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Expectations: The Alluring Illusion of Control

Expectations: The Alluring Illusion of Control

Eye the wisdom of God in all your afflictions. ~ John Flavel

Faith Versus Entitlement

Whether you are a planner who has your next five to ten years marked out by monthly goals or whether, like I do, you take things as they come, you have expectations for your life. Expectations are not inherently bad things, and life without any expectations at all quickly devolves into chaos. For example, we expect (and plan for) the seasons to arrive each year, spring after winter, summer after spring. We expect to be held accountable for following the laws of the land. We expect to ask for and offer a fair exchange of goods and payment in the marketplace. We expect people to do what they say they’ll do.

  • Expectations are part of the human experience. For believers, though, we get ourselves into trouble when we become beholden to our expectations.

When we identify unmet expectations, we typically are not pointing to sinful things we should repent of; rather, we are focused on our desire for good things, even godly things. But when we want God to give us good things more than we want God Himself, we are guilty of idolatry. “Every man loves the mercies of God, but a saint loves the God of His mercies.”1

But the great thrill of the Christian life is that when we see past our petitions to God, we behold God Himself. And there we see the true treasure we wanted in material objects. There we see the true relationship that we thought we longed for in others. There we see the true approval we thought we desired in our success.

“The best thing about Christ,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon once wrote, is “Christ Himself.”2

God tells us in many ways exactly how He acts. Some of those acts are awe-inspiring, such as when we read in Psalm 147:8–9 that God

covers the sky with clouds; He supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call.

Some are comforting, such as the promise given in Isaiah 41:10, which says,

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.

Others are terrifying, as is the case with the threat recorded in Psalm 52:4–5:

You love every harmful word, you deceitful tongue! Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent; He will uproot you from the land of the living.

But all are good:

The Lord is good to all; He has compassion on all He has made. Psalm 145:9

What happens when we start placing expectations on how God will or should act based on our interpretation of Scripture and our unexamined assumptions of life itself? I call these “entitled expectations.” Entitled expectations make assumptions regarding how life should go and regarding our ability to control God, other people, or even the laws of nature to bend the outcomes in our favor. An entitled expectation reveals itself whenever we are frantically grasping to hold things that we were never meant to control.

Our expectations expose myriad ways we believe we can be God for ourselves. For example, early in our friendship, I remember being stunned that despite my kind and intentional care for Lauren (if I do say so myself), she didn’t reciprocate in any sort of romantic way. Later, I’d be shocked that Lauren and I weren’t spared specific financial burdens, given that we were consistent givers to our local church. We’d both be perplexed as to why, after years of faithful full-time ministry work, God didn’t see fit to have us get pregnant or to have any adoptions work out. I could go on, but every example would point to the same takeaway: the fact that

  • we were so deeply disappointed when things didn’t go our way exposed the fact that we held expectations for how God absolutely should act.

Throughout those seasons Lauren and I would have told you that we believed in God, loved God, and longed to follow God with our whole hearts, but those truths weren’t getting translated into our actions. And Jesus said we will be known by our actions, what He called in Luke 6:44 the “tree” being “recognized by its own fruit.”

In all candor, our fruit had rotted. Our fruit had started to stink.

The most famous sufferer in the Old Testament was a man named Job. He was a faithful man, so upright that God essentially made him a bull’s-eye for Satan to throw darts at. In a fascinating exchange between God and Satan, God upheld Job as a righteous servant, prompting Satan to go after Job to prove that this man would not remain faithful if harm came his way.

In a flash, Job lost everything that mattered to him — his possessions, his children, his business, his livestock, and his health. We would forgive a man in this state for shaking his fist at the heavens and cursing God, but that’s not what Job did. Rather than fall prey to the belief that he was entitled to the life God had originally blessed him with, Job recognized that all of life was a gift from God.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, Job said, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. — Job 1:21

To be sure, Job was a sinner — just like you and me. In his suffering, he asked real questions of God and felt real emotions about his plight, sinking so low at one point as to question why he’d ever been born (Job 3). He tolerated the friends in his life whose bad advice only made matters worse. But through it all, as Job 1:22 says,

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

I’ve always loved that line from Job, spoken right in the midst of his suffering: “May the name of the Lord be praised.” Such a bold declaration! And yet you get the sense from Job’s long-standing faithfulness that he meant every syllable he spoke. A person can’t say, “May the name of the Lord be praised” during the worst bout of suffering unless he or she has spent a long time praising the Lord.

Job had been praising the Lord.

Job did grieve his losses — the same way that you and I would. But he never caved to cursing God. He stayed faithful through it all.

Back to those friends of Job’s: Consider Bildad, who encouraged Job to repent. “But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty,” he said, “if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your prosperous state” (Job 8:5–6). Notice the if-then idea: Bildad essentially said, “Hey, Job, if you will do your part, then God will do his.”

We may not say it as bluntly today, but isn’t this our expectation too? We expect that if we remain faithful — you know, “do our stuff” — then God will do stuff for us.

Here’s the takeaway: If we are going to remain faithful, even as we’re still quite flawed, we must find our footing in the doctrines of who God has revealed Himself to be. By knowing Scripture, we can know more fully what we should expect out of this life here on earth as well as throughout eternity. When our expectations about life are shaped by God as Creator of all things, reality can then be informed by truth.

~ Michael

  1. John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1840), 146.
  2. Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Best Beloved,” in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C. H. Spurgeon, During the Year 1878, vol. 24 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1880), /sermons/the-best-beloved/#flipbook/.

Excerpted with permission from Beyond Our Control by Lauren and Michael McAfee, copyright Lauren and Michael McAfee.

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Your Turn

Having expectations is normal for all of us. Expectations on God, though, is another story. We must go to Jesus for Himself and leave what will and will not happen and His timing to Him. We have to remember that He is God and we are not. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full