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When Expectations Don’t Take Place

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 15:20–29

The plans and hopes we have for our future may not turn out the way we desired. God is sovereign, and He does not owe us an explanation for what He does. But like the apostle Paul, we can trust Him and know that He will arrange things for His glory and our greatest joy.


For many years during the last century, Dr. Charles McCoy pastored a church in New York. He was single, educated, and had multiple doctoral degrees. When he reached the age of seventy-two, his denomination required his retirement. But he was healthy; he frankly didn’t want to stop serving. Then he was invited by missionaries to come to India to preach. He had never left America, never flown in an airplane. And he did not have enough money for such a trip. But God impressed on him to go. So, Dr. McCoy sold his car and bought a plane ticket. When he arrived in Bombay, the missionaries gave him a small guest room.

After two days of getting acclimated, he announced that he wanted to visit the mayor of Bombay. The missionaries had been unsuccessful for several years, but Dr. McCoy went anyway and presented his card to the mayor’s receptionist. She saw all the degrees and assumed he was an important dignitary from America. The mayor decided to host a reception for this guest of honor later that afternoon. Dr. McCoy was able to give his testimony to a group of assembled politicians and military officials.

Afterward, he was invited to speak at an elite military academy. Soon, invitations poured in from all over India, and he began an itinerate ministry of preaching the gospel. He would eventually travel to Hong Kong, Egypt, the Middle East, and all over India. He planted churches, taught in schools, discipled new believers, and spoke to government leaders in several countries.

His ministry lasted sixteen years before he died in Calcutta, India, at the age of eighty-eight. Dr. Charles McCoy never once came back to America.[1]

The truth is, we all have expectations for our lives. We have a mental list of three things we expect God to do with our lives; or two things we do not ever expect to experience; where we expect to be at the age of fifty or sixty; what we expect from our marriages and children and grandchildren. We have our own book written in our hearts that we could entitle, My Expectations for Life.

What do we do if these expectations do not take place—when God has something entirely different in His heart for you and me? Well, something like that happened in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul.

As we sail back into Romans 15, Paul reveals an interesting expectation he has for his own life. But first, he reveals his lifelong passion. He writes in verse 20, “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel.”

The word “ambition” refers to something you love or honor in life.[2] Preaching the gospel is the honorable love—the passion—of his heart.

And he longs to preach in places where the gospel had yet to be proclaimed. He continues:

Not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (verses 20-21)

That sounds like Dr. McCoy, or like another missionary to Africa named David Livingstone. Livingstone was once asked, “Where do you want to go now?” He responded, “Anywhere … so long as it is forward.”[3]

Paul then reveals one of his short-term goals for ministry:

But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing. (verses 23-24)

Paul has a great desire—an expectation—to visit the believers in Rome.

But so far, he has been hindered, as he writes back in verse 22. Other ministries demanded his attention. Other believers needed his help. That is not to mention the imprisonments, hardships, and even shipwrecks along the way!

Note again in verse 23: “I have longed for many years to come to you.” Maybe you have longed for something good and godly for six months or for several years—a certain job, having a child, a door of ministry to be opened. Paul has been longing for most of his Christian life to go to Rome. And beloved, when he finally gets there, it is not going to be anything like he imagined. He will not arrive in Rome as a missionary pioneer; he will arrive as a prisoner.

Now here is another ministry expectation Paul speaks of in verse 24:

I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.

At the moment, Paul is planning to go to Jerusalem and drop off a special offering for the impoverished Christians there. He explains in verses 25-27:

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.

Details of this special offering are recorded in 1 Corinthians 16.

You might have noticed Paul’s long-term goal here in verse 24: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.” Then he adds this in verse 28:

When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them [the offering that has] been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you.

Why does Paul want to go to Spain? More than likely, he wants to go there because Spain was considered the end of the civilized world. He wants to take the gospel, as Christ commanded, to the ends of the earth.

That is Paul’s plan, but the Bible does not tell us if he ever made it to Spain. We do know he made it to Jerusalem and delivered his special offering. Acts 21:17-19 tells us that everybody praised God when they heard of God’s work among the Gentiles, and no doubt also when they received the financial assistance.

But while Paul was in Jerusalem, effectively packing his suitcase for Spain, things took an unexpected turn. The crowd attacked Paul in the temple, and he was eventually taken into protective custody. He spent two years under Roman guard, waiting to be released, until he finally appealed his case to Caesar. Paul eventually made it to Rome, where he was kept under house arrest. He was able to meet with believers in Rome and writes several inspired New Testament letters, including Ephesians and Philippians.

The book of Acts ends with Paul still under house arrest. But he was apparently released, for a period of time at least. Beloved, we just do not know if Paul ever made it to Spain. Tradition and church history cannot confirm it. We are not sure if his deep longing was ever fulfilled.

What we do know is that he ended up back in prison, from which he wrote his final letter to Timothy, expecting to be executed at any moment (2 Timothy 1:8-12; 4:6-8).

Beloved, do not ever think difficulties and disappointments in life mean God’s blessings have been canceled or that maybe you do not deserve His blessings in life. God does not always explain His unexpected plans and those unmet expectations you have carried in your heart. He asks that you trust Him as you go through them.

We often think, Lord, these are not the plans I made. I had different plans in mind for my life.  Here is what God says to us:

“I know what I have planned for you . . . I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you [in other words, trust my plans]. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 New English Translation)

[1] Franklin Graham with Jeanette Lockerbie, Bob Pierce: This One Thing I Do (Word, 1983), 115-21.

[2] Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, ed. Cleon L. Rogers Jr. (Regency, 1980), 382.

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