Last spring, I dared to pontificate upon the Secret of Contentment. Unfortunately (or otherwise) whenever one presumes to teach on a subject, all manner of new information is bound to be discovered about it afterward. In my case, I found I had not yet acquired a very large piece to the contentment puzzle. So God is now teaching me to bury my expectations.
It’s hard to live without any expectations. We make plans and expect them to come to pass just as we outlined them. We hope and dream for the future and expect that if we work hard enough our plans will come to pass. Much discontentment is rooted in frustrated expectations. I think nothing steals joy and causes anger, disappointment, and depression more than this.
Take a simple thing like transportation. I get in the car and fully expect to arrive at my destination safely and in a reasonable amount of time. Why do I expect that? I’ve lived and driven in a major city for 35 years! I ought to have learned better by now. I know that drivers are careless, reckless, insane! I know full well that traffic jams are a thing, that accidents happen, that cars break down, that tires go flat. And yet instead of acknowledging that every time I arrive anywhere unharmed and on time it’s purely by the grace of God, I get frustrated when things go wrong.
It’s impossible to get anything done without any plans, but if we expect our plans to go exactly the way we think they should, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.
Proverbs 16:9 says “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.” Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD, it will stand.” Expectations are another way of trying to feel in control of our lives and circumstances. If we can come to grips with the simple fact that we are actually in control of nothing, aside from our own behavior, we will be better able to be content in whatever life throws at us and whatever God gives to us.
I’ve been studying the book of Exodus lately, and it’s made me think a lot about false expectations. I’m sure Moses did not expect freedom to take almost a year and ten horrible plagues. And it was obvious that his people’s circumstances were growing a great deal worse before they finally got better. Then, when the people were finally free and poised to enter the Promised Land, I’m sure 80-year-old Moses saw retirement and rest in his near future. He surely did not expect the people to refuse to enter the land. He must have been horrified to realize that it was his lot to lead these whiney, all-too-human people around the wilderness for 40 more long years.
Or maybe he wasn’t surprised after all. After 80 years’ experience, perhaps he’d learned better than to believe in happily ever after in this life. He was, as we are, living on a battlefield in a fallen world. The world is broken, and there are diseases and accidents and natural disasters that we can never plan for or avoid. People are broken and have free will and sin natures and they will do whatever they please—we can never plan well enough to account for all the astonishing, bewildering, horrifying things people will do.
Jesus warned us: “In this world you WILL have trouble”. He never said He’d put us in a bubble to protect us from it. He just promised He’d be there with us as we deal with it, and that HIS plans will prevail over all the worldly chaos, in His own time.
As my friends and I grow older, we have often commented to each other that our lives have not turned out as we had expected. “I’ve done everything I was taught to. I’ve done what I was supposed to. I followed all the rules,” one friend said to me once as she suffered through a tragedy in her life that had happened due entirely to another’s actions. “How is this my life now?”
That’s a hard question. We may do the best we can with our lives, following Scripture and serving others; unfortunately, this does not prevent trying circumstances from coming our way. But as Christians, we should not be living righteously in order to have good, trouble-free lives for ourselves. We should be living for Christ and for Him alone. Then we can trust Him, not to shield us from real life on a broken planet, but to guide us through it with our best interests in mind. It’s also helpful (and perhaps comforting) to realize that our lives are not all about us. God will use our trials to bless others and bring them into a greater knowledge of Him. If we bury our expectations and focus our attention only on Him, we may find the freedom that comes from dying to self and, with that, true contentment
As I prayed about these hard questions, God, knowing full well how I think and what I need, gave me this poem. I will now depress you all with it—but struggle on through to the end, because hope is there.
I Did Not Expect
Kneeling at the grave of “what ought to have been.”
Tombstone’s inscription reads, “Dreams, Hopes, and Plans,”
Costing a lifetime of doing my best,
Doing all that I know, doing all that I can,
Now buried beneath the deep muck of reality.
Body rotting, decaying more years than I knew.
Trading the corpse of the beauty I longed for;
Trading it in for the ugly but true.
Future now waits for me there in the dust:
A path through a graveyard I did not expect.
Can’t see the borders of this Potter’s Field,
Can’t see where it’s going—no sign to direct.
Can only see footprints that glimmer through twilight.
Can only hear whispers of “Come, Love, this way.”
Can only believe that the dead things, once buried,
Will germinate into new beauty one day.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making plans and dreaming dreams. The wrong is in placing our hopes in our own dreams and plans and expectations. Our hope is to be in the Lord and in Him alone. Everything else must be held loosely.
Romans 8: 23-25 “But we ourselves who have the Spirit also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience.”
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Psalm 71:5 “For you, O Lord, are my hope; my trust, O Lord, from my youth.