5 – Managing our expectations

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

When we prepare for going overseas, we are encouraged to become aware of our expectations. We are told this because dashed expectations is what often overwhelms first term overseas workers, causes conflict, and even sends them home discouraged.

I remember trying to identify what my expectations were before I went overseas; but, I could not really identify them. I thought I had none, except that I expected things to go somewhat wrong. The way I discovered my expectations was when things irritated, frustrated, or discouraged me. My irritation, frustration, or discouragement revealed to me my expectations. It was at those times that the Spirit asked me to realign my expectations to the on-the-ground realities.

Not to frighten anyone from going overseas, but, few of us can anticipate how wrong things can go. I think we all try to follow the advice to be flexible and prepare our minds for any potentialities. Yet, there is no way to anticipate how wrong things can go and how we are going to react when things do go wrong.

Why is this? It is because it isn’t just one thing that goes wrong. What happens to many of us is that a series of things pile up on top of each other. It is the accumulation of these things that put us over the edge.

First, simply leaving the familiar and moving to the unfamiliar stretches each one of us. A person cannot even anticipate how much it stretches us. The usual sign that we are being overstretched is the exhaustion we feel at the end of a typical day. It may be the end of the day at work and we have absolutely no energy left over for language study. We wonder why we are so tired. Work in our passport country never made us feel this tired. It may be the exhaustion we feel at the middle of the afternoon during language study. We find we are more tired than we ever were after a full day in college or in grad school.

Second, in addition to this daily tiredness, if we, the spouse, or the children get sick, or the job we had anticipated doing does not really exist, and some of the colleagues we work with seem to have over-adapted to the culture and act in ways that appear wrong, and then the electricity vanishes for a couple of days and there’s no water for a proper shower- these are the times when we can hit the culture shock wall at full speed. Our emotional capacity to cope has been overstretched and we explode into anger, tears, or both.

It is at these times that we can feel that the Lord has let us down. We wonder what happened to the hundredfold that we should be getting since we left everything to follow him (Mark 10:28-30).

When we follow the Lord where he leads us, we have a set of unconscious expectations of God. Our expectations are not necessarily unrealistic; they are shaped by God’s promises. What blindsides us is our feeling that God has not lived up to our understanding of his promises- he has not lived up to our expectations.

If ever you find yourself down this path, know that you are not alone. Many of us have been there. Even Abram (Abraham) found himself in a similar situation.

When God called Abram, God made some powerful promises. We find these in Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3

God promised to bless Abram, to protect him, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him. Some powerful promises! Embedded in these promises was a command. God wanted Abram to leave his family, his land, and follow him into the unknown. So, Abram did. He said his goodbyes, gathered his wife, servants, and belongings, and set out for Canaan’s land.

When Abram finally arrived in Canaan’s land, what did he encounter? He encountered a severe drought. We read about this in Genesis 12:10: Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.

Everything was going wrong! The drought was so severe that Abraham apparently questioned the viability of God’s promise to protect and bless him. With such a drought he could not stay in the land.

This drought caused Abram to question not just one of God’s promises, he questioned the viability of the others. As a result, Abram had to find a way to protect himself and his entourage. So, Abram took matters into his own hands and decided to go down to Egypt.

Sarai was uncommonly attractive, even at her advanced age. Since God was planning to give her a child he may have been keeping Sarai stronger and healthier than most women her age. This is only conjecture; but it is possible. Yet, we do know that she was beautiful. To protect himself and his entourage Abram asked Sarai to identify herself as his sister. We read of Abram’s fears in verses 11-13:

11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

Sarai was aware of the possible outcome of such an action. She lived in the same world as Abram. She knew that she could be married off to a powerful Egyptian man.

The very thing Abram feared happened. The Egyptians saw Sarai and were amazed; she was stunning. They told Pharaoh. When Pharaoh saw her, he wanted to marry her. We read of this in Genesis 12:14-15:

14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.

Abram was completely culpable in Sarai’s marriage to Pharaoh. Verse 19 tells us that Pharaoh did not take Sarai by force. Pharaoh had talked with Abram and made arrangements about the marriage. We know this because Pharaoh said to Abram after he had been disciplined by God: Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife (12:19)?

What adds insult to injury is that the use of the Hebrew idiom “take for one’s wife” in verse 19 indicates that Pharaoh had consummated the marriage (compare with Genesis 6:2, 16:3-4).

Due to Abram’s lack of faith everything had gone desperately wrong. Abram had given his wife away to another man, and Sarai had gone along with the ruse in order to protect Abram.

What is going on here? What happened to God’s promises? Why didn’t God keep the severe drought from happening?

There are no answers to these questions. We are not told why God allowed the drought to happen. We are simply told that it happened and we see Abram’s lack of faith and the outcomes of his choices.

So, why is this story recorded?

First, We learn from this story that God doesn’t live up to our expectations. We are not told why God allowed the severe drought to happen. We are simply told that it happened. If it happened to Abram, it can happen to us. Therefore, when we follow God we are to give space for the unexpected.

Second, I think the story exists so we can ask ourselves how we will respond when everything seems to go wrong. Are we going to go our own way as Abram did?

This is something we cannot answer with certainty ahead of time. However, we can prepare ourselves for the unexpected by developing healthy spiritual disciplines, such as private and corporate prayer, maintaining a circumspect conscience with God and others, regular times in the Word – not just alone, but with others – and a consistent and intentional practice of depending upon God in all of life’s endeavors.

Abram’s faith could not carry him through the drought, so he journeyed away from God and downward into self-preservation mode. We know these were bad decisions because of the way Abram moves back into Canaan’s land in Chapter 13:1-4. He retraces his steps till he gets to Bethel and there he calls on the name of the Lord as he did when he first came into the land:

13:1 So ABRAM went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. 2 Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. 3 He journeyed on by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 4 to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the LORD.

This retracing of his steps is a subtle way of indicating that Abram had gone in the wrong direction.

The outcome of this bizarre episode in Abram’s life does not make any sense to us. Even though Abram made bad decisions, God was faithful to him. Though Abram did not look to God to protect him, God watched over Abram and protected him. He struck Pharaoh’s house in order to get things back to the way he wanted.

What is perplexing is that even though Abram seems to stray, he comes out rich. In verse 16 we read: And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. Abram not only acquires wealth, he keeps it all when he leaves: And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had (12:20).

Why does Abram wind up financially better off even when he failed so miserably?

Could it be that God wants us to learn something about himself through this story?

Psalm 139 tells us that we can never get away from God’s presence, even when we run away. In addition, Psalm 103:10 tells us that God loves us and cares for us and does not treat us as our sins deserve. So, is God teaching us through this story that when everything goes wrong and we falter, no matter what path we take he is always with us and always waiting for our wholehearted return to him?

God knows that many of us who go overseas will encounter difficulties that can test us to the core. He knows that we are not always going to successfully navigate the treacherous waters we encounter. Our faith may falter. This story lets us know that he is with us in these times of darkness. This story is to help us endure and to encourage and keep us from taking a wrong turn. It is also written so we can be assured that he is with us even if we take a wrong turn.

All of us fail in some way. If and when we do, this story lets us know that we are just like the father of our faith, Abraham. Look where God took him and see what God accomplished through him! If God can accomplish his purposes through Abraham, he can surely accomplish them through you and me.

So, let’s not be overwhelmed and feel abandoned by God in those times when all seems to go wrong. Let’s take the words that Paul utters in absolute confidence as our own:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

In conclusion, there are phases to culture shock. There is the romance phase, and then there is the shock phase. If we can through prayer, drawing on God’s grace, effectively manage our expectations and our reactions and get through the shock phase which is described in this post, then we will get to the balanced, realistic phase. What I have seen is that when we get through to this phase, we begin to experience the fruit of our calling; and life and service overseas becomes an immense privilege and a source of joy.