I had my first article published with Converge Magazine—a pretty big deal in the life of a writer. The day it was published, one of my best friends asked me how I felt. She gets tickled to joy over every little thing, so when I calmly said,
“I feel good. Relieved. This is a solid step in the right direction,” a scowl instantly appeared on her face.
“Whaaaaat the HELL does that mean?”
I explained how expectations are bad; how my expectations always happen to be beyond what reality can deliver. Then, when reality does deliver and my expectations have gone unchecked, I’m waiting anxiously on the porch to receive a live and whinnying pony but, instead, I get saddled with a plastic figurine of a jackass.
She blinked at me, “That’s awful.”
I swallowed, and my speech about expectations unsettled my stomach. Did I really think it was better to expect nothing at all than to risk disappointment? Heck yeah I did. When I was little, my grandma loaded my cousins and me into the car and said, “We’re going to Wally World!” I was so excited. I envisioned some sort of play land with rides and swimming pools and candy. My spirits plummeted when we got to the Wal-mart parking lot in Winslow, Arizona and I realized what she meant by “Wally World.”
What a dirty trick.
Expecting nothing at all seemed like a good way to avoid feeling awful. But, it made me think. Can we experience true joy without expectation?
There is a sense of satisfaction when our expectations and reality meet. Satisfaction is fine, but it’s not joy. Expectation is a form of hope. But hope in what exactly? There has to be a soft cushion of a place between utter disappointment and utter elation over everything that happens (or doesn’t). We can’t always crumble into a pouty mess because Wally World turned out to be a mega-store or because a pony turned out to be a jackass. And, I don’t think it’s possible (or healthy) to stop expecting.
Joy, like love, is something you choose. Of course, it becomes difficult to live in joy or love when you don’t trust God. We love because we are loved, but if you don’t trust the Lover, can you love authentically? We have joy because God loves us and has gifted us with grace, but if you don’t trust His gift, can you live in joy? If we constantly approach God in a spirit of skepticism, not trusting Him to be who He says He is, we will never relinquish control of our lives. We will never be able to give ourselves over to God’s love or joy.
As Christians, I think there are two primary problems we have with expectations and joy.
1.) Our expectation (our hope) is not in God but in self, the world, or others. We rely on our deeds, spouses, friends, business. We forget our worth is not caught up in what we can do for God. It is not by sheer power of will that we are worth anything. God gave us worth the second He decided to create us.
2.) We have trouble accepting the most impossible, yet fulfilled, expectation of all: we are known entirely and loved anyway. Christ died for us while shouts of crucify still lingered in the air.
Brennan Manning, in The Ragamuffin Gospel, says many tear-jerking-ly gorgeous things about grace. He makes an interesting observation, “…many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.”
Manning is speaking of self-righteousness, yet another way to avoid trusting God, and how it distances us from God’s reality; the reality that we will all kneel on level ground before the throne. There’s this idea in Christian culture that we are partners with God. And in a sense we are, but I think, more accurately, we are dependent on God. Our modern perception of dependence tends to be very negative. Dependency in our human-to-human relationships is met with encouragements like, “Break up with him now!” and, often, those encouragements should be taken seriously. But we are not talking about human-to-human relationship. We are talking about a God-to-human relationship. As I have allowed questions of love, joy, grace and hope to irritate me, I have become convicted that complete dependency is the only way to be in authentic relationship with God.
I found Manning’s statement so profound and I think it applies to joy and expectations. Without full dependence on God, our whole spiritual life can become pseudo-acceptance and pseudo-joy. When we cannot accept (or expect) God’s gifts, big or small, we cannot know what it is to rejoice—let alone what it is to rejoice in the Lord always. Similarly, our relationship with God can become pseudo-belief, pseudo-dependence. We do not allow God to be God. Any pseudo-anything is reliance upon our own ability. In our need to have it our way, we settle for godliness without power rather than a true, transforming, wild abandonment of self to the presence of God. Taking God at His word yields a redeemed sinner in the hands of the Almighty. Such reckless acceptance of such an unbelievable gift yields joy of a different caliber.
I think my friend is on to something about joy. Every triumph is a huge deal because it is on the edge of an unknown future. Every tragedy is an opportunity to claim God’s promises. Every unmet expectation is cradled in the hope of salvation. God’s caliber of joy enables the believer to view everything as a gift. The breath in our lungs. The heart in our chest. The friend at our side.