Have you ever noticed that a lot of issues in relationships stem from unmet expectations? And further those unmet expectations have a tendency to be the result of unspoken expectations?
This all came time mind today as I was feeling like I wasn’t getting anything done. I felt rather lazy, but I stopped and thought about what I did get done. I realized that because I didn’t have my to do list written out and I couldn’t mark things off on it, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I didn’t put into words my expectations of myself for the day and I was frustrated that I wasn’t meeting expectations. But I didn’t even know what they were.
This gave me pause to consider the moments when I am most frustrated in my relationships. When I am annoyed with my husband, it’s typically because he isn’t doing something I want or he is doing something I don’t want. In those moments I recognize that my frustration is unfounded because I haven’t told him what I want. But more often than not, the only time I think about those expectations is when they are unmet. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s one I see happen a lot in my relationships and in the relationships of others.
This can have a huge impact in so many ways, but I fear one of the worst is in the realm of faith.
The word honestly makes my skin crawl a little. Why? Because it is full of unmet, unspoken expectations, unfulfilled to do lists that trap people in a system of greater and greater frustration. I know that probably isn’t going to be the most popular thing I will ever say. I find it important to acknowledge, though, because I see a lot of frustrated people that break my heart because they think it’s the only way.
The problem with To Do List religion… well, one of the problems… is that when a person lives that way, not only are they unable to really fulfill the to do list, but if they do, if they think they have gotten close, they soon find that someone else has more for them to do. The rules change. The expectations grow, but they aren’t spoken. They’re given a list of impossible demands, but it isn’t a complete list. They have to hope that they have done a good enough job meeting the expectations they know about and guessing at the ones they don’t that they might get on God’s good side (or karma, or the universe, or whoever is judging their accomplishments) and end up in the best possible situation.
They’re no better off than the little girl who, the night before her birthday, sits on the floor of her bedroom, closes her eyes as tight as possible, squeezes her tiny fits with all her might and whispers, “I hope I get a real live unicorn for my birthday,” over and over. All of her wishing is not going to come to fruition. She’s adorable and has a sincere, fervent belief that it’s just bound to happen. But it’s not. It can’t.
I wish no one any offense in this description of the hope of those who are trying to meet expectations in order to earn favor. But I also don’t want to sugar coat it.
Why do people get uncomfortable with church? There are often unspoken expectations connected with church that have absolutely nothing to do with salvation. But we confuse them with salvation and we turn a lot of people away because they recognize something we don’t. We hold onto ideals of what someone who goes to church should be and do and they know they somehow are falling short. They don’t usually know where or how; they just know they don’t fit in. They’re just a little too broken. A little too messed up.
We give them an impression of faith that fits more with works. We have a to do list sitting in front of us that, if unmet, means people can’t be part of our exclusive club. And we use things like, “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:14-26) to prove our point. I’m not going to debate here what this passage from James means. I only want to make the point that neither James nor any other Biblical writer gave us permission to form cliques and keep people on the outside.
Jesus didn’t wait for people to clean themselves up before He welcomed them (and went to them!). He didn’t sit back with a cocky grin watching people to see if they could live up to expectations knowing they couldn’t. He knew, as we all do on some level, that no one could live up to His standard. No one would ever be perfect apart from Him. He was aware of that and so He didn’t give them a to do list with hidden subtext that if they figured it all out somehow then they could be part of the in crowd.
He made it possible for us to be accepted in spite of our inabilities. But you know what?
We frustrate people by not sharing the one expectation He has for us to be accepted.
We watch people struggle; we may even feel bad for them that they are struggling. But we don’t tell them what they need to know. We have all kinds of excuses. They may not like me if I tell them. They might reject the message. They probably already know. We’ve had this conversation before and it hasn’t made a difference. I’m not very good at sharing. I get all tongue tied. On and on our excuses go.
People are living and dying every day without knowing the expectation and without knowing it they are dooming themselves to an eternity as God’s enemy. Is that really what we want? Is our exclusivity really that important?
There is one thing and one thing alone required to be accepted, to overcome this frustration of knowing you aren’t living up to the unspoken expectations. FAITH! It’s not fancy. It’s not complicated. In fact, it’s so simple that even those of us who know it find ourselves trying to find ways to make it more complex just so it will make sense in our human minds. But we don’t need fancy, complicated, complex solutions. To Do List religion IS a fancy, complicated, complex solution and it DOESN’T work. It can never work because we CANNOT do it. Ever. We will fail. Over and over and over again. Because we are human. Because we are sinners.
And so the God of the universe stepped into our time and space, He took on human flesh, lived a perfect life we couldn’t live so He could die the death we all deserved and rise again triumphant. He did it while we were His enemies, while we had absolutely nothing to recommend us, while our strength to do even one thing on the to do list was nonexistent. And all it takes is to believe that He is enough, that He’s taken care of it. We have nothing. We are nothing. We can do nothing. We will fall short, miss the mark, screw up every single time. We can’t do the to do list. We can’t meet the expectations. We must believe Christ already did it all. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Only our humanity pushes anything else onto it and that takes away from our Savior’s grand, glorious, completed work.
This is the message we must be sure to share with people, the spoken expectation we must give them. We must embrace those who walk into our midst, give them the only real hope there is. The life which follows will be transformed not by our to do lists but by God’s power and intervention in their lives. If He privileges us with walking alongside a person in their journey, we must thank God for the privilege and remember we are just as undeserving as anyone else of God’s notice.