What do you expect?

Jamie Johnson
22 October 2008

What do you expect? It is an important question and it is one you should ask yourself. More specifically, you should ask, What are my expectations? Are my expectations appropriate? What do I mean by appropriate? Also, you can ask yourself with regards to others, What do his/her expectations appear to be and are these apparent expectations appropriate? These are not questions to ask to judge or condemn, but to help set boundaries and pursue healthy relationship, to understand preferences that you have and that others have while not condemning yourself or the other.

I wrote in my journal the following:

To sin, I say, "No."
To righteousness, I say, "Yes!"
That is the matter of

What about gray?
I do not need to ask
permission for my preferences
nor do I need for others
to request permission for theirs


Often what we expect and what others expect are gray. They can be rooted in sinful motives, but we cannot see the motives of another. However, we can decide about how we respond to others. This is where wisdom in setting boundaries and guarding against unhealthy expectations arises.

We experience expectations in relationships. Sometimes, it may be a past relationship, even one of the deceased. One could be striving to meet expectations of a deceased person. It may be a future relationship. One may be living up to certain expectations with hopes that doing so will lead to a relationship with someone. Often, it is in a present relationship.

During the summer of 2008, I read The Shack by William P. Young. While a work of fiction, the book mentions a lot of solid truth about relationships and does so in a way that applies to the notion of expectations. Young states, "Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself -- to serve" (p. 106). I would specify that healthy relationships of a personal intimate nature should not be about power, though they may include dynamics of power such as in a healthy professional relationship between an employer and employee. And in a relationship such as employer/employee or teacher/student or parent/child (not an adult offspring), there is an appropriate place for expectations. However, when considering intimate and personal relationships, expectations are seldom appropriate. This is the type of expectation that I focus on here.

When such unhealthy expectations are not met, then there are games of guilt, condemnation, coercion, enmeshment, or even codependency. In The Shack, Young writes, "…I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love" (p. 126). The games of guilt, condemnation, coercion, enmeshment, and codependency are really attempts to control another person. This is manipulation and it is wrong. In some extreme cases, it is emotional abuse. It certainly isn't healthy.

When inappropriate expectations are in place, they are typically part of an agenda, usually rooted in selfishness. It may be individual: What can I get out of this person? It may be systemic and perhaps unconscious: What is everyone else doing? I won't make a decision on my own. I am scared of (i.e., manipulated by) making someone else upset with me (i.e., I am being inappropriately responsible for someone else's emotions as opposed to influencing another person's emotions). Young writes that love does not do these things, that "You are free to love without an agenda" (p. 181) and that "True love never forces" (p. 190).

There is a freedom in love that defies expectations. The aforementioned games such as guilt strip freedom away. Expectations (inappropriate ones) sap relationships of freedom. With these expectations, there is no freedom to say, "No." There is no freedom to do something different. There is only the standard by which you are expected to conform. Young writes, "Guilt'll never help you find freedom…. The best it can do is make you try harder to conform to some ethic on the outside. I'm about the inside" (p. 187). Inappropriate expectations keep things on the outside. They set rules up around false intimacy (such as gossip, hostility or drama) while choking off true intimacy (connecting at a heart level in deep relationship). We tend to place these expectations on persons partly because we don't want to go deep with them or with ourselves. "It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you" (Young, p. 198).

One of my favorite quotes about expectations is another one from Young. It captures what expectations do to a relationship even more so than what I have already depicted.

[I]f you and I are friends, there is an expectancy that exists within our friendship. When we see each other or are apart, there is expectancy of being together, of laughing and talking. That expectancy has no concrete definition; it is alive and dynamic and everything that emerges from our being together is a unique gift shared by no one else. But what happens if I change that ‘expectancy’ to an ‘expectation’ -- spoken or unspoken? Suddenly, law has entered into our relationship. You are now expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. Our living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with rules and requirements. It is no longer about you and me, but about what friends are supposed to do, or responsibilities of a good friend (Young, p. 205).

In Dan Allender's Leading with a Limp, he writes, "A good leader will, in time, disappoint everyone. Leadership requires a willingness to not be liked, in fact, a willingness to be hated" (p. 14). I would say that is also true for those who set healthy boundaries against inappropriate expectations. Essentially, such a person is going to breach the expectations of others. Expectations are about control. I control you for my purposes via my expectations because your freedom causes me anger, anxiety, or despair. Therefore, I inappropriately place you in control of my emotions and make myself a victim while trying to manipulate you so that I feel better about my agenda. It's all about me. Essentially in that scenario, the one who plays the expectation makes himself or herself the perpetrator and the victim with a self-focus. He or she attempts to manipulate and ends up creating a dynamic by which he or she is manipulated. Meanwhile, the person who does not give into the expectation is neither the perpetrator or victim, but can move about freely in healthy relationships. It is in trying to connect with these "unsafe" (to borrow Cloud and Townsend's word) persons with wisdom where it becomes a challenge. A good leader and one who shuns unhealthy expectations is going to disappoint.

Allender echoes this with an eternal perspective:

"The beauty of a limp is that is slows you down, it forces you to take more time, it prevents you from doing as much as you'd like to do. The paradox of death leading to life requires that you disappoint many to please One. It requires you to say no much more than you say yes. It invites quiet at a far deeper level to help you discern what noise you can most wisely and profitably enter" (p. 136)

We are to live for God, not for man. We are to have others in mind and be mindful of them, but that does not mean giving into expectations.

Allender tells a story of a boy who nonchalantly ripped open gift after gift during his birthday party and how he was thankless the entire time while continuously demanding more presents. Allender then adds, "If we expect a gift -- such as a birthday present -- then we may be pleasantly surprised, but we seldom experience awe" (p. 147). Inappropriate expectations sap the gratitude and awe and freedom -- the life -- out of relationship. Expectations, coming out of selfish motives, are contrary to those ideals. Awe is described by Allender as "other-centered" (p. 147). True freedom and gratitude are likewise.

In considering the control factor in expectations, I think about Dr. Larry Crabb's book The Marriage Builder. In it, Dr. Crabb contrasts goals and desires. He mentions that a goal is appropriately set when he controls the factors towards that goal. If he does not control the factors, then he should not frame a goal, but rather a desire. I find this quite applicable to expectations. If I want to learn more about a topic, then it is fine to set that as a goal for myself. I control factors going into it. However, if I set a goal for (i.e., expect) someone to learn about a topic, this is inappropriate. I can influence. I can only set up a desire for that person, not a goal, not an expectation. I do not control that person. Setting a goal is like setting up an expectation. In the right context, it is appropriate, but this is seldom the case for personal intimate relationships. Instead of setting up an inappropriate goal for someone by saying, "I need you to…," reframe it into a desire by saying, "I would like for you to…" and leave it at that while extending the freedom for the person to say, "No." Dr. Crabb continues saying that if one sets up an inappropriate goal, then it can result in anger if the goal is perceived as blocked, anxiety if the goal being achieved is perceived as uncertain, and despair if the goal being achieved is perceived as unreachable. He encourages persons who have set inappropriate goals to change these to desires, realizing that they do not control all factors involved and must respect the freedom of the person. If a desire is blocked, uncertain, or unreachable, then it will result in disappointment as opposed to a potentially destructive mental state. Influence others, but do not attempt to control them. Goals can be good or bad just as anger can be good (such as righteous anger over an injustice) or bad (such as against a person who has not lived up to your expectation). And likewise, expectations can be good or bad. One needs a context.

To those who place inappropriate expectations on another, I write here as an advocate for those wanting to shun them and seek true relationship:

Don't expect me to be someone else. Entrust how God is working in my life and how He has uniquely called me and wired me for ministry and relationship. Strengths and weaknesses can be flip sides of the same coin. Do you see something in me as a weakness? What are possible strengths related to it? Can you rejoice in my strength or that of another? Can you rejoice with those who rejoice? Don't judge a mere preference (even if you dislike it) as a sin if it is indeed not a sin. And do not set your preference as an expectation of me, which may or may not be my preference. Give me the freedom to have my unique preferences as I extend that same freedom to you.

What do you expect? What do you desire? And as you ask each question, are you grounded enough to be disappointed at times? And whether or not your desires are met, are you living in gratitude and freedom?

Scriptures for Thought

Romans 12:15: "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."

Matthew 5:37: "Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

James 4:1-2: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. 3When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

Romans 14:5-10: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat."

Galatians 1:10: "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ."

1 Thessalonians 2:4b-6: "We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else."

1 Samuel 16:7b: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."


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