Managing Expectations

(The following is a transcript of Steve Carter’s “Managing Expectations” message, part III of our Expectant series. The video is also available to you here.)

Alright, we are in a series called “Expectant.” And many times, people will ask me, “Hey, Steve, how do we come up with a series’ title? Why this word—expectant? Going through the book of Luke?”

Well, a number of years ago, my son and I decided to turn our basement into a soccer field. He was about four, five years old at the time. And we were playing. And it was getting pretty rough. And he kicked this ball so hard it put a hole in the drywall. A little bit proud, but I looked at him, and his eyes were just wide open. And he just said, “That’s not supposed to happen.”

And I started thinking about this. Like, every time something doesn’t go our way, kind of my wife and I just say, “That’s not supposed to happen.” Do you ever have one of those days? Where, maybe, it’s just filled with those that’s-not-supposed-to-happen moments.

Recently, I had one of those days where it felt like... everything didn’t go the way that I had hoped or planned or expected. I woke up early. Went to go make coffee—there’s no coffee. I go to the local coffee shop, and they forget to make my coffee cause there’s such a big line. I finally get it. I show up to a meeting. And one thing after another after another after another was filled with these moments that did not meet my expectations. Have you ever had one of those days?

And it does something inside you, right?

So on my drive home from work, I decided to call my mentor. Someone who lives outside the state. I give him a call. And I said, “Hey, have you ever just had one of those days that just doesn’t go the way you hoped? The way you expected? The way you planned?”

And he just simply said, “Welcome to life.”

And I was like, “Okay. Thanks a lot.” Hang up on him. And...

But we started talking more about it, and he said, “You know what? You gotta really get back to... what biblical expectancy is all about.”

And this past summer, I just spent time just diving into... when this word expectant or expectancy was used in the Scriptures, what did it mean?

And so, today, I want to talk to us openly and honestly about our own personal expectations. How they rob us. How they hurt us. And what does the Bible say about expectancy? And then how do we... be the kind of people who can overcome unmet expectations? And I wanna do it all through looking at one of my favorite characters in the Scriptures. John the Baptist.

Now, John the Baptist, many of you know, he was born, but before he was ever born, his mom couldn’t get pregnant. Her name was Elizabeth. She struggled to get pregnant. It was a prayer. She had basically given up on the idea that she would ever be a mom. But, one day, she had heard this prophetic word—that she would give birth to a child. Her husband, Zachariah, was a priest. And he was going to the temple to do his work. And he had an encounter... and heard a prophetic word that his wife was gonna have a child. And he was like, “There’s no way.”

And, all of a sudden, the angel just made him mute. Couldn’t speak. Which... there might be some spouses here who wished their husband went mute for a couple months.

But he can’t speak! And he’s just sitting there. And, all of a sudden, he realizes something is going to happen. They... this child was gonna be different. His parents were a little bit older. But the words were true about this, this boy. His whole life he would never drink... alcohol. He would be someone who would be a forerunner for the Messiah. He would know God’s Word, and holiness would be something that was so true to him... and he would live in the wilderness.

Now, wilderness was something central to the Hebrew mindset of how God would be preparing a leader to do something quite incredible. And so John was there. He had a life verse. A life verse that was straight from the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures. We see it in Luke chapter 3 verse 4. It says this:

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

Now, you remember, this verse... it was central because before a king would enter into a new city, he would send these couriers ahead. And their job was to allow people to know the king was coming and to ensure that the roads were safe. That there was no rocks or anything that was blocking the king from getting from point A to point B. And as fast and as safe as humanly possible.

And John said, “This was my verse. My job is to prepare the way so people can encounter the Messiah.” And he was out in the wilderness. The Scriptures say he wore a robe made out of camel hair. He ate locusts and honey. Wasn’t married. He was celibate. He didn’t drink. And he studied God’s Word. And he spoke with a prophetic fire, where people from Jerusalem went out to the wilderness to hear him speak. And you know what he talked about? Repentance. Returning back to the heart of God. And after he spoke about repentance, he led people into the Baptism waters and said... baptizing them... into this idea of repentance so that their minds, their hearts, their bodies, their lives would be prepared for the Messiah to come.

But John was always open, saying, “Someday, a Messiah’s gonna come. And when this Messiah comes, I’m not even worthy to unbuckle His sandals. He’s gonna come, and He’s gonna speak with a fire. There’s something about this Messiah.”

And, one day, John looked up, and he saw Jesus. His cousin. This Messiah. And Jesus said, “John, would you baptize me?”

And John was like, “I-I, I’m not worthy to baptize You—You should baptize me.”

And Jesus says, “No. I must do this.”

And so Jesus enters into the waters with John, and many of you know this story. As John is baptizing Jesus and Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens, Luke says, are torn open. And the Spirit and the presence of God descends on it like a dove above Jesus. And a voice from heaven screams out, “This is my Son, in whom I love and in whom I’m well pleased.” And right from that moment, the Scriptures say in Luke 4 that the Spirit led Jesus where? To the wilderness.

Now, we often think about this from Jesus’ perspective. Think about it from John’s perspective. I bet for John, he’s going, “My job’s done. I’ve prepared the way. I baptized. Oh my goodness, heavens were ripped open. This voice from God. And now, now the Spirit’s leading Him into the wilderness, where I have done all of my work. God is gonna prepare Him.”

And I bet in his mind, he’s thinking about... Moses spending forty years. And how many days did Jesus spend? Forty. And he’s going, “This is happening. Oh my goodness, God’s gonna be preparing this Messiah. And what’s this Messiah gonna do?”

You have to know, contextually, the Hebrew people were living in occupation. And Rome was oppressing them. And the belief was that the Messiah was gonna come and liberate the people—set them free. Establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. And that there would be a movement of signs and power and the presence of God. And John was believing this was going to happen.

Now, John had this prophetic fire as well. He loved to speak, and when he knew Jesus was the One, he started to speak against power even a little bit... more loudly and boldly. There was a man by the name of King Herod. Many of you know him from the Scriptures. He ends up dying, but he names basically all of his kids Herod cause... he liked... ego and pride.

And so one of the sons was married to this woman, and he stopped liking her, and so he wanted to divorce her and marry his brother’s wife. Awkward. And so John begins to speak about this. We learn about this in Luke chapter 3. It says this:

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: [and decides] He locked John up in prison.

And so John gets a little bit bold. He begins to speak, and he goes after Herod, he goes after power. And Herod’s like, “Okay. Well. Come with me, you Baptist. You’re going to prison.” And he locks John up. And John’s in prison. And I imagine him being here going, “Okay, it’s all right. Jesus is gonna come for me. It’s all right.”

Day one, telling the guards, “Hey, don’t worry. The Messiah is gonna come. And you’re gonna pay.”

Day two: “Don’t worry; Jesus is gonna come.”

Day three: “You got any locusts or honey? No? Jesus is gonna come, though. I guarantee it.”

Day four: “Jesus, are you coming?”

Day five: “Where are you, Jesus?”

Day six: “Have you forgotten about me, Jesus?”

Day seven, I’m wondering if he’s starting to doubt... whether Jesus is who He says He is. And he’s just stuck here in prison. And he’s probably going, “That’s not... supposed to happen. We were supposed to take down Rome! We were supposed to see the presence of God descend! We were supposed to set up the Kingdom of God on earth! And here I am... here.” And yet, all the while, Jesus is teaching.

I mean, you flip through Luke chapter 4 and 5 and 6, Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors. Something John wouldn’t have done. He’s calling disciples who were tax collectors and a zealot. Something John wouldn’t have done. He’s healing people. He’s speaking about loving our enemies and not judging others. And then... news about Jesus just begins to spread. Cause Jesus does these incredible healings. Like healing this centurion man’s servant.

And, one day, Jesus is even walking in Luke 7... and He sees this widow. She had lost her husband. And she’s grieving because she’s just lost her only child. And the pole bearers are bringing out this child, and Jesus sees this woman grieving. And he walks up to her. And he walks up to the bed that these men are carrying with this dead child on it, and He holds this bed. And the son comes to life. And people were amazed. And, all of a sudden, people were going, “This, this guy is more than a rabbi. This is more than just a teacher.”

And news began to spread. Luke 7:17 says, “The news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country. [So] John’s disciples” go to the prison, and they “[tell] him [all] about all these things.” So John’s hearing this. John’s in prison. His disciples are there. And he’s hearing story after story after story. And he’s here in prison. And he’s going, “I... this is not what I expected.”

So he does something. The Scriptures say in verse 18, he calls two of them to him. And he sends them to the Lord Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” It’s a powerful question.

These two disciples find themselves hearing John, their rabbi’s, question, and they decide to go, okay. They begin to go look for Jesus—where is He teaching? And they find Him. And look what it says in verse 20:

When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’” At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not [fall or] stumble on account of me.”

Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question. John asks this powerful question: “Are you the One to come? Or should we be expecting someone else?” He’s in this prison cell going, have I prepared the way for the wrong person? He’s questioning it because Jesus does not fit his Messianic expectations. And so Jesus doesn’t surely say, “Tell John I’m the guy.” He could’ve easily said that. You know what He says? He quotes Isaiah 61. And just says, “People are healed. The dead are raised. The blind can see. The deaf can hear. And the Good News is preached. Blessed is he who does not stumble on account of Me.”

And John’s disciples take that, bring that back to John, and share with him... what Jesus has said. And when those disciples leave, Jesus then tells the entire crowd how amazing John is.

And I find myself just thinking about this. Hey, what a powerful question. And John does something so beautiful because he feels this... that God isn’t meeting his expectations. That Jesus isn’t who he expected Him to be. But he does something. He goes right to Jesus, and he asks, “Are you the One? Or should we be expecting someone else?”

What’s biblical expectancy? I think it’s important for us to know this. Because here’s where a tension lives. And if we do not understand this tension, we will find ourselves drifting farther away from the heart of God.

Here’s what biblical expectancy is. Biblical expectancy is MY alignment with GOD’S intended desires. It’s me aligning my life, my heart, my mind, my values with what God desires to do today on earth. But something happens. We sometimes switch a couple words. We sometimes just change a couple words around. And we think that is what biblical expectancy is. Sometimes we think it’s GOD’S alignment with MY intended desires. And, friends, it gets really messy. We start thinking, God, You work for me. God, here’s my request, and here’s what I need You to do, and if You don’t do it... we create these if/then scenarios with God. We make God more like a genie and less like the Father.

When we say, “God, You gotta come, and You gotta give me this job or You gotta give me this life or You gotta give me this protection. You gotta give me this safety.” And it’s not us aligning our lives... in what God is doing. It’s just saying, “You work for me.” And, friends, when this begins to happen, I tell you what, we find ourselves like John—in a prison.

I remember fifteen years ago. I paid my own way. I flew out to Chicago. I sat in the Lakeside auditorium. And I went to my very first Global Leadership Summit. And I heard an incredible pastor speak. And he told the congregation who was listening, he said this: “You know what pain and frustration and angst is? It’s the gap between expectation and reality. However big that gap is, that is where all of your angst and your pain live.” And I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

You ever find yourself having expectations that are so far off from reality? And you find yourself frustrated, angry. And so I’ve done a number of research, lot of research on this, and I began to realize there’s three types of expectations... that lead us into a prison. The first one is this:

Unrealistic expectation. You know what this is? It’s when you call and tell your spouse that you’ll be home in five minutes. And she knows that’s not humanly possible. But you know I can be home in five minutes. It takes you more than five minutes to get down the elevator and find your car in the parking lot. And you’d have to hit every green light possible, and that’s never happened in the seventeen years that you’ve worked at this place. Unrealistic expectation. And we do this all the time with our family. With our friends. With our boss. With our teammates. And even with God. Unrealistic expectations. And when that comes to be a massive gap, we find ourselves quite frustrated.

The second one is unspoken expectation. You know what the kindest thing you can do? Is tell people what you desire. For many of us, we just keep it unvoiced. We don’t talk about it. Think about this. How hard is it... to buy a birthday or Christmas gift for someone who doesn’t tell you what they actually want? It’s so hard. And there’s this thought of, Well, if they love me and they know me, they should know what I would like. You’re basically setting up an opportunity for me to fail every single time. Help me help you. Speak your expectation, right? And oftentimes, we don’t speak about it. We hold it. And then we go, “See? They don’t know me. They don’t get me. They don’t love me.” And we make these assumptions about another person. Unrealistic expectations. Unspoken expectations. And we have these. For our spouse. For our grandkids. For our own kids. For our boss, for our team, for our neighbors... and also for God.

And then there’s a third one. This is a dangerous one as well. They’re the expectations that we’re unaware of because we’re moving so fast. And then, at the end of the day, we realize we have been triggered or really frustrated or really hurt because something didn’t happen, and we thought it should have, and we didn’t give it the time. We didn’t actually name it. We didn’t even get the chance to even wrestle if it was realistic or not. We just were unaware. But it’s living within us. Friends, here’s the danger. Is when you have these three unrealistic, unspoken, unaware expectations, and they find themselves far off from reality, what ends up happening? Something begins to linger. Something begins to take root. And it’s often bitterness... anger... and what ends up leading to is sin.

And, for some of us, this is just what happens. That gap goes, “Fine, you don’t like me, you don’t see me? Then, you know what, I’m just going to say this about them. Or do this. Or act in this way.” This is what’s so powerful about John. Even in the midst of being in prison, he calls two of his disciples and says, “Please, just go ask Jesus. I’m a little bit fuzzy here. It’s not making total sense right now. It’s different than what I thought it to be.” And he asked them to go. To get clarity. To find out: am I off? Was I off my entire life? Or was what I believed still actually possible?

What’s your gap right now? Is there some area in your life that you’ve expected this of God, expected this of a spouse, expected this of a friend, that’s far off from reality? And where is that taking you? And the most sincere, strongest Christ followers I know have learned how... to shrink that gap, to hold things loosely, and to walk throughout their day more expectant from a biblical perspective, more dependent on the Spirit and God, and not walking with all of these unrealistic, unspoken, and unaware expectations. That will only lead you to a prison. That will only lead you to more brokenness, more pain, and more sin. And I just don’t want that for you.

But then... Jesus... Jesus’ answer’s pretty though.

“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I mean, I can just read this once, and we can just move on. But this is the deepest of the deep when you really think about this. Jesus’ answer is quoting Isaiah 61... and then simply telling John, “Blessed is the one who does not stumble, who doesn’t fall away, who doesn’t lose sight of what God is doing because... of me.”

After one of the services, someone came down front and just said, “It’s really hard right now cause I’ve got this situation with a grandchild. And I can’t get this grandchild to come to church. And I know it’s what God wants, but he just won’t come. And there’s all this pain in this child’s life. He won’t come. And I feel like God’s not answering my prayer.”

Another person came down front and said, “You know what? I’ve got a... a family member who’s dying right now. And I’m taking care of it. And I just have been praying for healing, and it’s not happening right now.”

And those words, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me...” Another person said, “I’ve got this special-needs child. I love this child. But it’s so tiring. And I find myself just running... and running... and just remembering that verse. Because it’s hard.”

And when you get really, really honest, there are these moments where some of us have been making these prayers. Having these expectations. Having these beliefs. And, sometimes, it’s far off from reality, and Jesus is saying, “Blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me. I see you... I know what you’re going through. I feel you.” And Jesus knows what this is like, cause even when He went to the cross, He was forsaken. He was alone. And He had to basically incarnate this phrase for Himself.

And if any of you have ever been in that space... what John was going through. I want you to know you’re in good company. But, for many of us, we don’t wanna go here. But when you lean into this... phew. Your depth of faith. When you can say, “I see it. It’s hard. I’m gonna lean into it. I’m not gonna stumble. I’m gonna stay trusting You. I’m gonna stay expectant. I’m gonna keep trying to align myself with You, God.” Man... something profound happens within you.

So how do we do it? How to become the kind of people who are overcoming the expectation gap? How to become the kind of people who don’t get stuck in prison? How do we do this? I’m gonna tell you, in twenty years of ministry, this is what I’ve learned. You have to become attentive to and aligning with.

Attentive to. You have to become so attentive to the unrealistic, unspoken, and unaware expectations that you are carrying. And if you can’t name those, you can’t talk about those, you can’t identify those, you are gonna find yourself stuck in a gap. Become attentive to those. And then you have the opportunity to align yourself with biblical expectancy. Aligning yourself with God’s intended purpose for today. For you.

Now, this is really, really unique. What I think John was having to go through is by asking that question—“Are you the One to come? Or should we be expecting someone else”—something powerful was happening. What he was going in asking that question was... an opportunity and invitation to do three things.

One, to learn... to learn. Cause every one of us has something, no matter if we’re an explorer, a new believer, growing Christian, or Christ centered, we all can learn more about the heart of the Father, the way of Jesus, and the Spirit of God. He was giving a chance to learn.

But he was also giving himself a chance to relearn. To relearn what the Scriptures say is true of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. But he was learn, relearn, having another thing. And there was something that he was gonna have to unlearn.

I don’t know if you are like me, but maybe there were some things that were shaped in your theology that you thought were true. Maybe for some of you, you grew up in a system where fear, shame, and guilt were... the voice of the Father. And there’s been something that you’ve had to unlearn as you’ve learned more about the Scriptures. And about the way of God.

Or maybe, for some of you, you grew up in a system where it was all about what you do. Works. Works. Works. Works. Works. And there was no grace. And as you’ve dived into the Scriptures, you’ve had to unlearn something. And go, “No, no, no, it’s about grace and the response to what God has done through Christ Jesus for me.”

There’s always things on the spiritual journey that we must learn, relearn, and unlearn... if we are gonna grow towards full devotion in Christ.

I sat with someone who’s from our community. We’re eating this week for lunch together. And he tells me this story. He and his wife, they moved to the Midwest from the Northwest. And they came here because a local college gave them the chance to do one year of a PhD program on audit. And then he could apply to actually get accepted. And so he was excited. He’s like, “Man, I’m here. I’m learning with some of the best professors in the entire world. And I have this opportunity.”

He goes into his application. Writes everything up. He’s fired up. He sits with the professor, and the professor looks at him and goes, “We’re not accepting you.”

He’s like, “I-I moved my whole family here. I wasted one year of my life—you’re not gonna accept me? I thought, I thought this was it...”

He’s like, “We got two candidates who are better qualified, who are smarter, and we’ve decided to go with them. If one of them would’ve said no, you would’ve had their spot. But sorry. We’re going with these two.”

Expectation: PhD at this incredible school.

Reality: Denied.

And he left there, and for two weeks, he said, he was just spiraling. Anger. Frustration. Hurt. Struggle. What am I gonna do with my life? Why did we move out here? There’s snow out here. What are we doing? And he’s just swirling, right?

And during this time, he leaned back in to God’s Word, and man, he’s gotta be attentive—what’s God really like? What do I gotta learn and relearn and unlearn? And he found himself seeing how much of his prayer life was trying to get God to join his dream and his plan. And in those two weeks of even the most difficult season of his life, of feeling that denial, God began to give him what biblical expectancy really was. And in those two to three weeks, someone told him about a role in a local publisher and said, “Hey, I think you’d be perfect for this.” And so he went into it. And for the last five years, he’s been working at it.

And he goes, “I wake up every day thanking God I am not a PhD student. I thought that’s what I wanted. And I realized God brought us out here for one year to prepare me for the role that I’m in right now.”

I say that to tell you this. For some of you, you’ve might experienced some denial, a no, and maybe, just maybe, you can’t see the Google Earth, God vision that He can see. And maybe you are zooming in, and it’s zoomed in so much you find yourself in a prison that maybe, just maybe, God’s saying, “Would you be attentive to what I wanna do? And would you trust Me and align yourself with what I am doing in you, what I want to do through you, so that My purposes can be done today here on earth. Will you join me?”

And my friend said, “I am so grateful. For this church. I am so grateful for the community in my life. And I’m so grateful that I didn’t stay in that prison for too long.”

I don’t want that for you, friends. I don’t want you to live in that space. Cause that’s the enemy’s playground. And he will just try to take you and hold your life in check. And it requires us learning, relearning, unlearning, and becoming the kind of people who don’t have unrealistic expectations, unspoken, and unaware expectations... but do whatever we can to be attentive to and aligned with God’s intended purposes. Amen? Alright. Let’s stand for closing prayer.