Have you ever felt like your life doesn’t measure up to someone else’s expectations? Maybe more than one someone? Maybe even your own? If you are nodding your head yes, I’m here to tell you I know how you feel. If we were sitting in a coffee shop talking about this in person, I’d probably reach out and squeeze your hand or lean over and give you a hug. Because it can be both heavy and guilt-inducing, carrying around unmet expectations.
Then, I’d take a sip of my coffee for courage, and I’d tell you how to find freedom, how to lay that burden down and walk away.
I don’t think my life looks the way other people imagined it would. I don’t think it looks the way I once imagined it would. I don’t think my family ever expected me to move 600+ miles from home or to keep on moving. I don’t think my parents expected me to marry so late, to have children in my late thirties and early forties. I’m pretty sure they worried a lot about that, and I’m even more certain that now, they wish they could see their grandkids more often.
I know plenty of people shook their heads when I walked away from a fruitful ten-year career in public education and jumped headlong into a season of joblessness because I was absolutely sure God had something else planned for me. (Spoiler alert: he did, and it arrived at exactly the right time. “The appointed time,” Scripture calls it. Just a side note on why it’s a good idea to follow God’s call.)
I know there are people who raise an eyebrow at the fact that I homeschool, because I also work, and they wonder how on earth I can do both of those things well. I know, based on occasional comments, that some people aren’t sure homeschooling is the best decision I could be making for my daughters.
If you’re like me, and you feel the silent but palpable weight of disappointment and/or disapproval at the shape of your life, then I have one question for you: Are you in the center of God’s will?
Whenever I feel the burden of unmet expectations descending, I step away and take a breath. I try to think back to the moments of decision about moves and jobs and schooling and anything else that feels in question, and when I get there, when I get back to those moments in my head, God is there waiting for me. I feel the warmth of his smile. I sense his reassurance. Peace floods my spirit. Because we made those decisions together, me and God (and, once I got married, my husband.)*
So the real question is not, “How do I set aside unmet expectations?” It is simply, “Is God in charge of my life?” Answer the second question, and the first becomes obsolete.
I’m not talking about past mistakes here, either—decisions you yourself regret (although you shouldn’t have to worry about unmet expectations in regard to those parts of your life, either, and what I’m about to tell you applies to this). I’m talking about now. Today. Is God leading your life right now? Are you following his leading? Heeding his call? Because that, friends, is where freedom lies. Whatever God has for you, I promise, leads to freedom.
Scripture says we can only serve one master, and he came to set us free (see Galatians 5:1).
It will be rare, unfortunately, that we find ourselves in the center of both God’s will, our own will, and the will of others, even the will of people who love us and claim to want the best for us. Even Jesus experienced this with his close friends and family.
Matthew 16: 21-27 is a good example:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Likewise, in Matthew 13:54-58, we get a glimpse at the idea that Jesus was not living up to the expectations of his family or the people he’d grown up with:
Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
But Jesus kept to his path, even when he didn’t really want to, knowing he was in the center of his heavenly father’s will. This should encourage us to do likewise, even when we face disappointment or disapproval.
See, I’m not talking about freedom from debt here, or addiction, or even freedom from pain and suffering. It’s neither as inconsequential nor as paramount as those things. It’s deeper and different. I’m talking about freedom of the soul. When we are in the center of God’s will, we experience freedom from earthly striving, from the work of trying to please others, from the pressure to perform a certain way or to be the person others think we ought to be. We can wake up in the morning and face the day unfettered. The very air looks, feels, and smells different. We are free to be who we are, where we are.
There is nothing greater than this kind of freedom. With it comes joy, peace, and the ability to handle trouble of all kinds. If you lack this kind of freedom, sister, then go now and ask for it. Ask God to show you where you need to be: the center of his will.
*Note: If your spouse is the source of your burden of expectations, that’s another conversation with an additional dimension to it. When considering the question of calling, it’s important to recognize the complexity of the topic. You might be resonating with the message of boldly pursuing how you believe God is calling you, yet feeling limited because of a family situation or your spouse’s expectations. That said, please know this message is for you, but at the same time, we at The Glorious Table want to acknowledge that there may be other dynamics at play, especially within the context of marriage. If you are looking for resources to further engage this topic, we recommend Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, as well as Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman.
Harmony Harkema has loved the written word for as long as she can remember. A former English teacher turned editor, she has spent the past seven years in the publishing industry. A novelist and blogger in the fringe hours of her working mom life, Harmony also has a heart for leading and coaching aspiring writers. Harmony lives in Memphis with her car-loving husband and two small daughters. She blogs at harmonyharkema.com.
Photograph © Aditya Saxena, used with permission