My mother taught me that sooner or later everyone will fail me. The only one we can always count on to never fail us is the Lord. If everyone in my life will fail to live up to my expectations and will disappoint me at some point in my life then what should I expect from them? Should I live my life in suspicion and regret or get rid of expectations altogether?
Please don’t get me wrong. My mother is not a cynic. She is actually a pretty good judge of the human condition. When I was a teenager and she told me that sooner or later everyone would disappoint me or let me down, I was, at first, pretty discouraged. But when I began to think about my own behavior I realized how many times I had let my parents down and hadn’t lived up to their expectations, or even their basic teachings. And I was a pretty good kid.
When I think about my family members, my wife, children, grandchildren, siblings, etc., it can be difficult to ignore the ones who let me down, disappointed me when I had such high hopes, or who actually turned on me when I felt I was only trying to do good by them. I also have to acknowledge all the times I failed to measure up to their expectations and hopes in my role in their life, whether that be big or small. And what about those I have been assigned to serve in the Church over the years? How often have I failed to prepare lessons properly, failed to visit when I should, or even fulfilled my assignments, but only halfheartedly?
If I were to take all my own behavior and put it in a scale to balance against the behavior of others, I would probably see that my own performance in this life is pretty equal to the behavior of others in my life. That is not something I enjoy considering or recognizing, but it is probably the truth. So what is the use of expectations in my life?
Cons of expectations
Please let me say at the outset here that I am not declaring this to be gospel. These views are mine and mine alone. They are garnered from my own perspective. Please weigh them against your own experience and try to learn something from how they might shed light on your own life’s experience.
When I expect things from people I set a standard of behavior. Some expectations are needed. If there are no expectations then there are no rewards, no respect, no integrity. We teach our children expectations as they grow up. We expect them to make their beds, pick up their room, do dishes, and take out the trash. We expect them to be honest and hardworking people. Some expectations are needed in order for blessings to follow. I suppose this is the reason the Lord made and gave us laws. Without laws he can neither bless us nor punish us. Expectations must first be set for everything else to follow. In Alma 42:19–21 we read this:
19 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
20 And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
So without expectations (laws) there can be no punishment, neither can there be blessings, for all blessings and punishments are based on the laws (expectations) given us from God.
The cons of having expectations that we impose on others is that we cannot bless nor punish others like God can. Because we have no control over how someone else behaves, we are left to hope they use their moral agency to respond kindly, or responsibly, or according to their promises, etc. But if they don’t, we can’t do anything about it. How we react when they do or don’t react as hoped for is up to us.
Wise application of expectation
The thing I have learned about expectations is that they are good for setting up goals or standards of behavior. I had a Sunday School teacher who used to be an elementary school principle way back in the day. She called me to be her class President. She was very strict. She let me know just what she expected me to do each week, and told me she didn’t tolerate laziness or slacking in the calling. You’d have thought I had been called as Bishop or something. But I was amply intimidated by her, and performed my accepted calling to her satisfaction. She wasn’t someone I would want to cross.
When we raise our children we are in some control of blessings and punishments when we set expectations at home. But once they are raised and on their own, we have only our relationship with our children to rely on for compliance with our wishes. As every parent learns (the hard way) our children will do what our children will do, and there isn’t much we can do about it.
So where can we go to rely on something that is fail safe? We can rely on the Lord. As my mother taught me long ago, the Lord is faithful. Always. I belong to the Facebook group Latter-day Saint Ministering. I posted a comment saying that many people become disenchanted about serving others because they set up expectations that people don’t meet then get disappointed or dejected because things didn’t turn out the way they wanted things to turn out. One of the other members replied with this comment, “I serve others expecting to feel the spirit that I may be both uplifting, and uplifted.” I thanked her for illustrating my point.
Since we can’t expect others to react or behave the way we want them to, and we certainly can’t control whether someone is grateful for what we do for them, we have to turn elsewhere for our expectations to be fulfilled. And we need to learn how to frame our expectations in such a way that they can always be met.
When we approach ministering to others with the goal of feeling the spirit and the desire to be both uplifting to others and to be uplifted by the Spirit through our service, then we will rarely, if ever be disappointed by the reaction we get from those we serve. For we are learning to serve others without expectations of certain behaviors from them. We serve without expectations of others, because our only expectations are in ourselves and the Lord. And the Lord never lets us down. He has promised to answer our prayers and teach us what we need to do in order to become more like Christ. And God always fulfills his promises.
We might still find that we disappoint ourselves, but then we are just as human as the next person. But the Lord is always consistent in his actions and promises. He never fails to keep his word. His love is consistent. His performance always outstrips our expectations. In this life we can put all our expectations in the Lord to the test, for he is always ready for the challenge. We just need to learn to be as consistent in living up to his expectations of us as he is in living up to our expectations of him.
President Uchtdorf expressed this idea of serving without expectations in a story from a priesthood meeting in 2017.
Almost two decades ago, the Madrid Spain Temple was dedicated and began its service as a sacred house of the Lord. Harriet and I remember it well because I was serving in the Europe Area Presidency at the time. Along with many others, we spent countless hours attending to the details of planning and organizing the events leading up to the dedication.
As the date of the dedication approached, I noticed that I had not yet received an invitation to attend. This was a bit unexpected. After all, in my responsibility as the Area President, I had been greatly involved in this temple project and felt a small amount of ownership for it.
I asked Harriet if she had seen an invitation. She had not.
Days passed and my anxiety increased. I wondered if our invitation had gotten lost—perhaps it was buried between the cushions of our sofa. Maybe it had been mixed up with junk mail and thrown away. The neighbors had an inquisitive cat, and I even began to look suspiciously at him.
Finally I was forced to accept the fact: I had not been invited.
But how was that possible? Had I done something to offend? Did someone just assume it was too far for us to travel? Had I been forgotten?
Eventually, I realized that this line of thinking led to a place in which I did not wish to take up residence.
Harriet and I reminded ourselves that the temple dedication was not about us. It wasn’t about who deserved to be invited or who did not. And it wasn’t about our feelings or our sense of entitlement.
It was about dedicating a holy edifice, a temple of the Most High God. It was a day of rejoicing for the members of the Church in Spain.
Had I been invited to attend, I would have done so gladly. But if I were not invited, my joy would not be any less profound. Harriet and I would rejoice with our friends, our beloved brothers and sisters, from afar. We would praise God for this wonderful blessing just as enthusiastically from our home in Frankfurt as we would from Madrid.
People will disappoint. God does not. I will finish this line of thinking with one last quote from the same talk by President Uchtdorf.
God’s greatest reward goes to those who serve without expectation of reward. It goes to those who serve without fanfare; those who quietly go about seeking ways to help others; those who minister to others simply because they love God and God’s children.
When we learn to serve in this way it no longer matters what others do with or because of our service. All that matters is why we served.