Everyone is familiar with the Disney formula. Impossibly hopeless underdog finally overcomes every obstacle in becoming the hero he was meant to be. Yet, this seemingly inspiring message sets the stage for depression and discouragement. Why? Because it creates an expectation gap between who we are and who we think we should be. If the message is “everyone can be an all-star hockey player and defeat the Russians” then it creates constant disappointment in ourselves every time we miss a shot.
I have personally been a victim of this dichotomy of who I am and who I want to be. I wake up many mornings thinking I should be ready to run the 400 meter dash with gold-medal Olympians only to limp across the finish line in last place. Spiritually I think I should be more mature than I actually am. This breeds discouragement in my heart. I would be happier to accept that I am an amateur runner that wins more races against people just like me as we limp along.
Our pastor has recently been talking about series of messages about the Christian life. There are five stages of spiritual growth he’s covering. Here they are in order. 1. The defeated Christian 2. The coping Christian 3. The growing Christian 4. The free Christian and 5. The fruitful Christian. These messages have forced me to identify with a stage and I would place myself as a coping/growing Christian. Of course they are not stages with clean boundaries. We all have a little of each. Yet I would say I am mostly at the coping growing stages. Having accepted this even as I really want to believe I am a fruitful Christian actually increased my happiness. I’m no longer a level 5 with level 10 expectations and constant discouragement but I’m a level 5 with level 5 expectations and constant encouragement!
In fact I would say that having high expectations of oneself can be fueled by self-defeating pride. It may be the root cause of what psychologists call “low self-esteem”, something I see everyday at the adolescent psych unit I work at. Not to pick on our “culture” again, but I’m going to pick on “our culture again”. It’s making it worse… For example, we’ve all seen pristine and beautiful pictures of the Eiffel Tower, yet if you’ve ever been there in person, as my wife can tell you, “it’s rusty, small and disappointing”. This happens everyday as we see the idealized version of everything. As we open our Better Homes and Gardens magazine and see the perfect house (no baby toys strewn about the floor) or turn on Rachel Ray as the perfect Spiced Rum Cake pops out of the oven (no string of expletives because you added 2 cups of salt instead of sugar).
Now this discrepancy in our expectations happens on an individual scale as well. We are told we can be anything we want if we just believe, yet of course we can’t escape the constant disappointment of our sinful selves. As Paul cries out in Romans 7 “who will save me from this body of death”. His expectations were right where they should be and it shouldn’t be suprising then that he had more joy than most of us do. I asked a young man at the psych unit the other day “what stresses you out the most?” he told me “not knowing what is wrong with me”. When I asked him to elaborate, he exclaimed, “I keep doing what is wrong, I don’t know why I lie all the time and I can’t control my behavior”. This was a refreshing moment of transparency as I gazed through the window into a world we all experience everyday…. Who we think we should be and who we actually are. He was disappointed. Low self-esteem comes from high expectations.
Fortunately for us, we don’t need to be spiritual Olympians to impress God or to be loved by him. He knows our ability levels perfectly and is impressed with even the seemingly smallest of victories. And our joy isn’t mainly derived from how we perform but from God’s grace that covers us when we don’t. So be on the safe side and do you best to assess your spiritual maturity where it is really at. Don’t be afraid to admit, “I’m coping Christian”. Of course God is always smiling over us, but he sure is pleased when we hobble across the finish line with a smile on our face as well.