We all like to hear stories that have a unexpected twist. We enjoy it because most of the stories we hear follow a predictable pattern, especially stories we watch in sitcoms on television.   These stories usually follow what is called a “formula,” a story whose elements have been determined by television executives to be safe and successful for public consumption and which will generate the most advertising dollars. We enjoy the “safety” of such stories because we do not have to think or be disturbed by the unpredictable or by “dangerous” notions.

However, such “safety” comes at a price: our boredom and complacency.

That is why sometimes we find ourselves just half-listening to some story that follows a typical, cultural pattern or formula when all of a sudden there is an unexpected turn, a unpredicted twist that catches us off guard and leaves us surprised, or stunned, or shocked, or scandalized. Consider this story:

Three women were out golfing one day and one of them hit her ball into the woods. She went into the woods to look for it and found a frog in a trap. The frog said to her, “If you release me from this trap, I will grant you three wishes.” The woman freed the frog and the frog said, “Thank you, but I failed to mention that there was a condition to your wishes—that whatever you wish for, your husband will get ten times more or better!” The woman thought about it a moment and said, “That’s fine.” So, for her first wish, the woman said she wanted to be the most beautiful woman in the world. The frog warned her, “You do realize that this wish will also make your husband the most handsome man in the world, so handsome women will flock to him?” The woman thought for a moment and said, “That will be okay because I will be the most beautiful woman in the world and he will only have eyes for me.” So…poof! She’s the most beautiful woman in the world! For her second wish, the woman asked to be the richest woman in the world. The frog said, “That will make your husband ten times richer than you and the richest man in the world.” The woman replied, “That’s fine because what is his is mine and mine is his—we’re married.” So…poof! She’s the richest woman in the world. The frog then said, “So what is your third wish?” She answered, “I’d like a mild heart attack.”

Undoubtedly, you were surprised, shocked, stunned, or scandalized by that story—especially you husbands! Stories with unexpected twists and turns can be disturbing, can require us to reexamine firmly held notions, can challenge us to discard old and settled thoughts, and to believe in new possibilities we did not think available until we heard the story.

The Bible is full of these surprising reversals.

The story of Hosea’s marriage to the harlot, Gomer, is very much a story of surprising twists and turns, which scandalize and shock and surprise with new possibilities. It offers glorious potential for salvation and spiritual healing in the middle of painting a disturbing picture of people who have forgotten and rejected God. It ends unexpectedly: with God’s gracious offer of salvation and provision despite their “harlotry,” i.e., their idolatry. They deserved punishment; God promised to forgive and restore them (Hosea 14:4)

The story of Joseph is another shocker. He has dreams of power and leadership. He is sold into slavery. He does what is right for his owner, Potiphar, and winds up in prison. Only through suffering and hardship will his dreams become reality. Yet there is God with him in jail, showing him hesed (covenant loyalty!) and giving him favor with the warden (Gen. 39:20-21).

The Church needs unexpected twists to its story.

We would like everything given to us without complexities or perplexities. If we see a problem, we would like to diagnose it easily with one of our favorite formulas, like this one: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We think we will hear, “both,” but when we hear, “neither,” we are shocked (John 9:1ff.). Why must things be so complex? Hadn’t our Lord heard of our formula?

It gets even more complex. In the midst of the stories about Hosea, Joseph, and the man born blind, we learn that God is working. God is working the divine will in and through the complex events and perplexing situations. God is working despite all our formulas that have God’s ways all figured out. God won’t be pinned down, figured out, reduced to a formula.

Since God won’t be reduced to an easy formula, we are tempted by our hurts and pains and perplexity to give up in the middle of our trials, difficulties, confusion, and despair, when we face deafening silence, furrowed brows, and exasperated sighs. And then we are shocked again. Just when we were sure it was all over, God shows up with just what we need: the divine Presence, forgiveness, restoration. I think I’ll throw away all my books about neat formulas and magic prayers. I’ll just trust this surprising God with all my bright days and in all my dark nights. Maybe that will surprise God!