I want to start off with a hypothetical situation that may seem trite or trivial, but please hear me out. I think this demonstrates an important principal.
A married woman gets home before her spouse does. The trash needs to be taken out. She tells herself, “when [her husband] gets home, he’s going to take out the trash.” She may even go so far as to say, “if he really loves me, he’s going to take out the trash when he gets home.” So what happens when he comes home and pays no attention to the trash? She’s hurt. Her next logical conclusion might be that he doesn’t love her. But who built up that conditional situation in the first place? She did. Her spouse did nothing to hurt her, and yet she’s in pain. She has hurt herself by building up expectations that lead to disappointment.
I think expectations are based on fear and almost always lead to disappointment and suffering. They are the manifestation of our fears of outcomes we don’t want. Fear over things we can’t control.
Let’s take a minute to use the above example as an analogy for an individual’s relationship with God. Let’s say this same woman has been asking God in prayer for a number of specific blessings for a long time. Maybe she’s hoping to have that breakthrough in her career she’s been working towards, or she’s been battling a physical ailment or illness. The scriptures are, after all, riddled with promises such as “ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (3 Nephi 27:29). So she expects that God will deliver. But what happens when he doesn’t? This could make her question her beliefs, prompting questions such as, “If God exists, how could he let this happen?” “If God really loves me, why would he treat me this way?” “If God is real, where was he when this happened?” and so on.
Expectations in our relationship with God can be just as damaging as expectations within a romantic relationship. In either case, they are based on fear of outcomes we don’t want. In either case, our expectations are a form of control. What we are essentially trying to do is control the outcome, sometimes to the extent of controlling the agency of another. But how could we ever presume to control the free agency of another, least of all God?
Let’s take our first example a little further. The woman waiting for her spouse to come home lets go of her expectations and instead decides to patiently ask him to take out the trash. This is a much healthier interaction between the two of them. She’s communicating what she wants, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what happens when the husband, instead of obliging her right away, says, “I’ll do it later”? That’s frustrating, right? It might not seem very considerate on his part. Even if he has more pressing things to do, it shouldn’t be a big deal to grant her this simple request.
When it comes to our prayers to God, we often pray for things much more consequential and important to our lives than the simple chore of taking the trash out. So how do we react when the answer to those prayers is, “not right now,” or “in my own time,” or even “no”? This kind of response to an earnest and important issue can be justifiably infuriating. What’s the best way to handle this situation?
I think the answer is simple. But it’s not easy. I think the answer is to simply trust. We need to show God that we trust Him. To trust God’s will and God’s timing is not easy when so much is on the line. But I find that this is often the test. Let go of expectations. Embrace trust. Easier said than done, of course, but acting on faith and trust rather than expectations and fear is always a much wiser course of action. Faith and trust allow gratitude and love to grow, despite the trial of things not happening exactly the way we want them to. Expectations and fear will inevitably put conditions on love and gratitude, and love and gratitude were never meant to be conditional.
I want to be very clear about this. In the religious world—and certainly in the Christian world—I think there is the tendency to equate faith with expectations, making the assumption that expectations are always fulfilled for those who have enough faith. This is a dangerous assumption as it leads us to compare ourselves with others, makes us question our own faith, and puts conditions on our love of God and others. Faith and expectations are not the same. They are polar opposites.
Love, gratitude, faith, fidelity, loyalty, virtue. These things are not meant to be based on conditions of our satisfaction in the outcomes of life. Neither should our trust in God be conditional.
“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear… He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18
“Love has no expectations. Fear is full of expectations. With fear we do things because we expect that we have to, and we expect that others are going to do the same. That is why fear hurts and love doesn’t hurt.” Don Miguel Ruiz
“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” William Shakespeare
“Whenever we manage to love without expectations, calculations, negotiations, we are indeed in heaven.” Rumi