Cookie Cutter Expectations

Rob Campbell   -  

We like things predictable. We like things simple and not cluttered with exceptions. We like to know what is coming – no surprises. I was reminded recently when studying in the book of Job of just how difficult we can make the lives of other people by our expectations and how expectations are attempts and making what would otherwise be complex, simple. I am referring to these very lengthy and difficult exchanges between Job and his friends in the book. I am struck by the fact that the Bible keeps calling them his friends (2:11; 42:10) and even God says they are Job’s friends (42:7). How could people speak in such an unhelpful way to someone they considered a friend? Job’s life was far from simple or predictable at all but the friends’ solution attempted to steady the rocking boat. He had sinned, admit it, face the consequences and move on. End of story. The end. Nope. Their attempts to impose their expectation of his life and their view of life were sorely misplaced.

Job’s friends have been the subject of much discussion and speculation over the centuries. We probably have all wondered if we would have given the same advice to Job or if we indeed have done this to others. Perhaps it is an oversimplification to say that the blame for such insensitivity lies at the feet of our expectations. We expect things to follow a simple formula. For Job’s friends, if you live right, good things come. And the converse, if you live poorly, expect bad things to come. Some of that is true though, right? That’s where it seems to get confusing. There are certain laws of the universe or patterns of living that are mostly true but in a broken world can sometimes not be true.

Generally people who commit criminals acts are punished for their crimes and people who break laws are to make restitution. But what about all of the times that is not true? Bible writers really grapple with this dilemma.

Psalm 73:3 “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

Things I expect don’t always turn out as I would have imagined. This becomes more involved when we impose our expectations on other people. Take for example the famous passage of Mary sitting and learning at Jesus’ feet while Martha is sweating it out in the kitchen trying to do some hospitality. Martha expects the help from Mary then directs her frustration at Jesus. “Lord, do you not care…!” It seem absurd to ask Jesus if he cares, but to Martha it is the only right thing to say in that situation. It is impossible to not ever have en expectation for someone or for ourselves. Expectations are ways to have goals and make progress. But this same desire for an intended outcome can be burdensome when placed upon the shoulders of others. I wonder if this might have been what Jesus was referring to when speaking to the Pharisees of putting burdens upon others but not being willing to carry the same burden themselves (Mt. 23:4).

So what do I expect from others at church? When I show up on Sunday, what should I expect from others? If I don’t feel particularly blessed or encouraged walking away on a given Sunday, is that someone’s fault? Is the church to be blamed for my lack of perceived growth? Was something wrong with the sermon if I didn’t get something out of it? If I have a burden on my heart, should I expect someone to ask me how I am doing and really mean it? Probably there are alot of things we have expectations about and a variety of ways to respond. But what should my expectations be?

Reflecting upon my own pastoral ministry, I have to admit that I have imposed expectations upon people of what a Christian should do or be that really were not helpful. I don’t know if I am alone. Evangelicalism has had it share of expectations of what an evangelical should be in regard to politics, the most effective worship style, the best way to plant a church, or the “right” view of end times events. There are some things we should agree upon in regards to doctrinal matters for sure such as the substitutionary atonement of Christ and inspiration of the Bible as examples. But what about a whole bunch of others matters that fall under the category of spiritual formation? A process that is not one-size-fits-all. A path that allows for the gentleness of a John and the mistakes of Peter.

What should we expect? While we want predictability and we want simplicity, the book of Ecclesiastes shows us following God may not be either predictable or simple. Here is what we can expect –

we can expect God to be there, wherever my  there is at the moment;
we can expect to mess up along the way (or else there is no need for God);
we can expect not everyone will understand my path;
we can expect to inspire some others along the way without knowing.

Remember in John 21 when Jesus was talking after his resurrection to Peter about Peter’s life? Peter then asks Jesus what is going to happen to John. Jesus tells Peter directly to “Follow me.” What if we were to see other Christians as having this one goal to follow Jesus. What if I am there to assist in whatever way helps them the most along the way? I wonder if sometimes we have caused others by our expectations to be more of our disciples than Jesus followers? I wonder if in my attempts to help form people spiritually that there was a cookie cutter of spirituality imposed upon people that formed them more into my image than in Jesus image? Over my sabbatical a couple of years ago I was challenged to pray this as a formation prayer:

 “Lord, for you, myself, and others let me live today in active and open hearted love, without having to prove myself or control the situation.”

That is a hopeful prayer and one I feel only a smidgen like I have realized and grown in. But it can be my desire because Jesus desires that I love as he loves. He expects me to come to him and that is an expectation I can joyfully embrace.