When I was eight years old, I asked Santa for a horse. I considered this request a practical matter; I promised to take care of it every day despite any knowledge of how to do so. As is customary, I visited Santa at the mall and formally submitted my request for a dark brown horse with a golden mane. Santa, playing his role—with no regard for my parents’ sanity—assured me that such a horse would indeed be mine. In my mind, I saw my loyal horse clomping along behind me in my backyard and galloping with dignity through the kudzu in the central Alabama holler behind my house.
On Christmas day I woke early. Disappointed by the usual lack of snow, I nevertheless assumed my horse would be in the den, waiting patiently by the Christmas tree.
At my house, Santa didn’t leave wrapped presents. How would one wrap a horse anyway? I knew my horse would be chewing his bit, trails of vapor streaming from his nose, his ears flaring with anticipation at meeting me. He would be ready to carry me down to the holler.
My mom met me in the den with a nervous smile. The elephant in the room was the absence of my horse. I recall going through the rest of my toys one by one, waiting to discover that somehow, somewhere, I had overlooked the horse. Finally, my mother set a box in front of me.
Rather than a living horse, Santa delivered a Chip Away sculpture toy. Popular in the 1970s, Chip Away toys featured a block of wax that a child would chip away with the handy mallet and chisel provided to uncover an object. My anticipation extinguished, I picked up the mallet and chisel. The actual work of sculpting was a satisfying outlet for my disappointment. I hammered and chiseled until an outline of something appeared. Working slower, I uncovered the top of a horse’s head. Instead of a real, live horse with a golden mane, my horse was a white sculpture of Chip Away wax. I looked up at my mom.
“We don’t have room for a real horse here, sweetie.”
Hope denied. Anticipation extinguished.
I am fifty-three years old now and have never owned a horse. I have never had another Chip Away sculpture, either. While my anticipation of owning a horse has dimmed over the years, I learned early in life that many of my hopes and expectations would go unmet, not because they weren’t worthy, but because they were impractical, unmoderated, or sometimes out of the scope of my generation. I learned that the fulfillment of my anticipation comes from God alone.
Carrying anticipation that God will act is much like stepping out of a line to check the progress toward your destination, only to return and find ourselves further back than where you started. This frustration of anticipation can either strengthen or weaken our faith. Deferred hope is a testing ground for faith.
Anticipation is a tool of faith.
Anticipation in our spiritual lives goes in one of two directions: in our plans, we believe that God is working on our behalf or, without any evidence, we despair that he is not working at all. Anticipation is both positive and negative, hopeful and despairing. The heart thrills with anticipation of godly movement or flattens into an uneven rhythm of despair. To be strung along in anticipation of divine action without obvious evidence of the desired result seems like a trick of faith—and can make God look like a bad actor, an invisible being standing idle behind the curtain.
The psalter carries themes of stalled anticipation, frustration and waiting, especially in the psalms of lament. In Psalm 13 David’s anticipation for God’s action is countered by silence:
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
Yet we know God is working within us. Paul tells us this in Galatians 2:20 (NLT):
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Christ lives in me and you. With the knowledge that he is working even when we anticipate that he is not, we are liberated from the stinging frustration of wanting an answer now and hope can shift to faith. Just three verses further into Psalm 13, David turns to trust during his forced waiting. Then his faith erupts in the freedom of praise.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
In the tension between our anticipation and God’s response, our trust in him has reason to strengthen. The freedom we find in waiting is the emancipation of anticipation.
Disregarding the Sum of Time
About seven years after getting a wax horse for Christmas, I experienced another sharp turn of anticipation, one that veered into despair. I was fifteen and had been sexually abused by my youth minister and my pastor. One evening in the same bedroom in which I had once dreamed about a horse, I pleaded with God to free me from the abuse. The anticipation that my life was only going to get worse was compounded by my isolation. I begged God for help. I anticipated the worst but also God’s help. In my mind, I saw Jesus riding in on a white horse to rescue me.
But my request was deferred. Hope denied, anticipation extinguished.
My youth minister and pastor moved away but I retained the damage. Years would pass before I would tell anyone or get help, and decades would pass before I could identify any measure of healing in my mind, heart, and soul. Because I knew God lived in me, the anticipation of God’s help during those long years turned into a thrumming faith, spurred along by the debris of the damage and the construction of my faith. Disregarding the sum of time, I believed that God was doing something. I still anticipated he would help me heal. What I didn’t know was the time it would take or that healing is a process that never ends on this side of our lives. It was only in the waiting that I began to understand that the anticipation of God’s promises is the necessary fuel for faith and waiting is the kiln in which faith undergoes a slow burn, changing states from malleable clay to ceramic trust.
I waited on Peter’s words to be true:
In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, he will restore, support, and strengthen you, and he will place you on a firm foundation. I Peter 5:10, NLT
We are not Chip Away toys. We are not blocks of wax hiding a facsimile of who we are, and we do not spend our lives chipping away to find our real selves. God is the sculptor who chips away the debris to build us into who we will become by restoring, supporting, and strengthening us. We wait in anticipation that what he promised is true.
In one of Henri Nouwen’s meditations, he quotes French author Simone Weil: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Nouwen goes on to say:
Jesus changes our history from a random series of sad incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity for a change of heart. To wait patiently, therefore, means to allow our weeping and wailing to become the purifying preparation by which we are made ready to receive the joy that is promised to us.
If only we knew this in the beginning. If only we knew that we would never get a horse or that recovery from child abuse takes decades. Yet knowing would nullify the anticipation that what God promised is true. Knowing would eliminate the need for faith.
Abraham and Isaac anticipated a great nation.
Moses anticipated living in the Promised Land.
The Israelites anticipated God’s deliverance.
Isaiah and Jeremiah anticipated doom and victory.
The nation of Israel anticipated a long-prophesied Messiah.
The disciples anticipated that Jesus would establish a military kingdom.
In the waiting, Abraham and Isaac were forced to play the long game and trust God’s promises. In the waiting, Moses obeyed and was stopped short of the Promised Land. The Israelites waited, were scattered, and waited longer. A Messiah eventually came, but only after hundreds of years of waiting. Then he was rejected because he didn’t act like the one who was anticipated. Isaiah and Jeremiah waited, often in despair. The disciples waited to learn who Jesus really was and then, disoriented by his death, waited longer.
The change in my anticipation from ages eight and fifteen came from the birth of my faith in Christ. When I was eleven, I received a new Bible. Fascinated by the story of God, I read it like a textbook. I met God in its pages and encountered his divinity in a way I still cannot express today; I knew I had encountered the king of the universe and the God of my soul. When I tossed up that woefully inarticulate gasp for help at age fifteen, I knew that I was asking the only one in my life who would help me. I asked in anticipation. I asked in hope. But then I waited.
We wait for the things of God because we anticipate that his promises are true.
Believing the Promise Maker is a Promise Keeper
God uses our hope and anticipation, along with our circumstances, to sculpt a faith that is strong and true, one that becomes as resilient as clay fired into resolute strength. Consider Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
“Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in the world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea and his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we did the whole thing! No, we neither make or save ourselves. God does both the making and the saving.” Ephesians 2:7–9, MSG.
How do we break free of disappointment or despair when our anticipation is not fulfilled? How do we avoid catastrophizing the worst, living on the side of anticipation known as dread? The answer lies in the emancipation of anticipation, the freedom of waiting on God by faith that he is the sculptor, not us. He does the making. Our freedom is found in the belief that his promises are true. This belief is the emancipation of anticipation, our freedom from the binding expectations that constrain us. Waiting is the hardest thing we do, yet oddly, it is the most freeing.
Revelation 19:11 describes Jesus as faithful and true, his thighs emblazoned with the words “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.” One day, Jesus will ride in on a white horse to take his kingdom. He’ll ride toward me, maybe even slinging me up behind him on the saddle the way I dreamed at age fifteen. So, I still anticipate getting a horse one day. A white one, not made of wax but of divine power, carrying the king of the universe and the God of my soul.
Though waiting is at times excruciating, we can wait if we believe Christ’s promises are true and that he lives in us. The emancipation of our anticipation is that waiting builds faith and faith builds freedom. And in Christ, we are free indeed.
Cover image by Basil James.