It seems to me that we tend to overexpect quite a bit — we have unrealistic expectations for our institutions, our relationships, or really just about any area of our lives.
I first came across the word in James K.A. Smith’s fabulous book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Smith used the line to say that Augustine learned not to overexpect from politics, for instance. Although Augustine could commend politics as a calling worthy of the Christian — seeing as how politics, in its purest iteration, is simply a way to love your neighbor in a tragic, fallen world — he would never be prone to activism, the kind of naive overconfidence in politics as a viable system for overcoming evil that has perpetually gripped the hearts of both conservatives and progressives throughout the ages. The evangelistic fervor and moral grandstanding of our politics is a sure sign of our overexpectation.
And overexpecting like this inevitably sets us up for disappointment. The Biden apologists in this country, for instance, would have you believe that Messiah has come to deliver us up from the oppressive shackles of Trump era policies and inaugurate a (progressive) utopia for the United States. Of course, this is all hogwash, just like it was hogwash that Trump was going to ride in on the white horse in 2016 to drain Washington’s “swamp” of political corruption (oh, the irony); just like it was hogwash when Obama started preaching his gospel of hope and change in 2008 (also ironic); and on and on and on it goes.
What’s truly amazing is our capacity for delusion. We actually believe these con artists when all we’ve done is trade one huckster for another.
The prophet Isaiah wisely proclaims:
Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for what account is he?Isaiah 2:22
Of course, our overexpectation isn’t limited to politics, even if it’s the easiest place to recognize it days after an inauguration. Smith points out how we overexpect from sex these days, too. Our sex-saturated culture often presents the sexual encounter as the locus of ultimate fulfillment and expression. We hardly even know ourselves apart from our sexual identities. And yet, sex cannot possibly deliver on such false promises. As Smith says, the satisfaction of sexual hunger is actually indicative of a much deeper hunger, a transcendent desire to be known — which is the human condition God addresses in the Gospel. To put it differently, Smith says:
The problem isn’t sex; it’s what I expect from sex.
Relationship counselors have long pointed out that unrealistic expectations of our partners contribute to some of the greatest problems in our marriages. We import Hollywood’s ridiculous “you complete me” soulmate-liturgy directly into our marriages, thereby creating expectations that even the best spouse could never possibly meet. How could a flawed, sinful person ever bear the freight of “completing” you or bringing wholeness to your soul? Releasing these overexpectations is often the first step toward greater health in our relationships.
I’m a preacher, so it’s not surprising that I would seek to apply a biblical label to all of this: idolatry. We’re mistaken if we assume that idolatry only exists in golden-calf form. Idolatry could be fairly defined as applying ultimate expectations to anyone or anything other than the Ultimate.
Existentially, the problem with idolatry is that it is an exercise in futility, a penchant that ends in profound dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Idolatry, we might say, doesn’t ‘work’ — which is why it creates restless hearts.
Is it fair to say we overexpect from everyone and everything while underexpecting from God? I’m inclined to agree.
A friend texted me this morning and asked if I thought worldly things had infiltrated the church, becoming more readily accepted by God’s people. Here is my response, which actually led to this post:
Generally, yes. I think for most people (even Christians) their worldview is shaped more by Hollywood, media, and social media than by God and His Word. I have to fight this as well.
As a counter to this, may we reserve our highest expectations for our God who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3).