The man at the gate: expectation and experience

Have you ever wondered to what extent your experience shapes your expectations?

I’ve been reading the story of the man at the gate in Acts 3. In terms of the developing story of the book of Acts, the healing of this man – over 40 years old, who had been lame from birth – leads to a major confrontation between the disciples and the religious authorities, and Peter’s bold claim that ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’

But at another level it also allows us a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between experience and expectation.

Experience shapes expectation.

Every day in this man’s life was the same. It was the same in terms of what he could not do, in what others did for him and in terms of what he was able to do. He couldn’t walk (never had); he depended on others to get him to the gate of the temple where he would beg; the one thing he could do was ask people heading into the temple to provide him with some material help (again he is depending on other people to meet his needs).

So when Peter and John came by, en route for temple prayer time, the man expected them to do what everyone else did (at least those who paused with him): he expected that they would give him alms.

What he had experienced up until now shaped his expectations. He did not expect anything more than he had ever experienced.

That’s where we need to pause for thought. In terms of spiritual life, this shaping can positive and feed our faith, or it can be negative and lower our sights.

I realise that this issue could lead us into all kinds of questions about cessationists and continuationists; questions about how we interpret parts of the Bible and the way in which our experience influences our approach to understanding the Bible’s teaching on supernatural manifestations; questions about prayer: if you are looking for this post to present a tightly reasoned theological case that answers every question, you will be disappointed. More simply, and less ambitiously (perhaps!), I’d like to challenge those of us whose expectations of God tend to be limited by our experience.

Like the man at the gate we don’t expect anything more than what we have already experienced. Perhaps some of us have given up on praying bold prayers; or some of our churches have lowered their expectations in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness; or we don’t really expect either ourselves or others to change much in terms of growth in grace, maturity and character.

Experience may surpass expectation

In Peter and John, the man at the gate encountered people who simultaneously had less to give than everyone else (they had neither silver nor gold) and had more to give than everyone else (the power of the name of Jesus. In fact, they had more to give than he could possibly have imagined.

Had they simply given him money (which apparently they didn’t have), the man would have had no complaints. He depended on the kindness of others and Peter and John would have joined the ranks of those who had helped him by demonstrating such kindness. When they caught his attention, he expected that they were going to give him money.

But they gave him more and what he experienced surpassed his expectation because it went beyond what he had previously experienced. Never before had he walked; never before had he leaped in the air. A day that had begun with him being carried by others became unique and saw him ‘walking and leaping and praising God.’

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