Jesus Disappoints Everyone
According to John, Jesus had come to winnow the harvest. He would gather the grain and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:7-12). Instead, Jesus was roaming the hills of Galilee, preaching the gospel and healing the sick. The ax had been sharpened and the fire kindled, but Jesus did not seem interested in either. This was so at odds with John's understanding of what the Messiah would do that he couldn't help questioning it. It is disappointment, not doubt, that lies behind John's question.
Failed expectation lies at the heart of every disappointment. We expect one thing and get something else. We expect beef for dinner and get chicken. We thought we would get a refund from the irs, and we end up owing money. The weather report promised sunshine for the weekend, but it rains. Disappointments like these are so common you would think that we would be used to them.
But things are different with God. We expect better treatment from him. We know that people will let us down (though this knowledge does not lessen our disappointment when they do). God is not like that. We may not know much about theology, but at least we know that God does not lie. There is no variableness or shadow of turning with him. He is reliable.
Yet this good theology sometimes leads to bad practice. It causes us to confuse reliability with predictability. Because we think that God's mind and ours are the same, we set goals for God. We know what we want, and so we put it in the mouth of God. We let our desires govern our expectations.
Sometimes the goals we set actually align with what God intends. When that happens, we can become so encouraged that we set more goals for God. But sooner or later—and probably sooner rather than later—what God does is so at odds with our expectation that we hardly know what to think.
We pray for healing and the patient dies. The job that seemed so perfect goes to someone else. That person who would have been the perfect spouse does not return our affection.
The result is more than a crisis of faith, at least as we usually define faith. Our difficulty is not that we have set the bar so high that we must now come to terms with God's inability to come through. We know what God can do. We believe he can meet our high expectations. No, the problem is just the opposite. What really bothers us is that we have misread God's purposes. We are deeply disturbed, and not merely because he has failed to do what we wanted or even expected him to do. We are haunted, instead, by the fact that God hasn't done what we believe in our hearts he should have done.
Outraged and Distressed
Of course, not all disappointments are equal. Most are minor and easily forgotten. Some are more serious. A few haunt us all our days. John's disappointment was the more serious kind. It was the sort of disappointment Jonah felt when he saw that the people of Nineveh were to be spared (Jonah 4:1-2). It was the disappointment of Habakkuk, who cried, "Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?" (Hab. 1:3) It is the same disappointment you and I feel when we see injustice around us. Oppression and evil seem to be on every side, and God appears to do little or nothing about it.