Expectations play a key role in shaping our perspective. How do you expect a spouse or child to act toward you? What expectations do you have for your boss or coworkers? Unmet expectations can dramatically impact any relationship.

The same is true with God. How do we expect him to answer prayer or to come to our aid in time of need? Jewish theologian Martin Buber speculated that God often seems silent and distant because we expect that he’d always communicate to us in dramatic ways, such as a thunderclap or undeniable epiphany — “Thus saith the Lord!” When we long for God to act, is that what we envision? Before we can talk to our non-Christian friends about God’s response to a world in turmoil, we have to determine how we envision God responding. Do we expect answers to prayer to be dramatic and undeniable or subtle? The answer to this question will determine whether our faith flourishes during hard times or falters.

One way I’ve found it helpful to surface expectations — of both Christians and non-Christians — is to share an old joke:

An emergency announcement breaks radio programing. A flash flood is imminent and residents are to seek higher ground. A God-fearing man ignores the report, “I have nothing to worry about; God will save me!” As the flood water rises, he finds himself looking out a second-floor window as a rescue boat floats past his house and the captain says, “Get into the boat, we have room!” He waves them on, confident God will save him. As the waters rise, he takes refuge on the roof as a FEMA helicopter flies over and a rescue worker shouts, “We are here to help! Take hold of the ladder!” Again, he waves them on, assured God will come through. Eventually, he drowns and stands before God. “Why didn’t you help me?” the man asks in an angry tone. God responds, “What more did you want? I sent you a radio warning, a boat and a helicopter!

We ignore God’s common provisions due to an expectation of the supernatural. If you were the man stuck on a rooftop surrounded by flood waters, what would you expect divine intervention to look like? Do you imagine supernatural crosswinds parting the water around your house, or do you accept a helicopter as an act of God? Can’t God do both? Yes, there is plenty of scriptural evidence of God parting seas, miraculous healings and feeding thousands from a few loaves of bread. But should that be our expectation of how God will regularly act? My experience is that dramatic or overtly supernatural answers to prayer are few and far between.

Does that mean God is delinquent or immune to our pleas for help? No. It may mean that our expectations of God are blinding us to more subtle ways he acts. The man on the roof brushes off a radio warning, a rescue boat and a helicopter as he seeks the supernatural. But is such a view too limiting? Can’t a radio message, brave rescue workers in a boat or a FEMA helicopter count as God’s intervention and a form of common grace?