Freedom from (Holiday) Expectations

main image

‘The weight of the world on your shoulders’ might seem like a cliché phrase, but if we're honest, we've all felt that weight. Whether you're a business executive with 30 employees under you making decisions every day that could make or break company sales numbers; a mother with kids balancing cooking, cleaning, and getting them all to their various weekly activities; an older adult working two part-time jobs past retirement age just to make ends meet; or somewhere in-between, sometimes it really feels like the weight of it all is suffocating. And if this is how we feel off and on throughout the year, it's no wonder that some people feel extra pressure during the holidays. Everyone thinks that Christmas is supposed to be a joyous time of year - and while it can be, it can also be an incredibly stressful and depressing time of year.

So what really is the point of Christmas? If we're going with the world's view of Christmas, we'd probably say things like gift-giving, spending time with friends and family, extra time off work, fun trips, bonuses, New Year’s resolutions, or a plethora of other commitments levied on us. While most of that is all well and good, and on their own aren't inherently wrong, it was never meant to be the point.

The funny (or should we say, tragic) thing is that Christmas has become a time full of high expectations, often followed by differing levels of disappointment. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fulfill all that's expected of us. And so, looking ahead to the holidays, instead of cheer, we just see lots of things that could go wrong.

Scars

As a father, I've become more intimately familiar with the letdowns during Christmas. We all remember those holidays as kids, when that thing we wanted most wasn't under the tree on Christmas morning. As a kid we get over those disappointments fairly quick, but we still remember what that was like as an adult. It's almost like little wounds that we receive, and though they don't hurt anymore, the scars remind us of a pain we once felt. And while not getting some silly toy or other seemingly trivial item for Christmas isn't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life, these 'scars' slowly begin to warp our view of reality. And now, as a father who generally wants what's best for his kids, even though I know that they don't need 90% of the things on their Christmas lists, a part of me still wants to do more than I am. And this is coming from someone who lives fairly comfortably. I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like for a parent who struggles to get their kids just one or two things for Christmas.

But, this is how the cycle goes. We fail to meet their expectations, and we fail to meet our own expectations, and when they grow up, they will likely feel the same disappointments. And when we look at ourselves, all we see are more and more scars, forgetting what we used to look like under all the pain. Perhaps for some people this is why the extra time off during the holidays is so exhausting. Maybe this is why spending time with family feels more like a burden than a gift. We place more expectations on ourselves to look perfect – to act perfect – and that usually causes us to try and cover up the scars, trying desperately to hide the pain, but at the same time hiding who we really are underneath.

Oftentimes, when we’re forced to look in the mirror, we don't like what we see. The holidays can sometimes force us to look in the mirror way more than we would normally. The holidays can also expose us to the gazes of others who we feel are more openly seeing all the scars we bear.

So, if this is what Christmas really does to so many people, then what is the point of it all? If Christmas doesn’t bring about hope and new beginnings, then what are we doing wrong?

The question, instead of ‘what are we doing wrong’, should be ‘what are we focused on?’ If we’re focused on meeting everyone’s expectations, then we are setting ourselves up for multiple failures. We will never be able to meet everyone’s expectations, and we’ll struggle even more so to meet our own expectations.

God’s Gift of Hope

If we could focus on receiving then we’d never be disappointed or let down. The kind of receiving I’m talking about here is not in gifts or anything tangible. The point of Christmas was a gift – God’s one and only Son. The point of the holidays is to receive the most precious gift that anyone has ever given, and to reflect on its impact in our lives. It was a gift of hope; a gift of grace. This grace is the one and only gift we’ve ever been given that comes with zero strings attached, and with zero expectations. And all we have to do it receive it.

Naturally, the world will try to trivialize this gift and tell you that there’s a lot of other, better things out there. But the truth is, all those other things come with expectations. We expect that new car to not only get us around, but also make us feel good about ourselves. But, there’s always someone with a nicer car, and one day even this new one won’t get us around as reliably as it once did. This is just one example, but we buy everything because we expect something from it, even if it’s a necessity. We expect food to satisfy us and keep us from going hungry, we expect water to quench our thirst, and we expect toilet paper to, well… keep us clean. But the truth is, there’s always another day. We eat and drink, and soon that satisfaction turns into a sensation urging as to visit the restroom again. The point being that while these simple necessities may have met our expectations, it’s still just temporarily.

And so it goes with everything, except the one gift that doesn’t ever run out.

When God sent his son to this world, he knew full well what that meant. For a million reasons, it didn’t make sense to the world, but for one reason, it made all the sense for the world. “For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

The real point of Christmas is the cross. God sent his son to Earth so that he could begin with the end in mind. You can’t have an end without a beginning – at least not in a way that we as humans would understand. So, this Christmas we must celebrate the beginning of the life of Jesus, the one person to be both God and human; the one person who never sinned, so that ultimately he could die on a cross and wash away the darkness of all those who would believe in him.

Expectations

The one problem that we must overcome with this gift is our expectations. Even with Jesus, we have human expectations, and we try to box God into something that meets the needs we think we have. This is why most Christians still feel ‘lacking’ when it comes to their spirituality. Instead of simply receiving and letting grace wash over us, we try to come up with systems that make God ‘manageable’, setting up expectations that if we do ‘X’, then ‘Y’ will happen.

Why is it so hard for us to simply receive?

Perhaps it’s our humanity that holds us back. And while that is a major hurdle for us, I believe the truth of the matter is that our human “limitations” are just our excuse because it’s so hard for us to accept that hope is this easy to find.

Just Receive

This Christmas let go of expectations and try to just receive. God asks nothing in return, and in fact he has canceled all debts. All we have to do is focus on receiving grace and letting it wash over all of the expectations that we’ll never meet anyway. There should be hope in knowing that everything will be okay, even if the world is screaming at us that it’s not.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the holidays this year, try to quiet yourself and just reflect on what it means to have complete freedom from the bondage of all the expectations weighing you down. Let go of the ones that you can, and focus on just living in the grace of a God who loves you beyond measure. Don’t worry about all the things you think you have to do; inviting X number of people to church, reading your Bible and praying 30 minutes daily, or even going to church each week. All of these things are good, but if instead you simply focus on letting God’s grace wash over you, its immeasurable waves will flow into every part of your life and undeniably affect everything it touches. It’s impossible to fully live in the hope that grace gives you without it touching everything around you. In this way, you will naturally invite those who need to come, and you will be drawn to God in Word and in prayer. At that point, it’s no longer about what you have to do, but what you yearn to do.

God has offered to remove the weight of the world from your shoulders through his son Jesus. He took that burden, and all you have to do is put it down and never look back. Consider what the holidays could feel like if you no longer felt weighed down by the chains of expectations that you couldn’t meet. Imagine what Christmas could be if you clung to hope and rose above the darkness of your life’s current circumstances. Imagine yourself completely free, soaring high above the expectations and pressure of the past.

Now stop imagining and receive it.

Dealing with Unmet Expectations

main image

It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy. If that is true, then expectations are the root of all heartache. Whether they are unmet, unrealistic, or ungodly, they can break a heart fixed on how things appear and on what others think. Forgetting that the only expectations that matter are God’s can cause unnecessary sorrow and heartache. This has been a recurring part of our journey as a blended family.

I never expected to meet someone online in a chat room. I never expected to whisper, “I’m going marry that man!” after just talking to him for a few hours. I never expected to be married one year and 11 days after being introduced to him for the first time. I never expected to marry a man who was divorced with two children. But, God had other plans. His plan was unexpected, but that is how He operates. We were so blown away by His providence and provision.

I did expect to be nervous on my wedding day. But, I wasn’t. I had a peace that only God gives when you are in the midst of His plan. I expected there to be bumps along the road to our happily ever after. Discontinued bridesmaids’ dresses, rain the night before our outdoor wedding, and an argumentative matron of honor tried to thwart our special day. I expected many adjustments to becoming a family of five and to suddenly being a momma to three instead of one. And a momma to a girl? I couldn’t even braid hair! I even expected to miss my family after moving 1300 miles away.

We expected our new lives together to be hard, but things seemed to fall into place easily for us. The children asked to call us Mom and Dad before we crossed the Maryland state line on our way to our new home in Texas. They referred to each other as siblings without the step prefix. Family meals, family devotions, church, youth group - all of it fell into place quickly and seamlessly. Every morning started out with hot breakfasts, ironed clothes, devotions and walks to school. Our days ended with prayers and kisses goodnight. Even in the hard, what I had expected to be difficult wasn’t. I expected to be the wife that helped my husband lose weight, be successful, and be fulfilled. I expected to be the mom that fixed breakfast and packed lunches every day, picked them up from school and fed them healthy snacks while helping with their homework as dinner cooked. In all appearances, we were crushing the blended family stigma, but deep inside wounds had not healed and more were being made.

We knew we wanted to have at least one child together and I got pregnant the month after our first anniversary. When we shared the news with my in-laws they were overjoyed--until they weren’t. They expressed to us how unfit we were as parents; how obvious it was that we favored one child over the others and how irresponsible we were for having a child together. I was shocked, hurt and angry. I didn’t expect that. Thankfully, apologies were quickly made, and forgiveness was extended, but the wounds were there, and the healing was slow. I expected their support and enthusiasm but received judgment and disdain. I suffered postpartum depression after our daughter was born and I didn’t want anyone to know. It would solidify the things my in-laws had said and would worry my mother who was 1300 miles away from me.

I was able to get the medication and support I needed from my doctor, so when I found out that I was expecting just as our daughter turned 1 ½, I was cautiously excited. My husband had wanted to have another child and wanted a boy, so he was not surprised. We knew it would be challenging adding another child to our family during the time of transition to middle school for our oldest son and daughter, but we expected to see continued academic, emotional and spiritual growth.

Instead things started to fall apart - failing grades, stealing, lying and parties with alcohol and sex. Something else we didn’t expect. When we made the hard decision to move back to Maryland we encountered teen pregnancy, drugs, our oldest son running away, dropping out of school, probation and incarceration and continued premarital sex. Our middle son was diagnosed with ADD and ODD as our youngest son started speech therapy and our youngest daughter struggled with obesity. All of that was followed by several months of unemployment for my husband and major depression for me.

Our blended family was nothing like I expected.

I wasn’t the wife or mother I thought I could be. Our older children had become the blended family stereotype. We were not just a broken family, we were shattered. I was heartbroken. During all of this, I struggled with believing that God’s hand was in any of it, but He was not surprised by anything that had happened. He was there through all of it. I was just looking in the wrong place. I strove for perfection in a dysfunctional family. Blindly in love and naive in everything a blended family entailed.

My expectations had been unrealistic and ungodly.

There was no way I was going to erase the years of hurt and brokenness with hot breakfasts and bedtime stories. Even though I thought of my stepchildren as my own there was still the very present influence of their biological mother and stepfather. After a weekend or vacation at their mother’s house, we had to reinstate our rules and expectations. I was so concerned with what others thought of our family and how we looked more so than what heart changes were taking place. God looks on the heart, 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us, not on outward appearances.

By outward appearances we were a storybook family, but the heart issues were deeper and were not being resolved. I was not praying for help or for heart change for me, my husband or my children. I wasn’t as much concerned about God’s will as I was with what I felt was best for my family.

I wanted God to bless my expectations instead of seeking His purpose and plan.

Thankfully, God is gracious and merciful.

Even when I was looking to myself for answers and strength, God was guiding and blessing. Our oldest daughter placed her son with an adoptive family answering their desire for a child. Our oldest son blessed us with two amazing grandchildren. Our youngest daughter and son are excelling in school and in their talents, allowing us to see God’s promise after the rain.

Even though I had chosen to allow my expectations to override what God had expected of me as a wife and mother and for us as a blended family, God was patiently waiting for me to turn to Him, give up my expectations of how things should be and lean into what He has for us as a blended family. It has not been easy, but when I daily align my plan with His, He exceeds all my expectations.

Read Severn Run Stories, be inspired, and stay up to date with what's happening here!