(Not So) Great Expectations
In all my years of ministry - both as a missionary and as a pastor - I've seen my fair share of conflict. I've seen teams of Christian workers, individually dedicated to the task of reaching the lost, fall apart because of conflicts on the team. I've seen married couples with everything people could want in life still unable to be happy together because of conflict. And I've seen churches with the capacity for great ministry simply crumble into ineffectiveness because of infighting.
Conflict is an inevitable part of the human experience while we press on through the "not yet" of God's coming kingdom. And in all my observation, I would suggest that one of the greatest and most common factors in creating conflict is unmet expectations. I could be more specific and say unspoken expectations. And the root of that is unshared expectations. Imagine a pair of friends going out to a meal. One friend offers to pay, the other happily accepts. The next time they meet, the friend who paid last time expects the other friend to offer to cover the check this time. He doesn't. Feelings are hurt. Motives are questioned. Friendships are strained. Or perhaps the young newlywed husband expects dinner to ready whenever he returns home from work. His new bride never grew up in a home where that was the case. His silent expectation, when unmet, becomes judgment, disdain, and hurt feelings.
When these small conflicts are brought into the light and dealt with quickly, they can often be solved by a simple conversation. But the problem with our expectations is that we too often assume that they are reasonable to the point of being obvious. Of course we'll take turns paying for lunch, that's what people do, I shouldn't have to say anything about it! And when someone fails to fulfill such an obvious duty, then we feel justified in our anger and judgment.
So be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19). Examine your heart and dig underneath your frustration and anger. Are you clinging to expectations that are either unknown to others? Expectation that may even be unjustified?
But don't stop there. Conflict doesn't only follow us in our human relationships. It affects our relationship to God. How often are we slow to worship him, reluctant to pray, hesitant to trust? Are we bitter or doubtful? And could it be that underneath those symptoms is a conflict we haven't addressed? A conflict that stems from our own unmet expectations?
When meeting with an engaged couple for premarital counseling, one of the exercises I take them through is to have them individually answer a few dozen questions, then compare their answers. Questions like, Whose job is it to do the dishes? Should we always go to bed at the same time or is it OK if one of us stays up later? How often should we visit family? What kinds of purchases can we make without discussing it together? The goal of the exercise is to reveal certain expectations - some big, some minor - and to get in the habit of exposing the assumptions we are bringing into the relationship.
What would it be like to do the same kind of exercise regarding our relationship with God? What do you expect of God? What is the basis for that expectation? If your basis is not God's Word, then are you willing to let go of that expectation? How have you reacted when God didn't meet your expectations? What does God's Word tell you that you should expect of him?
What you come to learn as you approach Scripture with these questions is that many of our expectations of God are simply wanting God to fulfill our desires. James 4:3 warns us that asking God to answer selfish prayers is foolish. God doesn't promise to fulfill our desires so much as he promises to transform them. He teaches us to love the things he loves and care for the things he cares about. He is capable of far exceeding our expectations (Ephesians 3:20-21 is worth memorizing), but we will only see that when we learn to set our sights on his kingdom.
In addition to listing out and evaluating (and perhaps repenting of) your expectations of God, another helpful discipline to try would be to turn to Matthew 6:9-13 and model your prayers this week after the Lord's Prayer. Note how Jesus teaches us in prayer to long for the kingdom of God. He teaches us to desire and expect daily provision, deliverance from evil, and the working of God's will in all things. When our expectations and desires are redirected in this way, we will come to see that God never fails, never disappoints, and always proves faithful.