Prisoners of Expectations

Prisoners of Expectations

Walking is a great way for me to process ideas. I pray for people and think about their situations. It was while doing this that I realized that one of the people for whom I was praying was miserable, in part, because of her misplaced expectations of other people. Then I began to think about how many times I’ve seen this in the lives of others, as well as my own life. We humans have a tendency to attempt to hold people (and even God) as prisoners of our own expectations.

Note that I said “attempt to hold” them prisoner. Of course we can reason out that there is no way to hold God prisoner, but emotionally and irrationally we still attempt to maneuver Him into a corner to wheedle out of Him our desired outcome. We then get angry, distant, cool, or even turn our backs on Him when He doesn’t give us what we want. With people, too, we may look to them to meet our needs, to respond in ways that suit us, try to manipulate a certain outcome; we then become frustrated, angry, and miserable when they don’t accede to our desires. It ruins relationships, creates bitterness, and all the while the other person may be totally oblivious to the fact that we expect something from them, and are attempting to capture them through our expectations.

The reality is that the prison bars we are looking through at them are not their bars, they are ours. What we fail to realize is that it is not they who are prisoners of our expectations, we are our own prisoners. We get ourselves locked into our needs and wants and ways of getting them met. We think the key to our freedom is having these needs met by other people. For us to feel happy or fulfilled they have to acknowledge us, love us, appreciate us, approve of us, give to us…Without this response from them we allow ourselves to be miserable, and we blame and resent them for disappointing us.

Again, they may have no clue what we want (we may not even have a clear idea ourselves at times). Or they may sense manipulation or emotional overreach and distance themselves, which only causes us more misery. What we don’t understand is such an attitude toward other people is a subtle form of idolatry. I define idolatry as seeking any satisfaction, security, significance, or safety from anyone or anything other than God as the primary source. Sometimes this is getting our sense of security from a job or assets, or our significance from a title, talent, or treasures. Sometimes it is seeking our ultimate satisfaction from admiration, acknowledgment or inclusion from others, instead of seeking it in God as our primary Source.

I’ve often said that expectations are like minefields. We often don’t know when we have wandered into a minefield of expectations until they start blowing up in our face. Expectations are so often unspoken that we don’t know they are there until we run afoul of them. Leaders are particularly vulnerable to the expectations of others. There are people who like to get close to leaders, collecting connections with leaders like kids collecting trading cards. These people thrill at being able to drop the names of leaders they know, and hint at being close with them. Others, often who were rarely acknowledged by their parents, seem to crave the recognition from people of position, and can become quite demanding of that attention, and particularly unpleasant when they don’t have that need met.

The thing is God never meant for people to supply all of our needs. Indeed, we are told that God Himself will supply all of our needs. Sometimes He does do so through people, but we should always see these people as they are: conduits of His Source of blessing, not the source themselves. We are to look to Him, not to idols. The only way we will find freedom, the only way we will find true satisfaction, significance, security and safety is in Him. We need to recognize our misplaced expectations, release our prisoners, and thereby set ourselves free—free to reorient ourselves towards Him alone.

So how do we recognize if we’ve become prisoners of our expectations? With a due nod to Jeff Foxworthy—You might be a Prisoner of Expectations if:
• You find yourself frustrated or angry when other people (especially people important to you) do not respond to you as you think they should.
• You sense resentment for unmet emotional needs or lack of affirmation.
• You realize you spend a lot of time obsessing over conversations and encounters which didn’t go as you’d hoped.
• You feel wounded, dismissed, or ignored by people important to you to the point of misery.
• You spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about particular people and planning your next encounter.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who should treat us with respect and acknowledgement. Our spouse and parents should love us, and a boss or leader should acknowledge our contributions. But our happiness does not depend on their meeting our expectations (even legitimate ones). Our response should be: “It would be nice to have this affirmation, but my wellbeing is found in my relationship with the Lord, not in the response of men.” After all, it is the Lord who grants favor, and should He withhold it, we need to understand He has a reason for that, even if it is just to wean us away from the need to please men or see them as our source.

Of course there is much more which can be said about this, but for now let me encourage you to go before the Lord and ask Him to show you if you are attempting to hold anyone prisoner to your expectations, and have ended up locked behind bars yourself. Then ask Him to give you the power to release them and find your freedom and your Source in Him alone.

by Sheri Cook, Director of Special Ministries
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