This post is also an article in this week's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and see what's happening at St. John's, click here.
I noticed a while back that no one asks me whether our thirteen-month-old is sleeping through the night. During the first six months of her life, however, that seemed to be everyone’s favorite question. Perhaps it was because of my bleary-eyed vision or sleep-deprived prejudice, but I could have sworn that every single person who asked me that question had a mischievous smile on his or her face. It was as if they took pleasure in asking a question to which they knew the unspoken reply would be, “What do the bags under my eyes tell you?” while the answer they heard me give was a half-hearted “She’s sleeping like an angel!”
Now that she’s over a year old and is finally sleeping through the night (most of the time), people have stopped giving me the chance to tell them the good news, and I wonder why. Is it because there’s no fun in asking the question when the expected reply gives no sign of sleepless torture? Do people get no pleasure when the answer is a genuine, “Yes, and I thank God every night for it!” Or have people stopped asking because they are worried that the answer will still be a “no” and that a parent who hasn’t slept well in over a year might not be able to hold back their verbal or physical tirade? Either way, it is a lesson for me in the fruitlessness of expectations.
Occasionally I’ll write or say something in an exaggerated or hyperbolic way to make a point. This time, as extreme as it may seem, I mean every word: expectations are always wrong. And I don’t just mean the expectations that are foisted upon new parents or that those parents place upon themselves. I mean all expectations. All of them. They’re all bad. None of them is life-giving. They always rob us of hope and grace and love.
As Seth has said on numerous occasions, “Expectations are just disappointments waiting to happen.” I couldn’t say it any better. Isn’t that true in your own life? Aren’t you dragging behind you an ever-growing chain of unmet expectations, which you and those who make demands on you have been forging link by link? Birthday cupcakes that you didn’t have time to bake yourself. Twenty pounds that you’ve been trying to lose for five years. The promotion that you knew would be yours until it wasn’t. The earnings report that showed another year of decline. The sermon that could have been better. The pastoral visit that should have happened sooner.
Goals are good, and we need them to grow. I want to be a better preacher. I want to be more patient. I want to love others more fully. But expectations are the shadow side of goals. If only I were a better preacher… If only I were a more patient father… If only I were less selfish… If what? The church would grow? My family would be happier? The world would be a better place? No, not at all. That’s an illusion we project for ourselves. Life shows us that expectations don’t lead to progress. In truth, they lead to anxiety, frustration, and despair.
Most religions I know have an element of expectation imbedded within them. In fact, most expressions of Christianity are built on expectations, too. If you live a good life, you’ll be rewarded in the next. If you say your prayers, God will hear you. If you go to church, good things will happen to you. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t work like that. And thanks be to God that God doesn’t. Who could ever satisfy the expectations that God would place upon us? The gospel of grace is the chain-cutter that sets us free from the burden of expectations. In Jesus Christ, God declares to us, “I love you unconditionally—with no expectations whatsoever.”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Paul’s list of accomplishments is a CV that any religious leader would envy, yet he counted it all not only as meaningless but actually as “loss.” In Greek, the word for “loss” is “ζημία,” and it also means “damage.” Now that he knew the freeing power of the gospel of Christ, Paul saw this lifelong pattern of expectation and fulfillment as damaging to his faith. Like the rest of us, Paul knew the crushing weight of expectations. He knew that expectations are what keep us from being the free, joyful, empowered children that God has created us to be.
It’s hard dragging every failure along with you wherever you go. They weigh us down until we cannot stand up anymore. Love is the antidote—real love, the kind with no strings attached. Remember that you are loved like that—that God’s love has set you free. Try going through a whole day without accepting any expectations or placing them upon someone else. Try love instead. Try admitting to yourself that you are just as fully loved no matter what happens. And try telling other people around you—your children, your spouse, your friends, and your coworkers—that you will love them just the same even when they come up short. When someone hands you another link for your chain, give it back. Tell that person you already have enough weight to carry. And experience again the liberating power of the gospel of Jesus. In every way that matters, you have been set free.