fight

Great expectations?

What expectations do you have in life? How do they affect you?

I learnt to juggle when I was around 12 years old, and it didn’t take long. Partly that’s because young people pick up new skills quickly, and partly it’s because juggling isn’t really very difficult. Over Easter I spent a bit of time trying to learn to ride a unicycle, and it was much harder. I suffered from a combination of being almost a decade older, and unicycling being a much more challenging skill to learn.

To give you an idea of the progress I made from a week of regular practice, I have progressed from sitting on the unicycle holding onto two stationary objects to being able to cycle while holding onto a wall for a few feet before falling off. It’s slow progress, but I’m happy with it. Why? Because I read on the internet that unicycling is a difficult skill to learn, and takes a lot of practice. Also, a friend who is able to unicycle told that there was no shortcut which could remove the need to practice. I started to learn with the expectation of a difficult challenge, so when I made a small amount of progress I was pleased about it.

Imagine if my expectations had been different. Imagine I’d expected to be a skilled rider at the end of the week, perhaps learning to perform basic tricks. Imagine if I’d gone to a skate park, and tried unicycling up a ramp. It wouldn’t have ended well for me, that’ s for sure! Having the right expectations was important for how I felt about my progress, and is important for how we feel about life more generally.

What expectations should Christians have of what their lives will be like? Do we expect life as a Christian to be no different from anyone else’s life? Do we expect to radically and rapidly transform into a state of joyous perfection? Do we expect some compromise between the two, or perhaps a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs?

I continually forget what the Christian life is like. I’ve been a Christian for years, but still my expectations get warped out of all reality. I typically find myself making one of two mistakes – either expecting an easy life or expecting life to be so hard I can never progress.

The Christian life isn’t an easy one. Even without any external suffering (and there is no guarantee of freedom from that) there is a constant battle with sin. No Christian is free from it, and only an unhealthy Christian doesn’t keenly feel it. When I forget to expect this, I am discouraged by my frequent failures to live up to my own moral standards, let alone God’s! But when I remember to expect it, I can turn to God for help fighting my sin. I can remind myself that it is God who works in and through me, and it is God who makes me progressively more holy. And I can have joy in the fight.

The opposite mistake could actually be viewed as the flip side of the same wrong expectation. It is remembering that there is a fight to be had, but forgetting to actually fight it! When I forget that progress is to be expected, and expect stagnation, I am essentially surrendering the fight. I despair at my sinfulness, and my helplessness to change it. But when I remember to expect change, I can turn to God for the necessary power to change. While I still acknowledge my weakness and inability to change, I can remind myself of the God who is changing me. And I can have joy in the change.

Getting the right expectations matter. They protect me from expecting too much, and the discouragement which comes when I don’t live up to my own expectations. They protect me from expecting too little, and missing out on progress God is delighted to give me. I need the right expectations. I need gospel expectations.

What expectations do you think are important in your life?

(For the articles which inspired this one, see The secret cause of discouragement and How to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones, both by Joshua Hood.)

Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.