Introduction: Looking Back
I’ve been actively following the Lord since 1970 when I was baptized in the Spirit. We are also approaching yet another anniversary as a community in the People of God. As I’ve been giving some thought to these passages of time, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at some of our expectations for Christianity. It’s worth raising the question every now and then to consider what we expect from Christianity, from the Messiah, from Christ.
Our culture is oriented toward fantasy rather than reality. It is a good idea to give some thought to that because we are immersed in a fantasy-oriented society. We are culturally pre-conditioned by advertising, so much so that it seems TV could soon become more commercials than actual programming! We are preconditioned to prefer promises and fantasy traps and are attracted to great claims. For example, the phrase “as seen on TV” suggests that the product being advertised must be good and, therefore, we have to have it. We are more likely to want whatever it is simply because we saw it on TV. If it’s well packaged and colorful we buy into it; we believe the claims and the promises. This is not only true of products, but it is true of people as well. Politicians, for example, can be very well packaged. They may be physically attractive, have a great smile and a lot of charm, but they may not, in fact, be very well put together. How often have you bought a nicely packaged toy for a child or grandchild and found upon opening it that what you really paid for was the box? The product itself was a big disappointment! If it’s well packaged, we want it.
Our cultural preconditioning is being used to present to us a false Christianity. One place where this becomes obvious is in Christian broadcasting. Because of the way the human mind works we need to be careful what type and how much Christian radio and TV we listen to or watch. Some of it is very well packaged, very attractive and targets what we want. For instance, I may want the gift of healing. Why? Well, mostly for selfish reasons. I’d like to heal myself, my family, my friends, my brothers and sisters. And when I do, I’ll look great because I’ve got the gift of healing. If our desire for the gift of healing was rightly motivated we might actually be in a better place to get it! We may want the gift of healing and a well-meaning TV preacher might suggest how we can go about seeking it. But often times we are also promised perfect health, perfect finances and perfect protection; all the things that appeal to that part of us that wants it all! More Christian radio and more Christian TV are not necessarily better. Moving from one program to another, one preacher to another, or one scriptural emphasis to another can actually become quite confusing because of the contradictions between differing theologies.
Having unrealistic expectations can be a setup for failure, for disillusionment and disappointment. They are, in fact, one of the rampant reasons for divorce. We get in our mind a certain Hollywood or TV understanding of what marriage is and then later we’re disappointed that our expectations were not met. That person turned out not to be the perfect person that she thought she was or that I created in my mind. Marriage and raising children is a lot of work and anyone who presents it otherwise obviously has never had a wife and children!
Unrealistic expectations are also one of the reasons for disbelief and despair. We see this in the scriptural depiction of Judas. Judas had a view, an expectation of Christ that was unrealistic. Jesus didn’t meet that expectation and Judas despaired. He was overcome by guilt and shame and went out and hanged himself. We don’t know if he despaired until the last moment, the last second, that last breath. We don’t know what his eternal destiny became. But it was a bad ending!
Expectations can be unrealistic meaning excessive, or they can be unreal meaning that they really don’t line up with reality and are defined as fantasy. For instance, if we use the gift of healing as an example we may ask, “Is there a gift of healing?” We know from Scripture that there is and so we can answer in the affirmative. “Can I heal everyone?” Our experience would suggest a negative response. “Can the great healers like Katherine Kuhlman heal everyone?” Here, too, the answer would be a clear ‘no’. “Could Jesus heal everyone?” From what we read in the Scriptures we can say ‘yes’. “Did the disciples heal everyone?” Certainly not. To be given or to receive the gift of healing and then to assume you will be able to heal everyone you pray for is unrealistic. But if you say, “I have the gift of healing” and you don’t, then that’s just unreal and fantasy. Expectations can be either unrealistic or simply unreal.
We will be disappointed with Christianity if we misunderstand what it promises. If we create new promises and suggest that this new mode of Christianity is the right approach, or if we latch on to only a certain set of promises, we can develop unrealistic expectations for Christianity.
Some of us have seen or may even have a ‘promise box’. It’s a little box containing Scripture promise cards, one for each day of the year. It can be of some benefit to us as we consider the promises God has made to us. But we often fail to see that scripture also has a set of curses, and I’ll bet no one has ever seen a Scripture ‘curse box’ or a box of verses that says, “If you do this you’ll get into this kind of trouble!” It wouldn’t sell very well – even with a really good, colorful package! Christianity can be disappointing if we don’t understand what it promises. The same is true for Christian community. If we make it into something that it isn’t or exaggerate what it offers we can become disappointed with it or simply just give up on it. Sometimes it’s simply because we have the wrong idea about what Christian community is or what it’s supposed to be. In fact, very often, that’s the case.
What Are Our Expectations? Here and There – John 10:10
There are expectations you can have of this life and the next, and there are expectations you can have in the natural and in the spiritual. For the next life we can expect eternal life in the presence of God. Here, in the natural, we tend to expect health, provision and protection. Those are common expectations to have. Here, in the spiritual, we expect to have a relationship with Jesus. We expect the baptism in the Holy Spirit. We expect spiritual power for healing and miracles.
As we consider our expectations it would be wise to avoid an approach that says ‘what’s in it for me’ versus one which is directed toward living for God and others. As soon as we take a self-centered approach, it’s not Christianity that we’re walking into anymore, especially if it’s primarily ‘what’s in it for me’. Most of us come into our lives as Christians through that door. Christianity offers something good so we can tend to have that orientation for ourselves. But John 10:10 says,
“… I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Jesus is saying, “I offer life and I offer life in abundance.” That is what’s in it for me, and that is what’s in it for all of us, but it’s important for us understand what he actually means. If your expectations of Christianity don’t lead to an increasingly less self-centered approach then your expectations will be unreal, your disappointment will be certain, and somewhere down the road you will at least incur discipline and may, in fact, turn and run the other way!
The ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to Christianity must give way to nobler postures. For example, one of the sisters in the community recently told me a story of a man she met whose wife was in a sad decline suffering from multiple sclerosis. As her husband, he’d been caring for her through her illness. While he courageously cared for her, people repeatedly asked him, “Why are you still with her?” He was rather incredulous because of his love for his wife, the vows he’d taken and his understanding of marriage. He was simply fulfilling his promise to care for his wife in sickness and in health. But in today’s culture it strikes people as odd that someone would consider such a selfless act. Because our culture is becoming more and more narcissistic and self-centered, it makes no sense that he would stay with his wife and continue to care for her. But he is living the Christian response to the need of that moment. He’s no longer in a ‘what’s in it for me’ posture toward his wife, but has grown past a selfish approach to caring for his wife and having the right response to what it means to be married. That’s the ‘living for others’ growth or evolution that should take place.
What Our Expectations Should Be…How to Approach the Question
We can learn something about the kind of expectations we should have by giving a more thoughtful look at John 10:10. We can also look at the Lord’s Prayer. When the disciples approached the Lord and said, “Teach us to pray”, he gave them what amounts to a 20 second rote prayer. We could say that prayer in a matter of seconds, but if we really stop to look at what’s in it, we could pray it for an hour! It begins by saying, “Our Father who art in heaven…thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” If you start with the kingdom of God and his will you can then add your intercessions: give us this day our daily bread, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil…
Something to notice about the intercessions is that they are fairly simple; they’re not complicated. We’d like our physical need for food to be met; we’d like the temptations to be kept to a minimum, and we’d like to be free from the influence of the devil. Pretty simple intercessions, but only after the beginning orientation: “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” If that’s our orientation, Christianity will work very well for us. If our orientation is ‘what’s in it for me’ and begin with intercessions while ignoring or overlooking the kingdom and his will, it won’t work so well!
We can search the Scriptures to learn what to expect. When we do that, whether it’s with the use of a ‘promise box’ or by some other means, we need to learn to see and embrace the difficult scriptures as well. Jesus did say there would be persecution and suffering and that some would be killed. It’s not the kind of thing people normally sign up for!
Mark 8:29-32a … Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; others say Elijah, and others one of the prophets.”… And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.
Jesus was very clear in telling his disciples what was about to happen to him. Remember that he also asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (He also asks that same question of each of us.) Peter answered him, “You are the Christ…” Peter had the right answer, but he had the wrong expectations of what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ. Like many of the disciples, Peter had a far more political messiah in mind and his thoughts were in obvious conflict with the mind and mission of Jesus.
Reading further we see that Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. In one version it says …and looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan.” Now, that’s a scary scripture! Nobody wants to be called Satan by Jesus. But the verse that follows is even scarier than that! Then Jesus said, “For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
Another version says, “Satan, get behind me! You are looking at this only from a human point of view…” Still another says, “…you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men. The version I heard most recently said, “You’re thinking like a man, not like God.” As a man, I find that verse scary because the natural default is to think like a man, reason like a man, act like a man. But as we consider what our expectations should be, one of the first things we need to learn is to think not like a man, but like God.
To be a disciple of Christ is to have a transformation of your mind (Romans 12:2) and to learn to think like God. In fact, that should be one of the first requirements of a disciple! Yet, we observe the disciples, who are being trained by Jesus, walking with him, seeing miracles and exorcisms, getting in and out of all sorts of scrapes and seeing tremendous things happen, and still they don’t get it! They still don’t think like God at this point.
Again, we’re looking at ‘here’, or our earthly life, both in the natural realm and the spiritual. In the natural, we should expect some help with health, provision and protection. Occasionally, we should see some miracles, maybe more often than we do. If we follow the Lord things will actually go better for us, even in the natural.
When the Lord gave the Ten Commandments he said to Moses, greatly paraphrased, “The nations around you will see and say, ‘these people are blessed by God.’ They will see that you’re doing better than they are.” A lot of times we take both Christianity and even the Ten Commandments so personally that we don’t realize that they were given to a people. This people will do better than the nations around them because they’re following the Ten Commandments. Some people within that people will still be sick. Some people within that people will die, in fact, they will all die. Some people will be poor, some will be wealthy, but this people will do better. If we follow the Lord as a people we will do better. Some of us will be poor, some will be wealthier. Some will be healthier, some will get cancer. We don’t get to avoid the human condition, but when we do face trials and difficulties and call on the Lord, we may see miracles and cures and receive answers. Generally, as a people, we will do better than the other ‘nations’ around us.
In John 14:22-23, Judas (not Iscariot) said to him,
“Lord, How is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
That is the abundant life in a nutshell! It is the Father and the Son making their home in you and me; being within us in a way that makes a difference in how we live. Keeping his word, doing what he asks of us and obeying his will are of utmost importance. We love God, we keep his word and we receive the presence of God.
There is good news in terms of what our expectations should be. For instance, here in the spiritual realm we should expect to get the baptism in the Holy Spirit. It’s the very first sign given to Peter that the Gentiles could be saved; that they could be part of the kingdom of God. It says in Acts 10 that Peter heard them “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” So the baptism in the Spirit was the sign that you and I, as Gentiles, could come into a relationship with God. That’s good news! The baptism of the Spirit is real. It’s not some phony TV thing that someone created on a whim. It’s the most reliable spiritual effect of anything I’ve witnessed in Christianity. When we get together to pray for the baptism in the Spirit, it happens. It’s reliable, it’s repeatable and I’ve seen it now for over 40 years. When I was baptized in the Spirit back in Seattle in 1970, I didn’t know very much, but I was able to receive it and it changed my whole life!
Also in the spiritual realm we should expect mystery and sovereignty. Those are two troublesome words. We need to expect and accept that there will be things we are just not able to understand in this life, and may not in the next.
…I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer…Revelation 6:9-10
The Lord said, “Just rest a little longer…” It’s as if he is saying, “Don’t bother me right now; that’s not what I’m doing at the moment.” We may hear a similar word from the Lord when we make a request of him to relieve our pain or fix a certain situation. His response to us might be, “Sit over there for a while; I’m not ready to deal with that just yet.” But these are the martyrs! These are the ones who have laid down their lives for the Lord and he’s saying, “Yeah, but there’s going to be more joining you so until they all get here, you’ll have to wait.” He does give them white robes! But he really doesn’t, at the point of their request, answer their prayer as though they can tell him what to do! That is sovereignty! And that’s mystery! Why doesn’t he answer them? Because God is sovereign! He can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. One of my expectations for heaven or ‘there’ is that I would not have to listen to the martyrs crying out from under the altar. But I would be mistaken.
We may sometimes find ourselves wrestling with painful circumstances, illnesses and various trials or nagging spiritual questions that are difficult to understand. As hard as we might try, we cannot find answers that satisfy our need to fit the pieces together in a neat little puzzle. Well-meaning people might sometimes say, “Eventually everything will make sense.” I personally don’t believe that. I don’t think our minds are big enough for everything to make sense to us, and I think there are things that we will never understand. Everything that God knows is far beyond our knowing. We won’t be able to process everything that’s ever happened. We don’t have the capacity now and we might never have that ability. We can, however, take some comfort in knowing that he does reveal some things to us and gives us the opportunity to gain wisdom and understanding of him and his will as we grow in relationship with him. But in the face of everything you can find in scripture and when you think you’ve got Christianity all figured out, remember that you were warned to expect mystery and sovereignty.
What To Do? How to Approach the Question… “we see dimly”
Before you begin to search out what Christianity really means take a step back. What did the life of Jesus look like? What did the life of the apostles look like? What did the life of the disciples look like? If someone on the radio is selling you a nicely packaged, colorful version of Christianity that doesn’t look like the life of Jesus, or the apostles, or the disciples, be careful because you might be disappointed upon opening that box!
For example, Judas the Zealot clung to his expectation and his criteria for the messiah and it failed him. The Zealots were the ones who wanted to drive out the Romans and that’s what they were expecting the messiah to do. When it became clear that Jesus had not come for that purpose Judas attempted to turn up the fire a bit in order to get the pot to boil. He tried to change Jesus to fit his expectations. He refused to adjust when he realized that Jesus’ messiahship was in conflict with what he expected. That leads to despair. We conform to his expectations, not the other way around. That leads to holiness.
Peter was also mistaken as we read in the earlier Scripture passage from Mark. Like Judas, his understanding of the role of the messiah was skewed and he couldn’t accept that Jesus should have to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. His understanding of what the messiah was supposed to be didn’t mesh with Jesus’ reality. But he grew through that and he continued to grow. Later, in Acts 10:15, well after Pentecost, Peter was praying and received a vision from the Lord telling him to kill and eat some animals that previously the Lord had deemed unclean. What does Peter do? He says, “No, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the Lord said, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” In other words, “Peter, you have your own ideas, but you’re to follow me, so don’t ever reject anything that I say is clean.” Following that vision the Lord sent him to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, who was thought by the Jews to be unclean, and Peter baptized him and his whole household. Here, Peter comes to understand the vision and what God was telling him through it. Shortly thereafter, Peter asked,
“How can we refuse the baptism of water to these (the Gentiles) who have already been baptized in the Holy Spirit?”Acts 10:47
From his earliest days while he was living in the company of Jesus to those well after Jesus had gone into heaven, Peter was able to grow through his misunderstandings and continued to adjust his expectations while Judas, refusing to adjust, chose rather to despair.
Another example is that of the disciples in Acts 1 after the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. They had been with Jesus before he died and were witnesses to his Resurrection. The Lord spent 40 days with them, walking with and teaching them. The scene is at the foot of the mount of the Ascension where he is about to be taken up into heaven. When they had come together they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Again, we see that the disciples expected the messiah to restore the kingdom to Israel. To them, that was the main value – Israel had to be restored. Wrong expectations got Judas in terminal trouble. They got Peter in trouble earlier when Jesus rebuked him referring to him as ‘Satan’. And here, as Jesus is about to ascend, the disciples are still unclear about the purposes of Jesus’ coming. It seems Jesus might be losing patience with them at this point when he says, “It’s not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you…” Everything is pointing them in the direction of Pentecost.
Ten days later they are gathered in the Upper Room and the Holy Spirit fell upon them in power. From this point on we never hear the question asked, “Lord, when will you restore the kingdom of Israel?” Never again do they ask that question! They are coming to understand a bit more clearly the purposes of God in sending Jesus.
As the Holy Spirit comes upon us at different times we can expect purification of our own misplaced expectations. We can, in fact, expect to look a little smarter as we move through our life with the Lord. But we cannot claim things that the first apostles and disciples could not get to work. If somebody is trying to teach you that you can claim something or get something to happen that the apostles couldn’t get to happen or that the disciples couldn’t get to happen, you’re probably not going to be able to get that to work. Watch out for those kinds of teachings that look far different from what we see in scripture. It would be great if we could get to work what the disciples got to work! But we’re not even there yet!
We can also ask the question, “What did Christianity look like for the great Christians of our own tradition?” Were they ever sick? Did they die? Were some of them poor? We should learn from that.
In working our way from the first apostles and disciples to great Christians throughout history and finally down to us, we can ask, “What have we been able to get to work so far, after the years we’ve spent following the Lord?” Are you ever sick? Are some of us not very well-off? Do we ever wrestle with sin and depression? Of course we do! But the real question should be, “What does God expect of us?” “What does his word teach us about his expectations for us as individuals and as a people?” “What does he require and how should we respond?”
First, I would strongly encourage us to choose discipleship. The word ‘Christian’ or ‘Christians’ occurs only 3 times in the whole New Testament. The words ‘disciple’ or ‘discipleship’ occur 269 times. Somewhere along the line Christianity no longer expected discipleship. Or the way it gets described isn’t really discipleship. For many Christians it has delved into living a good life and showing up on Sunday … it’s personal rather than corporate; private, rather than evangelistic. Discipleship means pursuing the Lord, going after the Lord for formation and growth; having our lives centered in and given over to the will of God.
Second, choose obedience to his will. We know some things that he really wants us to do. We know that he really wants us to obey the Great Commission. Do we wrestle with that? We need to decide as individuals and/or families to find ways to share hospitality with others: opening our homes to hospitality that is Christ-centered; identifying relationships that could be improved or deepened to include the Lord, etc.
There was an article in the Living Bulwark called Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only? by a teacher named Dallas Willard. He has probably written about 30 books and is probably most well-known in evangelical circles. He wrote this:
Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly the abundance of life that Jesus said he came to bring.”
So we’ve come full circle back to John 10:10 where Jesus said he came to bring abundance of life. Dallas Willard is saying that if you choose non-discipleship you’ll be choosing something other than the abundant life.
We should take some time to humbly lay down our expectations of Christianity before the foot of the Cross and at least try to commit ourselves to taking on what he has for us, what his expectations are of Christianity, the life that he wants to give us, and obedience to that so that the Father and the Son will come and make their home with us. Our eternity really could be at stake. I believe we need to lay it at the Cross, take up the Cross and follow him.
What Can We Expect from Christianity and from Christ? is excerpted from the book, Choosing Discipleship: Embracing the Call in a Modern Culture, Chapter 7, © 2019 Bob Tedesco, published by Credo House Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.
Top image of Shining Cross and Road, from Christian Photoshops.com, illustration by © by Kevin Carden. Quote from John 10:10 added.
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.