Lots of things can keep us stuck in places that are hard to get out of.
Like harboring unrealistic expectations.
When my first son was four years old, I found myself angry and frustrated with him a lot. One day I “happened” to see a book on the inspirational display at the grocery store, Overcoming Hurts and Anger. I don’t remember anything else from that book except the wise counsel to adjust your unrealistic expectations. I realized that although my son was four, and a smart, prodigious four at that, it was still not fair to expect him to be and do things appropriate for a twelve-year old. It was amazing how much happier I was when I decided to expect four-year-old things of him!
Many people have unrealistic expectations of what growth and change should look like. The downside of our microwave culture is that we expect things to be fixed instantly. Last week a friend who is just starting out a long journey of overcoming a lot of hurts from her past asked what she could do to speed up the process. I suggested she work to build daily the always-popular habit of saying no to her flesh and yes to self-control, loving others, and doing the opposite of what comes naturally. Fifteen minutes later she texted me with a question: “I hate people today. Can I stay home from church?”
So much for the fast track!
One of the most dangerous places for our unrealistic expectations, though, is what we think God should do. Some of the most bitter and angry people I know, or who have loud voices in the culture (think of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) are those who feel betrayed by God, so they decide He isn’t there.
That sense of betrayal and disappointment comes from having expectations of God according to how we think He should act:
• Protect the innocent from pain and suffering
• Protect the people who maybe-aren't-so-innocent-but-not-as-bad-as-axe-murderers from pain and suffering
• Show the same grace to all of us by treating us all the same
• Give us an easy life
• If I do all the right things to be "a good person," God should do His part to make life work the way I want it to
When we pray fervently for what we want and He doesn’t answer the way we want, many of us get angry with Him. That’s a part of my story. It’s easy to decide God doesn’t care, or He is evil, or He isn’t there at all.
Many times, we pray in faith, believing God will give us what we ask for, but we ask for things He never promised in the first place. Or even worse, we “claim” them on the basis of a scriptural promise wrenched out of context, such as “all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22). Jesus never promised that if we believe in our prayers, we would receive what we ask for. Believing in the Bible is all about trusting in and surrendering to the goodness and character of GOD, not our prayer list. We will always receive an answer to our prayers because God is good. Sometimes the answer is “No, beloved,” because we ask amiss. Psalm 84:11 promised, “No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” If God says “no,” it’s because it’s not a good thing for us. His “no” is a “yes” to something else. But because we have such a limited perspective, it is essential that we trust in the unlimited perspective of the God who sees everything.
When we feel disappointed in God, when we think, “God didn’t come through for me,” that’s the time to take a step back and ask, “What kind of unrealistic expectations did I have in the first place?” That may be a great question to talk through with a mature trusted friend who can see things more clearly. Then we can place the unrealistic part of our expectations into God’s hands as an act of worship and trust . . . and watch our anger and frustration subside.
I'll share some thoughts about why those expectations of God are unrealistic in my next blog post.