Clemson, Alabama, and Expecting the Unexpected

Clemson, Alabama, and Expecting the Unexpected

For the majority of the college football season, the expected happened. Sure there were some crazy upsets and wild finishes, but even those are to be expected. Yet since August, the expectation was that we would see Alabama vs Clemson for the fourth time in the College Football Playoff and the third time for the title.

And while many would’ve given the nod to either team as the favorite, I don’t think anyone expected the final score to be as lopsided as it was, regardless of who ended up victorious. Even Kirk Herbstreit said, “I don’t think anyone expected this!” referencing the 27 points scored collectively within minutes of the first quarter.

But the unexpected often happens.

You’d think by now, in sports and in life, we’d begin to “expect the unexpected” as the phrase goes. But that’s not very comfortable for us. When the expected happens, we feel a sense of control and a sense of “It’s going to be ok, I’m going to be ok.” It’s when the unexpected happens that we start to panic.

This isn’t to say that certain crises aren’t worth panicking over. Suffering through trials that are panic-worthy is another discussion entirely that time doesn’t allow for here. (If you feel the need to dive deeper into such a discussion, I would highly recommend these excellent books: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller and Why Suffering? By Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vatale.)

When it comes to our faith, Christians can often “put God in a box”, meaning we’d rather Him just operate according to our plan and keep the surprises to a minimum (unless it’s a pleasant surprise). It’s when He does what we would deem unexpected that we get antsy. At least, that’s what I do. The morning after writing this, my toddlers woke up earlier than I expected and let’s just say I didn’t take my own advice below in how I handled that.

Yet throughout the Bible, God is often doing what man would least expect. It makes sense though. In our limited wisdom and “3x5” view of the world and its course of history (namely the future), of course we wouldn’t like it when things don’t make sense or aren’t going how we would expect. It helps me to remember that God has a much, much larger view of all of it.

Consider the story of Joseph in the ancient book of Genesis. Joseph was the favorite of his father’s 12 sons and was hated by his brothers for it. They sold him into slavery only after their plans to kill him were interrupted by traveling slave traders. He came to find favor in his master’s eyes, being put in charge of the household, only to be falsely accused of raping his master’s wife.

Thrown into prison, he again found favor in the eyes of the authority over him, only to be forgotten by a servant of the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh who was released after a short stay. After two long years in prison (a total of 13 since being sold by his brothers), he interpreted a dream for Pharaoh and was placed second in command over the most powerful kingdom in that day.

It would be an understatement to say that Joseph saw a few unexpected things in his journey. Some of the things that Joseph experienced are traumatically life-changing and deeply wounding. I do not intend to simply overlook or minimize that pain that perhaps you as the reader may have experienced. As I said earlier, a discussion on deeper suffering is for another time.

What jumps out to me is Joseph’s faithfulness. Throughout all of the most unexpected of events, he remains faithful to his God. He doesn’t abort mission. He doesn’t try things his own way. He doesn’t try to come up with a better idea. Now that’s not to say he wasn’t hurting or upset. He likely had some raw heart-to-heart conversations with God. But he trusted Him.

“For me personally, joy comes from Jesus, others and yourself,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, after the game last night. On one hand, I love his comments. In the midst of his second national championship in three years, what many would say ought to be among the most joyful moments in a coach’s life, he says there’s still something better. It was quite clear he was ecstatic about winning that game so don’t be fooled into thinking that it didn’t mean anything to him. His faith doesn’t negate his enjoyment of his job.

On the other hand, it’s easier to stand on a confetti-cluttered field as champions and proclaim the name of Jesus. It happens all the time. It’s quite another to proclaim Christ it after a defeat. Kicker Cody Parkey of the Chicago Bears showed us that by joining in post-game prayer at midfield after missing a game-winning kick against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Now, I’m not saying that Dabo wouldn’t do that. I don’t know him personally but I have heard enough about his faith to believe he would remain faithful even in defeat. He certainly has suffered those in his career and still is faithful. But the point isn’t whether he would or not.

The point is that Joseph was. He remained faithful in the midst of unexpected things. The question is how did he do it? And more importantly, how can we do the same today? May I offer just a few of many options that may help.

1. Perspective

As I mentioned earlier, it helps me to remember that God has a much larger and long-term view of the events of the universe than I do. That perspective moves me towards not needing to know everything. If He has yet to be surprised by anything, yet to deem anything unexpected from His vantage point, then I can trust Him even when I’m clueless. What I’m saying is, He is a lot better at His job than I am at His job.

But it also helps me to remember that He knows we will (and I would submit that He even expects us to) lose our minds a bit when things go unexpectedly. He is a good parent who knows that His children won’t understand everything He does. He doesn’t grow impatient or tired of us throwing temper tantrums, whether those are internally or externally. He is patient and gracious, knowing we are in process. He even knows that sometimes the unexpected things are what grow us the most.

Pray for this kind of perspective.

2. Slowing Down

One of the most impactful things in my life lately is finding ways to slow down. This can be as extensive as the ancient practice of a Sabbath (more here: or as simple as doing nothing but drinking a cup of coffee. No phone, no conversation, no book, just sitting for 10 minutes to drink some coffee and consider the world around me with my five senses. The groundedness this concept has provided me has been life-altering and brought clarity in the midst of the unexpected. I just hadn’t had that coffee yet this morning when my kids woke up early!

3. Looking Back

At the end of his story, Joseph was able to look back and see the story God was weaving. The end result of his coming to power was not a cool “success” story but actually the salvation of an entire nation. A famine was coming and through Joseph’s foresight and wisdom, he brought his entire family, the people of Israel, to Egypt where there was enough food to ensure their survival. The bigger picture was the saving of many lives.

Now, it’s certainly easier to look back at the end when everything comes together. But perhaps your story isn’t the happy ending you were hoping for. Perhaps it is still coming. Perhaps it isn’t and it may not, at least in the way you might expect. But even in the midst of the most unexpected of things, we can look around and see how God is at work. We can have the joy Dabo speaks of in success and defeat. Oftentimes, it is through the help of trusted friends that we are able to see this.

For some, the end result of the game was not a lot of fun. Yet I think all could agree the first quarter a wild ride and a brilliant display of athletic ability and offensive firepower. Certainly it was unexpected.

When the harder unexpected things happen in life. It may (and likely will) freak us out. It may be impossible to expect the unexpected. But perhaps we can move just a bit towards embracing it, knowing there’s a God who sees the whole picture, including our struggles when the game of life doesn’t go how we expected.