Do you think it better to have high expectations of others and risk disappointment, or to have low expectations and have them exceeded regularly? I think about this question often.
I don’t know to what extent we can control our own expectations; maybe it becomes more difficult as the relationship deepens. When it comes to casual acquaintances and friends, I sometimes consciously try to have low expectations—for example, about whether or not people will send birthday greetings, or whether an informal commitment by a friend or acquaintance will be kept. It’s easier on all concerned; it certainly avoids resentment on my part. After all, as the saying goes, sometimes “An expectation is premeditated resentment.”
Concerning people I know better and with whom I interact regularly, I do have expectations. I expect my kids to do their school tasks and chores around the home. I expect that my husband, kids, and I will eat supper as a family most evenings of the week. I expect a certain level of courtesy between members of the family. And for the past several months, my husband and I have led a family house cleanup on Saturday mornings, gradually developing an expectation that this cleanup will be a regular part of our week. In each of these cases, the expectation feels reasonable because we have worked hard to make the event or action a habit. All parties that are involved know the expectation. So, maybe the issue is not so much what kind of expectations are best (high or low), but rather, whether or not those expectations are expressed and understood.
I realized recently that I tend to cultivate low expectations in my approach to prayer. Most of my prayers consist of gratitude. I have no shortage of things for which to be thankful, so prayer for me often involves a retrospective look through my day, acknowledging God’s constant presence and numerous blessings. I have hesitated to ask God for much; if He knows what I need and even what I want, I subconsciously reason, there is no need to bother him with my requests. However, I begin to see that my not-asking does not necessarily mean a lack of expectations—rather, the latter only remain unexpressed.
My view of prayer was recently shaken by a section in Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. In his book, Willard comments that prayer is defined by request. He writes, “The picture of prayer that emerges from the life and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is quite clear. Basically it is one of asking, requesting things from God” (p. 241-242). Willard acknowledges that worship and thankfulness are also important, but in his mind these do not count as prayer.
God wants us to ask Him for things—and, in a manner of speaking, He sometimes changes His mind in response to the prayers of His people. That is clear from the evidence of a few Old Testament stories. For example, after the Israelites made and worshipped the golden calf, Moses pleaded with God to spare them. God had intended to destroy them all except Moses, but He changed His mind (Exodus 32:14). On another occasion, King Hezekiah was very sick and told by God (through Isaiah the prophet) that he would die (2 Kings 20:1). Hezekiah pleaded with God to spare his life, and God granted him 15 more years. God’s character is unchanging, but He can and does change His mind! Willard comments that, “So far from fitting the classical pattern of God as ‘the Unmoved Mover,’ the God shown in the historical record is ‘the Most Moved Mover’” (p. 253).
We are also to ask with persistence. Jesus taught that we are to be persistent in our bold requests. He shared the story of a person who asked a friend at a very inconvenient time (late at night, past bedtime) to give him food to feed a visitor. Luke 11:8 tells us that the neighbor eventually got up and gave the man food because of his persistence. Jesus also shared the story of a poor but persistent widow, who gave a judge no peace until he granted her justice.
What does this mean? For one thing, it places a beautiful burden of responsibility on us. God somehow offers us unconditional love and acceptance, yet He also expects much from us. He expects us to expect—and to ask for—much from Him! And He expects us to be in a dynamic relationship with Him. According to Willard, “What prayer as asking presupposes is simply a personal—that is, an experientially interactive—relationship between us and God, just as with a request of child to parent or friend to friend….Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, ‘Talking to God about what we are doing together’” (p. 242-243). In this intimate relationship, we can express our expectations that God can and will act mightily, and we can come to know His expectations for us.