When Expectations are Unfulfilled

The Blog That Speaks: When Expectations are Unfulfilled

Many of us form expectations as to how we believe our lives will proceed.

  • We attend college with a specific career in mind.
  • We image the type of person we will marry and when we will marry.
  • We decided to have two children.
  • We plan for retirement with our spouse.

But when these expectations are derailed, it may send us into a downward spiral.

  • The career fails to pan out.
  • We do not get married.
  • We are unable to have children.
  • Our spouse dies prior to the age of fifty.

Since these are not the customary patterns for life in our world, our personal world is turned upside down, and we are thrown into an unexpected journey of grief.

Life may become even more complicated when a person believes he/she has heard from God concerning his/her future. Pentecostals, in particular, are known to rely on the supernatural to guide and help them. But what happens when the supernatural occurs, providing some direction, but the pentecostal’s expectations attached to such guidance remain unfulfilled? It is not often discussed, but it happens. I do not claim in this blog to speak for others and their experiences of unmet expectations, be it on a personal, national, or global scale. I simply write of my own experience of loss in relation to my own supernatural experiences and unfulfilled expectations in hopes that my story may be a place of identification and healing for others with unfulfilled expectations, be they with or without the involvement of the supernatural.

I viewed it as somewhat of a God-thing when my heart shifted during my first two years of college.

My desires were transformed from “I will not serve overseas” to “I want to serve overseas.” This desire moved to a sense of call during the summer between my second and third years when I had an epistemological pentecostal experience of I-know-that-I-know-that-I-know: I knew I was to minister overseas, and I was to teach.

Within a few months … and in true pentecostal fashion … this sense of call was confirmed through supernatural means via individuals who were unaware of what I had sensed in my heart of hearts. And ten years later when my husband and I applied and were appointed to serve in Asia through our denomination, it seemed we were living the pentecostal minister’s dream. God had supernaturally broken into my world and directed my career path, and now it was coming to pass. It also seemed to me that our climbing the clerical ladder of success by being appointed for overseas ministry was its own substantiation of God’s plan for us.[1]

This was to be our life: No longer would we serve stateside but rather overseas for the remainder of our lives.

But … despite our plans, the unexpected occurred. After completing twenty months of itineration in the United States and three years of ministry overseas, we sensed God directing us to return home.

It made no sense to me. How could God go to such extensive efforts to place me overseas and then send me home after only three years?

It was not just my expectation to remain overseas. It was also others’ expectations, including that of our denomination.[2] Years later when my husband briefly shared the story of God directing us home, another pentecostal expressed surprise as he said, “God can do that?”

But it was plain to us, and so we returned home … as difficult as it was. As one man aptly commented, “It was harder for you to obey by returning home than it was to go.”

It was considerably difficult to reconcile my understanding of God’s call to go overseas to God’s call to come home. When faced with such a challenge, the human tendency is to draw upon our perspective of how the world operates in order to build a more satisfactory, meaningful narrative. This perspective includes assumptions that we form about the world. We may believe that when we obey, we will be blessed, and if we disobey, we will be punished. Or if someone tries hard enough, he/she will be successful. Or I have control and predictability of the outcomes in my life. Based on my pentecostal and familial upbringing, the story I told myself was: It is my fault that we were sent home. I must have sinned, which made God angry.

Unfortunately, while my narrative seemed like a reasonable conclusion to me, it did little to heal the pain in my heart. I became moody, volatile, and isolated. In short, I felt as if I was going crazy.

I eventually came to understand that I was experiencing loss and grief. God’s call on my life and the supernatural confirmations of that call were not fulfilled as I had envisioned. Too often, people mistakenly categorize loss under one type of classification, death of persons. However, as Judith Viorst states,

“For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on.”[3]

For John Harvey a clue to ascertaining a major loss is the degree of “emotional investment” the individual has given of him/herself.[4] Therefore, individuals may place large quantities of time, physical, and emotional energies toward the investment of a hope or a dream, only to discover they are forced to release it. This type of loss may be described as an intangible loss as it is abstract and not as apparent to others. Some refer to this type of loss as a non-event. Nancy Schlossberg and Susan Porter Robinson define “non-event” as “the absence of an event that can be reasonably expected to occur.” The word “reasonably” is significant as it is only when an event will conceivably transpire but does not that one may frame it as a non-event.[5] It is at this time that one acknowledges a loss, which is the first step in learning to cope with this intangible loss.

Now … naming the loss may be more difficult than it sounds in our mourning-avoidant culture. Pauline Boss points out that in American culture

“the goal is to win, not lose. Because of this strong value, there is in our culture a tendency to deny loss. Grieving is acceptable, but we should get over it and get back to work.”[6]

Would-be helpers use various phrases to motivate grievers to do just that, such as sentences that begin with the phrase “at least”:

  • “At least you were able find another job.”
  • “At least you have two other children.”
  • “At least you were married to her for 25 years.”

Instead of joining alongside the person in her grief journey, would-be-helpers are standing above the griever, attempting to push down her grief, so it is out of sight.

While many well-intentioned Christians may believe it is their responsibility to immediately provoke others out of their grief, this is not the way of Christ.

As I have stated previously, the Son becomes human, which conveys the divine’s validation and normalization of humanity in the very person of Jesus. Jesus creates space within himself to receive humanity’s stories and heal them. This is Jesus Christ’s uniqueness: he is the human-divine one (hypostatic union) so that the divine heals humanity’s losses and grief by being present to humanity within his very being.

But Jesus also illustrates to us in Luke 24:13-35 how we as humans may create space for the sharing of the stories of those with unfulfilled expectations. Ironically, the unmet expectations in this story are about him. Even so, he provides an opportunity for the loss of these unmet expectations to be expressed. Thus, this story offers a unique window into these expectations, the loss and grief that ensued, and Christ’s response to them.

In this story, two of Jesus’ disciples are walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion when they unknowingly encounter Jesus. The text conveys a passionate discussion between the two men by using the words “debate” (suzētēo in v. 15) and “discussing so intently” (pros allēlous in v. 16). Perhaps such passion illustrates how emotionally attached Jesus’ followers were to their expectations of Jesus. They were fervently invested in the belief that Jesus was the Messiah who would be their “national ‘ruler and deliverer,’”[7] despite Jesus’ earlier words to the contrary that he would suffer and die (Luke 9:22). They understood that the scriptures spoke of a Messiah, but like others within Judaism, they did not associate suffering with the Messiah.[8] Thus, when Jesus died, their expectations died with him. They grieved not only the loss of a person, Jesus, but also a non-event, an intangible death, the deliverance of their nation through this Messiah.

It is important for our purposes to note how Jesus begins his dialogue with these men who are engrossed in conversation. Jesus leads with curiosity (v. 16) and follows that up with more curiosity (v. 19) even though he knows intimately of the divine plan. He is setting aside his own interests for the interests of others. Luke points to the disciples’ grief when he depicts them as appearing sad when Jesus asks what they are discussing.

It is this curiosity that provides the disciples with the space and opportunity to pour out their grief.

But let us notice the full sequence. It is only after they are seen, heard, and valued through the telling of their story that Jesus unfolds the scriptures about himself (v. 27). And then it is after this that their eyes are open while eating with him so that they recognize the resurrected Jesus as being with them (v. 31).

Similar to Jesus, then, it is possible that we as listeners may have a broader view of the griever’s situation, unlike the one who grieves unfulfilled expectations; however, this moment in time is not about us but about the grievers’ story.

  • This is the time to permit the grievers the opportunity to express their losses.
  • This is the time to sit and allow them to teach us about their grief journey.
  • This is not an occasion to be in front, pulling them, and neither are we to be behind, pushing them.

Instead, we are to walk alongside them by normalizing, affirming, and validating their experience as Jesus does both in his very being and in this story. As Alan Wolfelt states,

“Affirmation prior to integration.”

Affirmation comes through listening to the story of unfulfilled expectations, and it usually involves the hearing of many tellings. Unlike the two disciples, those who experience the losses of unmet expectations today generally will not behold an immediate resurrection. Grief by nature is slow. Thus, it is necessary to patiently hear the story until a resurrection after, or reconciliation of, the loss occurs. It is only after we repeatedly affirm through listening that … maybe … in time … we will have the opportunity to speak words of wisdom into grievers’ lives.

Holy Spirit, may you empower us to be curious, enabling us to walk alongside the griever.

[1] R. Paul Stevens agrees when he writes, “So Protestants have their own hierarchies: the cross-cultural missionary at the top, followed by parish priests and pastors, then youth workers and parachurch ministers (including seminary professors). R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1999), Kindle, loc. 224-225.

[2] Romans 11:29 is commonly used in my tradition to argue that if you are called into ministry, it is a calling for life because the call of God is irrevocable.

[3] Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses (New York: Free Press, 1986), 15.

[4] John H. Harvey, Give Sorrow Words (Ann Arbor: Sheridan Books, 2000), 18.

[5] Nancy K. Schlossberg and Susan Porter Robinson, Going to Plan B: How You Can Cope, Regroup, and Start Your Life on a New Path (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 28.

[6] Pauline Boss, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss (NY: W. W. Norton, 2006), Kindle, 4.

[7] David Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 952.

[8] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2015), 721.

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