The trap of unrealistic expectations and how to avoid it

One of the biggest reasons people give up is unrealistic expectations.

And there are all kinds of these. Some of them are even reasonable. For instance, my wife has a number of quite understandable expectations of me that for various mysterious reasons may never be met. At least not this side of heaven!

All joking aside, though, unrealistic expectations can be an absolute killer. When I met with people coming into our church, I always made a point of saying they probably had some expectations that would never be fulfilled, if only because no church is perfect.

Unrealistic expectations are usually the product of difficult circumstances in our lives to which we want a quick, if not immediate resolution. We seize upon anything that looks promising in meeting that need. It may be a new friend, a new job, a new church, even a new marriage. We then place impossible burdens on people and situations, because in reality our need can only be met by God.

This morning in church we heard a powerful testimony from a young man from Nashville who believed that a successful career in the music industry would solve all his problems. He had to walk out on a lucrative contract when he found his life had got worse, not better. With his dreams shattered, he turned to God, and found the answers he was looking for.

These days we hear an awful lot about people pursuing their dreams. And even in church, we promote such language. Without denying that God calls people to do great things, we should acknowledge that encouraging people to follow dreams can amount to playing with the fire of completely unrealistic expectations. A “dream” can often be a desire to escape the realities of life that God wants us to face up to and, with his help, deal with. It can be a substitute for God himself.

Years ago, in a time of severe crisis, I read a book by the great psychologist Dr. Larry Crabb titled “Shattered Dreams.” His argument was that God can only work with us once our own dreams have been shattered. It caused me to look at ways in which I had based my happiness on things turning out a certain way. And it also enabled me to see what God was actually doing in my life through some of the hard issues I was facing. Many of those were not actually my own fault, but he was using them to change the way I responded and to challenge some of my thinking.

When we search for a quick fix to our problems, we inevitably land in the world of unrealistic expectations. If that is true, then what we really need is more of an honesty about what God requires us to do to change. Unrealistic expectations almost always require God or other people to do the heavy lifting for us. Spiritual honesty requires us to let God show us how we need to change, and ask for his help in doing it.

Those dreams we have do often have more than a shred of truth in them. But if you want to get there, don’t take the shortcut of the quick fix. Take the road of gradual maturity. It has a lot less potholes in it. And it’s the only way you’ll get there in the end.