Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5
by Linda Rex
Lately I’ve been starting out my day reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament. Today I was reading Chapter 27 in the book of Deuteronomy. Here Moses instructed the people about something they were to do when they entered the Promised Land. They were to divide the people up, with six tribes standing on Mount Gerizim and six tribes standing on Mount Ebal. Then the Levites were to recite curses and all the people were to respond with “Amen” to each curse.
Something occurred to me as I was reading this. It was something I never played close attention to when I read it before. And it really bugged me—enough that I had to stop and think seriously about it for a while.
If I were to ask you what many traditional and fundamentalist Christians have posted in their house or office somewhere, what would you say? I was in someone’s office the other day, and there it was, in bold print, so everyone who came in couldn’t miss it. Many Christians insist that the Ten Commandments are the trademark measurement of goodness and badness and what matters most to God in our relationship with him. So they post them where they and others can see them.
That being the case, I was stunned to see that nowhere in this list of sins these curses were for, were the Ten Commandments specifically listed. There wasn’t mention of a single commandment in relation to God and how the people were to relate to him. The others were related to some of the other six commandments, but they didn’t at all appear in the form you would see in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5 where the Ten Commandments are listed.
If the Ten Commandments were so important for the people to be keeping, why weren’t they listed with the curses? And I found that it is interesting in the same respect that each of these things listed had to do with proper relationships between people, both in the family and in the community. The last one in the list was a summary statement pronouncing a curse on anyone who did not uphold the words of the law.
Then a blessing is pronounced in Chapter 28 and it has everything to do with Israel’s relationship with God and how they participated in their covenant of love with him. The blessings and cursings described in Chapter 28 are related to the way Israel behaved in their relationship with God and whether or not they lived in communion with him as the law instructed them to. The blessings and curses had to do with whether or not Israel as a nation trusted in God alone and was faithful to their covenant relationship with him.
In both of these cases, the Ten Commandments was supplanted to some extent, or shall I say, surpassed by, the greater law of covenant love. Our relationships with God and with each other are what really matter in the end. The consequence of living for ourselves and not living in communion and godly love with one another and God is well described in this listing of curses. And the blessings that come with living in the communion of the Holy Spirit with one another is clear to see as well. It explains why Jesus, when asked, said the most important commandment is to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and being, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Instead of seeing the law as a list of do’s and don’t’s that separate good people from bad people, we can see the law as an expression of what it looks like to live in loving relationship with God and each other. The simplicity of this is expressed in the NASB when it says that the people were to confirm the words of the law by the way in which they lived. We confirm our love relationship with God and each other by the way we treat God and each other, and by what goes on in our hearts and minds in each moment of each day as we interact with the world around us.
Going on beyond this, we are told by the Apostle Paul that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us…” (Gal. 3:13) So even our shortcomings in living out a relationship of love with God and each other are covered by our Savior. The prophetic word of Isaiah to Israel was that God would author a new covenant in which he said he would “put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33). This is reflected on by the author of Hebrews, who explains the gift of God is the internal eternal Law of God, Jesus Christ, who has joined himself with humanity and who stands in our place as both the Lawgiver and the Lawkeeper.
Now I’m not against people posting the Ten Commandments places as a reminder of how to treat God and each other. That can be a good thing. But it is easy to hold to this external expression of goodness and badness by which we judge one another and to totally miss the mystery of godliness—Christ in us, the hope of glory. It is Christ who defines us, who lives his life in us and through us by his Holy Spirit. It is God who plants within us the heart, soul and mind to love him and each other from the core of our being with his own very own love, planted within us through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
How often I have encountered people who are very busy with the externals of Christianity, but who are also vindictive, hateful, spiteful and even cruel—because the law has become to them a dividing point between goodness and badness between them and other people, and they have missed the One who gives Life and offers us an intimate relationship with himself through Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
They are eating of the tree of good and evil and have missed entirely the tree of life offered us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. This seems to me to be the worst possible thing that could happen to anyone. And all these curses described in Deuteronomy cannot begin to describe what it’s like to live out one’s life in rejection of the One who is our life, our love, our obedience, our peace. That seems to me to describe in many ways what a personal hell looks like.
Dearest God, Thank you for giving us your Son so that we can live in loving relationship with you and each other. Thank you for your precious Spirit who opens our eyes and minds and hearts to see Jesus Christ living within, and who makes us receptive to the Truth and Life he is. Grant us the grace to seek Life in Jesus Christ instead of seeking to be our own gods and to live independently of you and each other. We trust you will finish your work in our hearts, minds and lives, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
“’Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deut. 27:26 NASB
“Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.” The second is this, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:29–31 NASB