By Ted Hopkins
Expectations are a funny beast. On vacation this summer, we ate at a restaurant that was a bit sketchy when we first walked in. They had open tables and could serve our large, very hungry group so we went with it, but first impressions were not positive. The décor and furniture harkened back to the late 90s, and the ambiance was more dive bar than wine bar—no offense if that’s your vibe.
Few of us felt great about this choice, but we (and the children with us) were famished. With Mariana-Trench-level expectations, I was nearly astonished when the first appetizers appeared. The spinach-artichoke dip hit all the right notes, served with fresh, delicious pita. My crab cakes—don’t ask me why I chose crab cakes in a place like that; in retrospect it seems ridiculous, but I have trouble saying no to a crab cake—were texturally delightful and included a lovely aioli sauce. The experience was simply enjoyable.
Contrast that with a great restaurant we also went to on the same trip. Many of us had been there before so we knew to expect perfectly cooked woodfire pizzas, cheese curds with that precise ratio of fried breading and gooey goodness, and sandwiches that surprised you with all the flavors. I was so pumped for this place; and then it fell rather flat for me. The crust of the pizza was a little overdone, and lacked the acid necessary to make the flavors pop. The cheese curds didn’t quite hit home, either. Everything was fine, probably even good, but it didn’t meet my expectations.
The strange thing is that, while the first place was a better experience because it exceeded expectations, if I actually compare the food and the ambiance head to head, the second place still comes out on top. The woodfire pizza place had better rations and a much better atmosphere, but I had such high expectations that I could only be critical instead of recognizing the good food that I was eating. Instead of having an enjoyable experience at a delightful restaurant, I had a mediocre experience, criticizing food that I should have enjoyed more than I did.
Expectations shape how we respond to people and situations, and they can often create trouble that wouldn’t be there otherwise. I think expectations are part of the trouble that we Christians create for ourselves when we talk to non-Christians individually and to society as a whole.
To explore this, let’s go back a couple of millennia. What was it like to be a Christian in the first century, and how was that different from today? What did they expect from the world, and what did the world expect from them? Have you ever thought about this?
The early believers had to find their way in a world where “the Church” was essentially unknown and completely outside of the authority and power structures of the ancient world. They could expect almost nothing from their culture; they couldn’t expect people to understand their language or the foundation of their community. Some Romans even reported that early Christians were “cannibals” for “eating the body and blood of Jesus.” But that kind of cultural misunderstanding was to be expected. After all, no one but the first followers of Jesus knew what it meant to be in a church who believed that the same God who raised Israel up from Egypt raised his own crucified Son from the dead by the Spirit. When it came to the broader culture they lived in, the early church had pretty low expectations.
Today, in contrast, our expectations for culture can be quite high—especially if we grew up in established denominational churches. In fact, I wonder whether our ingrained expectations aren’t a sizeable part of the problem with how we relate to our culture. Many of us expect that American culture is going to resonate with our Christian values, and recognize quickly the truth of God’s Word.
These expectations are only heightened by the fact that, not so long ago, North American culture was dominated by Christian language and thinking that permeated even political speech and the educational system. It feels like so many people used to believe in Jesus as the Savior and wanted to embody Christian morals; and now, the situation has changed dramatically. Our faith is sometimes rejected out of hand, and we feel dismayed when we speak our Christian language and people are put off. We feel hurt when the culture does not support—or even respect—our Christian ways of being and living.
But why should we expect a non-Christian culture and people who have no connection to Jesus to agree with God’s Word on any particular issue or value? Why would people who have never lived in the community of the Church understand sin, holiness, grace, or salvation? Why would we expect people who have never submitted themselves to Holy Scripture to find common ground with us easily on matters of Christian conviction?
We shouldn’t be surprised when atheists or agnostics disagree with us, or more importantly, with Scripture; but we should find joy, and rejoice with the angels in heaven, when they do hear the Word of God and believe it.
Faith, after all, is no less than a miracle, accomplished by God alone.
Consider again the expectations of the early church. What did the disciples in Acts expect? The apostles seemed to expect (or were at least not surprised by) persecution, suffering, and challenges from the establishment as religious leaders tried to shut them up (Acts 4:15–22, 5:17–42, 7:54–8:3), political leaders threw them in prison (Acts 12:6–19, 16:25–40), and mobs even kicked them out of cities as they preached and taught the Gospel (Acts 13:50–51, 14:4–6, 14:19, 17:13–14, 19:21–41).
At the same time, though, those first followers also came to expect the Holy Spirit to work through normal words about Jesus, through preaching and teaching that Jesus is the Messiah and the resurrected Son of God (Acts 3:41–47, 6:7, 10:44–48, 11:18, 15:12–21, 16:14–15).
These believers wanted to show how Jesus connected with the vast variety of people from many and various cultures, proclaiming that Jesus wanted to make them all a part of his story and work in the world. For some, who understood Israel, the message of Jesus as the Messiah of God, the promised King, made sense (Acts 13:16–41). For others, the apostles proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God, sent by the Creator to judge all people, evidenced by his death and resurrection (Acts 17:22–31).
Throughout the book of Acts, you see many disciples tailoring a message of grace to diverse people in a variety of cultures, always with Jesus at the center. What you do not see is the disciples expecting to get a hearing just because they were talking about Christian morals or teachings.
Why do we expect that today?
If we can find a way to reset our expectations, maybe we could learn again with the apostles and the early church that human power does not make the Church. Jesus establishes and preserves the Church himself—and against our own expectations, Jesus does things his way: the way of the cross. Matthew 16:24-28 (Peter: “The cross will never happen to you!” Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!”) follows quickly on the heels of Matthew 16:16-18 (Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus: “On this rock I will build my Church.”) for a reason! Jesus builds his Church in ways we would never guess without the Spirit and often fail to recognize.
If we can find a way to reset our expectations, maybe we could learn again that the Holy Spirit is at work to build a living temple that is the Church out of “those who are near” as well as “those who were far off” (Ephesians 2:14-22), despite and beyond our own assumptions and presuppositions.
If we can find a way to reset our expectations, maybe we could learn again that we do not need cultural power to bring the power of God; rather, we need plain words about Jesus, shown in the context of a life well-lived according to God’s design. This is what the Church has always confessed: the word of Christ is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.
How do we reset our expectations? Do two things: first, expect less from the world and what they think of us; and second, expect more from our God and the power of the word of Christ to change the world (and us, too!). Don’t expect too much from the world, but expect everything from plain words about Jesus. Then hold on and enjoy the ride!