What does it mean to have expectations? Oxford defines the word to mean: “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case”. I have an expectation that the sun will rise each morning, and that I will want a cup of coffee when it does. I also expect to have a headache if I don’t get that coffee, just like I expect there will be consequences if I make poor choices. Having expectations are reasonable and justified, but can get us into trouble when we don’t articulate those expectations that are related to other people we are in relationship with, and especially when we begin to have expectations of God.

There are different types of expectations. The most obvious ones are the ones that are written or clearly communicated like working contracts. You are expected to work a given number of hours performing a specific task and will be compensated in a clearly defined manner. The consequences for not meeting those expectations are clearly understood. The same can be said for students in a classroom where responsibilities are clearly defined and feedback and grades are given through clear, objective measures. These employees and students will be able to accurately predict what will happen as a result of any given action. This is helpful for everyone and can lead to a supportive and encouraging environment.

There are also unspoken expectations, especially those within relationships. Due to our family of origin or past relationships, we have a preconceived idea of how things are “supposed” to be. This can refer to roles and responsibilities within the relationship, or even how someone should respond in certain situations. This can cause tension and resentment due to the other party being unaware of the expectation, meaning that when someone gets hurt it’s often due to some unspoken expectation being unmet. Effective communication and clearly defined expectations are the best ways to avoid these problems, but they aren’t often articulated clearly or at all, leading to many types of arguments and discontent.

What’s even more dangerous is when we place expectations on God, either purposely or unknowingly. We expect God to answer our prayers the way we want Him to in the moment we want because we’ve been good and faithful. Even though we might never articulate it like this, we unconsciously want something in return for our faithfulness and our work in the church and our neighborhoods. This leads to a dangerous place in our hearts and minds. We get into this precarious position because we don’t fully grasp what it means to serve the holy and steadfast creator of the world. 

We see this play out in the book of Job in the Bible. Job experiences terrible loss, then demands God to explain himself. God replies to him by asking “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” (Job 38:4) As humans, we need to be reminded that we are beings that were created by a loving God who cares and provides for us. All that we have is from Him, and things happen according to His timeline, not ours. Through the prophet Isaiah we then hear God say “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) These two scriptures tell us that it is best for us to rely on God’s knowledge and timing instead of trying to control the outcomes based on what we think is best.

Not all expectations are bad. We should expect God to be faithful, consistent, loving, and just. These are characteristics of God that are clearly and repeatedly explained in the Bible and we know that we can trust the Word of God. The problems arise when we begin expecting Him to do our will as opposed to seeking to understand His will, treating Him like a Genie in the sky granting our wishes. So how do we overcome this? We should spend time in prayer reflecting on what expectations we have placed on God and other people in our lives, and then seek to understand why we have those. We can ask God to reveal the expectations we have so that we can put those things aside and seek to live our lives in joyful anticipation of seeing the will of God played out, knowing that our role in it is a gift that was given to us. This perspective can help us to stay focused on God as we seek His will and His ways.