How To Free Yourself From Dangerous Expectations

As we’ve emerged from our Christmas break and have been talking about goals for 2018, I’ve been looking back at what worked and didn’t work in 2017. I’ve mentioned numerous times that our family has a “no fussing” rule, and how that rule has been such a struggle for me to follow! I have seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of my complaining, but I still have to confess my fussing on a daily basis. One of the things I want to focus on in 2018 is better managing expectations of myself and my kiddos — a goal that will hopefully stop some fussing before it even starts!

The Danger of Expectations

One of the ways that I can be tripped up by fussing is in having too many, and too specific, expectations. I expect that I’m going to have a productive day, get lots of cleaning and schooling done, and then my youngest will have a hard day with her arthritis and want me to carry her around and focus on her. It upsets me that she hurts so much, but it also upsets me to have my plans for the day thwarted. I can end up in a “bad mood” – code for “in sin” in my life, all because I wasn’t approaching my plans open-handedly. I like to think that my heart’s daily cry is “Here I am Lord; Send me!” When really it’s often more like “Here I am Lord; Please don’t send me to do any tasks that aren’t written in my planner.”

When I was newly married and eager for advice, one older woman took me aside and told me that she had learned one of the secret to a happy marriage: lose the expectations. She said that expectations would kill the joy in a relationship. As time went on, I came to understand that she was indeed right.

Living with Expectations vs. Living in Expectation

What I realized we should be doing instead of living with expectations is to be living in expectation: expecting good things from others without imagining what specific good they will do for us. The first place I looked to learn this lesson was in marriage. Looking in expectation for Eric’s love and care for me created a much different home environment than when I had very specific expectations (eg., if he loves me, he’ll show it tonight by offering to rub my back). I remember making a conscious decision around this time to stop watching romantic comedies – they stirred up in me poisonous expectations that could never be fulfilled by my young, earnest husband. Instead, I looked at the ways my husband was daily showing me he loved me: helping me grade papers, listening attentively to my stories about work, meticulously tracking our finances.

When I was living in expectation, rather than with expectations, the pressure I had been putting on him began to lift, and our marriage got a lot easier! Even in relationships with people who are not as giving as my husband or when we are going through difficult relational seasons, we can focus on the good that is there rather than on the good that we wish were there.

As Elisabeth Elliot so aptly put it, “It is always possible to be thankful for what is given rather than resentful over what is withheld. One attitude or the other becomes a way of life.”

Managing Unmet Expectations

But what about when we are faced with a situation or relationship in which there seems to be no good at all? When Eric and I wanted to start a family, I had everything mapped out. I was going to get pregnant in autumn so that I could teach for another full school year (but only one more school year, please!). Only, I didn’t get pregnant. And oh, how I struggled with God as I dumped my specific expectations on him for what my family should look like and when. I expected Him to bless me with children exactly when I wanted, and I was crushed when this expectation was not met. Slowly I began to shift my perspective in this relationship, too: looking expectantly for the goodness God would bring from my infertility, hoping in faith for the blessings that God would bring from the pain. Looking back, I can see the many spiritual blessings that came from that time, chiefly a robust belief in the sovereignty and the goodness of God that prepared me to face difficult challenges that were forthcoming.

I eventually did get pregnant, and I now want to pass on the lesson of expectations to my three children. My son (8) has a birthday just a couple days before Christmas, so naturally, expectations can run high. Here’s what he had to say about managing expectations:

“Let’s say you wanted a Lego set, like #60006 [Lego sets have numbers??]. You might get your mind set on it and think about all the fun you could have playing with it, and when you don’t get it, you pout, even though what you got was actually something better! Just do not get your mind set on certain things.

That’s really the crux of the issue isn’t it? We get our minds set on a certain thing and before we can say “Lego set #60006,” we’re wrapping our fingers tightly around the little idol in our hearts. When we learn to expect good things from the circumstances in which God places us, without letting our hearts get fixated on the details, we can live in joyful expectation.

What I realized is that having specific expectations is basically fussing in advance. I don’t want to fuss about things present OR things to come, but to be grateful for what is offered to me without thinking too much about what I want. I pray for all of us, that in 2018 our minds will be set on things above and that our thoughts will always run in gratitude to the throne of grace.

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*Feature photograph provided by Andrea Young