Surprise: How It Can Challenge Our Assumptions and Transform Us

Being open to surprises means being available for transformation. If we get what we expect, then we'll feel affirmed. But what we really need for change is a new understanding, a surprise.

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Here at Working to Live Differently, I write about transformation from a Christian perspective. I believe God is shaping us through our experiences, our friendships, our interactions with people in our community, and our spiritual disciplines. I love seeing how creative God is and how he surprises us.

I’ve noticed that I bring my worldview along with my knowledge and experience to new situations. Often, what I bring is useful. Sometimes, though, it’s useless or a mixed baggage of helpful and harmful.

My background can help me achieve — but it can hold me back sometimes

Let me share an example of my background both helping me and preventing me from moving forward. A few years ago, I competed in my first triathlon, which involves swimming, bike riding, and running — in that order. At the start of the race, I noticed that a few of us had a huge problem with a nuance in the race design.

First, let mention that if you’ve ever done a triathlon, you’ll quickly learn that there are two kinds of people who participate in these events: 1) people who swam competitively as kids (like me) and 2) people who learned to swim so they could compete in a triathlon.

This particular race was a sprint distance with the swim portion in an indoor pool. Participants submitted a 100-yard time to determine placement at the start of the race. Racers were then released in waves, so we wouldn’t crowd the lanes. This set-up meant that many of the lifelong swimmers gathered together at the edge of the pool on the morning of the race, mostly separated from the novice swimmers.

Predictability is comforting — until it causes confusion and anxiety

There was one aspect of the race that confounded those of us who were former competitive swimmers. The triathletes ahead of us were exiting the pool at the ladder, which was positioned before the end of the lane on the last lap. They were not touching the wall to finish. Race organizers had told us it was okay to get out of the pool using the ladder.

But, wait, did we need to finish the lap and touch the wall before moving to the ladder and getting out of the pool? Or, could we get out before reaching the wall?

Competitive swimmers have been trained to touch the wall at the end of each lane to signal a finish. Even in casual summer-league meets in the 1970s, there was a touch pad containing an electronic sensor attached to the wall at the end of each lane. Touching the wall (and triggering the sensor) signals we have finished the race, which in turn gives us our race time. Not touching means not finishing properly. Not finishing properly means we would have done just as well had we stayed home.

Further, as competitive swimmers, we have all watched world games in which an athlete’s touch technique means the difference between a gold medal or (seemingly) nothing.

So, there was a lot of buzzing about what to do at the end of the swim portion. Race organizers and fellow racers told us it was okay to walk up the ladder without touching the wall. But from our worldview, this action meant throwing the race.

Amid the nervous chatter, a fellow swimmer intervened, calmly explaining the rule in a way we understood. She told us there was no sensor at the end of the lane. There was a collective pause. Then, ah, we finally got it: we could safely get out of the pool at the ladder, before touching the wall without incurring a disqualification or messing with the accuracy of our timing chips. (Later I discovered that various timing mats were placed at strategic locations to capture swim, bike, and run times as well as overall finish times). The matter settled, we moved our attention to confidently waiting our respective turns.

Predictability and reliability are important but they may or may not trigger transformation

As I reflect on this experience (and laugh at myself being obsessive about the timing mechanisms), I’m reminded about how perspective can relate to the Christian experience.

Based on my worldview and my knowledge, I may make (reasonable) assumptions about how God will act in my life. To a certain extent, I want to believe in a God that behaves in a certain way so I can get a God who acts predictably, according to my beliefs.

As an example, people in Jesus’s time figured out pretty quickly that he could heal them. So people came to him in droves to get healed or receive healing on behalf of a loved one. A sick person was guaranteed healing if he or she could get an audience with Jesus. When a centurion asked for healing of a servant, “Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go your way. Let it be done for you as you have believed.’ His servant was healed in that hour.” (Matthew 8:13 – World English Bible)

Still, there’s more to Jesus than healing. Sure, Jesus gladly heals people but there’s evidence that he wants to be known as more than a physical healer. He also wants to introduce new ideas to us about who he is and how God wants to interact with us. Sometimes, I may not fully see how God is working because I’m looking for a predictable outcome.

From Isaiah 55:8-9 (World English Bible): “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,” says Yahweh. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Surprises have a unique capacity to transform us

A different type of experience and sometimes, meaningful change happens when God challenges our worldview, our assumptions about his nature, the world, other people, and ourselves, or the heresy of not touching the wall of the swimming lane. (What? How can that be?)

Transformation occurs when we learn something new, instead of getting a specific, predictable outcome. It happens when we have a flash of unexpected insight, a new understanding that leverages our past experiences yet pushes us further along or moves us in a new direction.

For example, later in the gospel of Matthew, we hear about Jesus controlling the wind:

When he got into a boat, his disciples followed him. Behold, a violent storm came up on the sea, so much that the boat was covered with the waves, but he was asleep. They came to him, and woke him up, saying, “Save us, Lord! We are dying!” He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the wind and the sea, and there was a great calm. The men marveled, saying, “What kind of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27 World English Bible)

This calming of the sea was completely unexpected and gave the disciples a new and different understanding of who Jesus is. He moves from being someone with a healing gift to someone who controls nature.

If a God moment spurs a dramatic shift in thinking, perhaps realization of past mistakes without paralyzing guilt, or maybe compassion and love toward a person who previously seemed distasteful, then this experience of surprise can be especially transforming. This process is not about rejecting my past assumptions (I’ll still look for the sensors in a swim meet) or forgetting what I know to be true, but instead taking a fresh look from a new perspective.

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