Unrealistic Expectations: Living in an Irreligious Culture

I find myself perplexed at a great paradox that exists in our culture today. While urging people to be themselves (or “Just be you” as Coca-Cola has advertised recently) there is a great confrontation when people will not conform to the standards that we expect. So while proclaiming everyone should be different, the world is discontented when people are different.
About five years ago, I applied to a Christian organization (I cannot remember if it was my university or my missions organization) and one of the questions asked me to share some of my weaknesses. In an honest way, I wrote that one weakness was unsustainable expectations of people in which I expect them to meet standards that I could not even meet myself. Such an ideology is not that implausible; in fact, it seems to be the norm. We often live by the principle in which we hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.
This philosophy is a dangerous one within our society. For Christians though, there is a unique aspect that we must consider. Theoretically, one who calls himself a Christian should be living a life that looks very different than the rest of the world, not in such a way that is meant to proclaim, “My way is better ” but instead should captivate others with the message that, “Christ’s way is better.” Unfortunately, the message we often convey is quite the opposite. It is one of condemnation of who they are instead of one of anticipation of who they could be.
The issue is that we expect unbelievers to think and act like believers. The problem with this mindset is that we expect sanctification apart from justification and it creates conflict with our interaction with others. Instead, we must remember that unbelievers exist in a state of great need for Christ and they have yet to fully understand that need. Therefore, we must adjust how we interact with people, by renovating our expectations of those who are unbelievers.
I recognize that such a statement can be met with an immediate gasp and even quicker dismissal. Therefore it is important to understand a couple of points of what is being suggested. First, please note what this does not signify. This is not a call to accept the following:
  • Theological Discord: While not expecting unbelievers to understand our theological positions, that does not mean we so readily accept theirs (and they do have some even if they claim not to).
  • Sinful Discord: Neither does this understanding mean we must accept their sin. Instead, we simply recognize they may not understand its severity and that can become an opportunity to point others to God even more.
  • Personal Discord: It can be easy to say that in order to reach the lost, we must adopt their activities and actions. This is far from the truth. We do not have blanket approval to act like the world in order to reach the world; more than anything this has the opposite effect.
Unbelievers exist in desperate need of Christ and therefore we should not expect them to yet be transformed by the Holy Spirit. However, that truth does not give permission to compromise either.
Therefore, if we do not have an excuse to compromise, it may be easy to ask, “Why does this mentality matter?” Because the mindset alters a number of aspects of our relationships with unbelievers in the following ways:
  • It Alters Our Expectations: The most obvious point is that it alters our expectations. Sin is sin, but neither should we be surprised when an unbeliever not only does not acknowledge something as sin, but also rejects the Christian mentality about it and a number of other concepts.
  • It Alters Our Confrontation: It should alter the way we confront. In truth, we should always confront with truth that is seasoned by both grace and love. However, when we recognize that they do not have the same mindset as unbelievers, grace can often be more accessible and available.
  • It Alters Our Evangelism: Finally, if both our expectations and manner of confrontation are altered, then it can be expected that the way in which we evangelize the unsaved person is also altered.
Simply put this matters. It matters because it can impact both our testimony before an unbelieving world and the manner in which we approach them.
Our expectations of an unbelieving world can have dire consequences. However, it’s important to recognize that our standards are not meant to direct them to conform to our character but to conform to Christ’s character. Until they also come to that recognition, the standards, mannerisms, and mentality will be in direct conflict with ours. Therefore, our expectations must be adjusted to reflect who they are without Christ. It will come with a great exercise of great faith and great patience, but is a necessity as we carry the gospel message to the unbelieving world.

Photo “Conformity” courtesy of user Shaun Fisher and Flickr.