We had been struggling to plant this church for more than a year, and we were confused.
We were three starry-eyed young men and our three faithful young wives. We were passionate believers, full of faith and ambition. We’d quit our jobs, sold our homes, and moved to Canada, amidst a flurry of encouraging prophetic words of victory and glory.
When we arrived, we found a few believers who were drawn to us. They’d had dreams of three young men in bright armor marching into their region, sparks flying from their heels as they dispelled the darkness.
Someone had had a dream about a network of home groups, maybe house churches, in every one of the thousands of apartment complexes, full of life and growth and health, people coming to Jesus every week, baptisms every month in the apartments’ pools.
We were so confident, when we started the church, that we’d find victory, that people would come to faith by the scores, maybe the hundreds, revival would visit the city, and lives would be changed.
It hadn’t turned out that way.
We’d been struggling to keep the young church alive for a year and a half. Tithes and offerings were barely covering the rent on the school that we were meeting in. People were coming to the church, but not really investing themselves.
When we came together, worship was good. The Word was taught. Prophetic words were not infrequent. But it as if nothing was sticking.
And then, in the spring, several of us heard the same thing from the Lord. “Prepare for transition. This fall, the church is going to experience a change.”
We rejoiced. We celebrated. Now, finally, we’d paid our dues, and we’d experience some fruitfulness! Now, finally, the church would grow, and we’d be able to settle into our lives and jobs, and make something of our lives. We were really ready for that change. We couldn’t wait!
Over the next few months, we talked about the promise, we rejoiced in it, we celebrated what God was about to do! We were thrilled.
And then things began falling apart.
Several families had an unexpected financial crisis.
So the church finances, which were barely sufficient, began to fail pretty badly.
A number of people in the church experienced unprecedented relationship failures.
One of the pastors was being drawn into an immoral relationship.
Hopelessness began to set into the life of the church.
And then when the fall came, my family was called home (with our tail between our legs!) by the organization that sent us, and the senior leader, needing to pay his bills and feed his family, accepted the invitation to pastor a prosperous church in the next community over.
When the time came for the transition, we acknowledged the inevitable, and shut the church down.
It turned out that the prophetic word was true. . “This fall, the church is going to experience a change.” What was not true was our interpretation of the word. We assumed that the change would be the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams. It was not that, but it certainly was a change.
I’ve observed this process going on throughout the people of God: we hear the word accurately enough, but we filter it through our hopes and dreams: our expectations.
God makes himself accountable to the promises he gives (keeping in mind the conditions associated). But he has not made himself even a little bit accountable to our attempts to shoehorn our wishes and desires into those promises.
Israel did that with the Messiah, Jesus. They expected that Messiah would come in force and deliver the nation from Roman tyranny. When he came as the suffering servant, they rejected him, and some theologians suggest that it was this disappointment that led Judas to betray Jesus, in an attempt to force his hand to become the conquering king.
When God speaks – whether in the prophetic declaration, or in the Holy Scriptures – it is a really lousy idea to try to force our expectations, our hopes and dreams – even godly hopes and dreams – onto his promises. It’s generally considered rude to put our words into someone else’s mouth; it really doesn’t work with God!
One of the disciplines that I’ve tried to develop over the years is one that I exercise whenever I encounter a promise: I try to peel away my own interpretation, and the interpretation of whomever I’ve heard the promise from (pastor, teacher, apostle, prophet, or Facebook friend), so that I can restrict my expectations to only that which God has actually promised.
That way, I’m in less danger of being disappointed by him not answering all my hopes. That way, I can expect him to be him, and not to live up to all of our expectations. And I can free myself to actually know him, instead of just putting his name on my own wishes.