Utter the word “expectations” and my soul withers just a bit. The words that rush to my mind are words like shame, guilt, disappointment, failure.
I’m clearly not the only one who has less than warm feelings about the word. Ann Voskamp writes that her dad used to tell her, “Expectations kill relationships.”
In my own case, I shudder because I am too often “that” friend—the one failing to meet expectations. The disapproval of people I love crushes me and makes me feel that I will never be enough.
I know others who suffer because they are the ones hurt when loved ones fail to meet their expectations. The disappointment leaves them feeling unloved and abandoned.
Undoubtedly, there are expectations that cause pain because they are unhealthy or unrealistic. For example, if I expect everyone to feel and behave exactly as I would in a given situation, it’s not healthy or realistic. Likewise, any time I expect a person to fill a void or a need that only Jesus can fill, it is not healthy or realistic. In either case, disappointment is inevitable.
Still, my time in the Bible lately has been bringing my attention to the theme of biblical community, and I have to say that the Word gives some pretty clear guidelines to attitudes and behaviors that are realistic to expect within the Body of Christ.
Look at this list that I have gleaned the past month—and it is just from the New Testament. As believers, it is reasonable to expect those in our faith community to demonstrate honesty, purity, generosity, acceptance, inclusion, mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and peace. Moreover, we can expect other believers to use their gifts in service of others. We can expect encouraging words and gentle correction.
On the flip side, the Bible warns believers against things like lying, pride, crude or foolish talk, slander, gossip, greed, bitterness, anger, and malicious behavior. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to expect other believers to refrain from such attitudes and actions.
One certainly doesn’t need to be a follower of Christ to see that there is great social benefit to following the biblical guidelines for community. So, as much as I would like to, I cannot say that having expectations of others is inherently harmful.
In reality, the pain that comes from appropriate expectations comes from another truth that I’ve learned both in the Bible and in half a century of living:
You can expect people to fail you.
Even those people you have on a pedestal. Even those who are saints.
You see, as great as the biblical directives for relationship are, every single one of us is born with a propensity to selfishness and sin. Because we are all fallen creatures, we are simply not capable on our own of living up to the excellent biblical precepts for human interaction.
Paul expresses the dilemma poignantly in Romans 7, saying, “I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind.”
So what are we to do?
First, we can remember that it is not hopeless. Just after his lament, Paul exalts that “the answer is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). Even though our flesh may still be drawn to sin and selfishness, Christ has set us free from bondage to sin. Our salvation begins the process of sanctification that liberates us to know Jesus more, love Him more, and trust Him more. We may fail each other regularly today, but we can have hope that as long as Christ is our focus, we will become increasingly more faithful and Christlike in our relationships.
Second, we can diligently endeavor to obey Jesus’ command to His disciples on His last night with them. His exhortation: “Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” How did He love us? He accepted us in our fallen state. Romans 5:8 says that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He forgave us before we even asked for it. He freed us from the expectations of the law and carried the burden Himself.
Maybe the solution is not to release one another from wholesome expectations, but from the burden of those expectations. Let us give each other the freedom to fail because we know that forgiveness has already been granted.
Instead of living with the relational disappointment of unmet expectations, let us relate with a sense of expectancy, knowing that in spite of failure, Christ is at work creating beauty in our flawed but forgiving fellowship.
(this post first appeared in The Grace Journal)