was almost comical! I assume it’s because we had signed up for a particular experience: an escape from our stressful world for a few hours during which we would vicariously enjoy a happy ending. What we got—after patiently wading through a long, confusing movie—was a cliffhanger that came out of nowhere. It was both a painful surprise and surprisingly painful. It was like we had asked “for a fish, [and received] a serpent” (Matt 7:10).
I know this is kind of a silly story to use here. I recount it because I have seen a similar formula play out many times: something unexpected and unwelcome occurs, and you are stunned by the pain. The most painful surprises are the ones you never see coming. I’m talking about those moments when you find yourself in shock, saying to yourself, “This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” The breakup you never wanted and never saw coming. Walking into your boss’s office hoping for a promotion and leaving his office without a job. Assuming you are in your prime years until the moment you receive the grim news of a serious medical diagnosis. And I don’t think this only applies to big disappointments but small insignificant ones as well, especially when we rely on predictability to provide us comfort or a sense of control: becoming enraged because a restaurant got your takeout order wrong, breaking down in tears when a friend cancels your plans together, snapping at your children because they made an unexpected mess. It seems that both our most traumatic and most triggering experiences occur in the moments when we are expecting something good and are blindsided by something that is far from good.
I expect that the disciples on the road to Emmaus felt this way. These two men were reviewing how things had gone horribly wrong, and they sorrowfully (and unknowingly) recounted these things to Jesus. They had expected Jesus to redeem Israel, but their hopes were crushed by his crucifixion, and they assumed it was all over.
Jesus responded to them (my paraphrase): “You expected something else, so you can neither recognize the truth of God’s storyline nor locate your place in it.” He then reoriented them to his story and reenacted his last meal with them. Their eyes were opened, and for the first time, they saw that Jesus’ suffering and death were not only predicted but necessary for the glorious redemption that they had hoped for.
What a clear picture of the kind of help we often need. We need to be repeatedly reoriented to God’s storyline, our place in it, and what part we play. What I mean is this:
- We default to interpreting pain and brokenness (especially when they surprise us) as dangerous signs that our stories have gone off the rails or that God’s promises are in jeopardy. The truth is that our union with Christ means it is necessary that we “suffer these things [before we can] enter into…glory” (Luke 24:26).
- We default to pursuing resolution in the here and now—believing that we can obtain and maintain order, purpose, and fruitfulness; achieve resolution in our work, security, and stability; maintain longevity in our relationships; and overcome pain and postpone death. The truth is that we should grieve deeply that brokenness remains in our story as we accept that there are still many “not yets” in this chapter.
- We default to believing that the burden to create a good story for ourselves is on our shoulders. For things to turn out right, we must be more savvy, more skillful, more resilient, or more responsible. The truth is that our story is in the hands of a good and wise Author, and we can trust that he’s moving things in the best direction.
If you’re wondering what happened to my story with The Lord of the Rings, I’m happy to share that it had a surprise happy ending. I gave it a second chance and went to see the next installment: The Two Towers. And there my eyes were opened to its captivating beauty.
I imagine today, tomorrow, and the next day, Jesus will invite you to see that your story is more than meets the eye. When you experience a painful surprise, Jesus is there with you. He will reorient you to what’s true here and now and help you to see that your road will also end in glorious redemption.