Last month, NPR’s This American Life published an episode entitled “Batman.” In this case Batman was not the caped crusader of Gotham, but Daniel Kish, a blind man who learned very early in life how to find his way through the world using echolocation (like a bat…get it?), even to the point of being able to ride a bicycle. Through the hour-long show, the interviewers and participants give extraordinary insight into what it’s like to be blind in America – especially how low expectations (often based in fear) may hinder young blind people from experiencing the world more fully. The priority is usually to protect blind people from physical harm; whereas if they were set loose and pushed they may very well be able to develop skills like the Batman’s. So much so that some neuroscientists believe blind people who learn to echolocate (by repeatedly making clicking noises with their mouth and listening to how the sound changes) develop something that is very close to actual sight. They cannot see colors or read, but their brain’s visual cortex is operating at a level similar to the rest of ours when we use our peripheral vision.
The first thing that amazed me is simply how amazing people are – both in their physiological makeup and in their persistence to find a way. Truly human beings are a wonder to behold!
But what’s stuck with me more is simply the power of expectations. Through the stories of several blind people and other scientific study, the producers were able to make the strong but simple case: people will progress according to the expectations of those around them. Young blind people will progress more successfully if they are pushed rather than protected, if the important people in their life share an implicit assumption of success through trial and failure. More broadly and simply: people grow when their important people believe they will grow.
And here was the rebuke to my heart. Could it be, even to a small extent, that the lack of spiritual growth for some in my congregation could be due to my low expectations for them? Could my pessimism be keeping people from achieving the maturity that God intends for them?
Let me explain: I feel that I am a generally upbeat and positive person. I do my best to encourage others and help the pursue Christ faithfully. But the blunt truth is, I probably believe in some people more than I believe in others. Or more accurately, I may have more hope for some than I do for others. Maybe it’s because some folks’ sin have been around for so long, maybe it’s due to differences in personality. I don’t know. But I know it’s wrong.
It’s wrong first because it keeps others from growing. People are smarter than we think; they can tell fairly quickly whether you are trying to help them with great confidence and hope for their future or whether you are helping out of a last ditch effort. If our hope for their growth falters, they will probably live up to the new, lower expectation.
It’s also wrong because it’s blasphemous and unbiblical. We’re a few weeks into a sermon series on Philippians and I can’t help but be challenged by Paul’s unflappable confidence that the Philippian Christians will most certainly grow in Christ.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6)
Paul’s confidence isn’t the blind confidence of some salesmen or entrepreneurs, who don’t have the word “no” in their vocabulary and can find the proverbial silver lining in any cloud. Rather, his confidence is one that is based in the realities of God’s power and purpose. You can almost hear him reasoning, “If God sent His Son to die for you and gave His Spirit to you to cause you to live in Him…is it even imaginable that He’s going to stop there?!” The foundation of Paul’s ministry to his friends in the Philippian church was a certainty that they would be successful in their Christian life.
We’ve all been burned. Whether it’s the first-degree burns of being let down, of promises not kept; whether it’s the second-degree burns of seeing passionate Christians “burn out” or people rejecting Biblical counsel; or whether it’s the third-degree burns of seeing loved ones totally reject Jesus or Christian leaders fall far from grace, we’ve all been burned. So how do we maintain high expectations for God’s people while knowing full well that we may get burned again?
I honestly don’t have a full answer, but here are a few building blocks.
First, our confidence and expectations need to be based in God and not in people. If my expectations for you rise or fall based on your personality or your past, I have lost sight of the God who is the only source of true, Spiritual growth.
Second, choose. Would you rather be eagerly expecting every Christian to grow in grace and be proven wrong? Or would you rather be pessimistically wondering if any Christian will grow in grace and be proven right? I know it’s simplistic, but simple can be good.
May God protect you and me from ever lowering our expectations for each other. May He give us the strength to bounce back after every fresh disappointment with renewed expectations because of who He is. May He strengthen us to encourage others with the bold expectations of the gospel!