No-longer New: #4. Expectation vs. experience

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Setting up expectations

One of the things that CMS (Church Missionary Society) did in preparation for sending us to Cambodia is to help us construct helpful expectations for our time serving on location. Having never been to Cambodia, we constructed our initial expectations of what our life might be like based on glimpses of Cambodia that we had access to in Australia. These initial experiences came from things like meeting Cambodians in Melbourne, discussions with other missionaries already in Cambodia, through to what we learnt about Cambodia from books, lectures and other resources. CMS helped us combine these introductory experiences with some planning and preparation in order to put together some expectations for what it might be like to live in Cambodia.1 These expectations served as a foundation for our experience of Cambodia.

Moving from expectations to experience

After a year of now experiencing Cambodia, I’m able to look back and contrast some of my expectations with my experience. Some of my expectations matched my experience. We were stressed, lost and it took time to start to feel settled here in Cambodia. Expecting these things helped me survive these experiences. Good expectations assist our experience. 

But even the best of expectations will miss the mark. While I expected to be stressed, the experience of stress was much greater than I ever could have expected. No surprises here. Expectations will never match our experience. For example, the experience of bullying is always different from our expectation of being bullied. Our experience of parenthood is always different from our expectations about parenthood. Experience is the full bodied expression of what our expectations are only a glimpse of.

The nature of expectations

Four things I’m learning about expectations.

Firstly, our expectations will always be a mix of on the mark and completely missing it. Some expectations will match our experience and some won’t (whether by exceeding it, failing to meet it or just being completely wrong). But even the best expectations will still fall short of matching completely the experience.

Secondly, I’m learning that experience sheds light on expectations, particularly implicit expectations. As we experience something, we have the opportunity to learn. We are able to reflect on how well our explicit expectations matched the experience. But also, the experience sheds light on some of those expectations that were less explicit. Experiencing stress in Cambodia, a new country and culture, is an opportunity for me to see what I was expecting even if I wasn’t aware I was expecting it. Experience highlights implicit expectations that we could never have predicted, even with the best preparation.

Thirdly, expectations combined with experience provide a learning cycle that can give way to new expectations. The hope is that we are able to refine earlier expectations and take these refined expectations into our new experiences. While these new expectations will never match the new experience, the aim is that we will become better at expecting, to the point where our expectations more approximate the experience.

Fourthly, wrong expectations aren’t necessarily a problem. Put another way, perfect expectations is not the goal. In fact, sometimes I don’t think its about right or wrong expectations necessarily, it seems to be more about how tightly we hold those expectations. There’s a freedom in this. The pressure is off to always set up expectations that are exact, but rather to be ready to let our expectations be moulded and changed based on the experience. Further, this can be said for those who repeatedly have high expectations as well as those who consistently have low expectations (though I know which way I normally tend to lean). So no matter whether we aim too high or aim too low, sometimes it’s about how we hold expectations. Are you in danger of squeezing too tightly? I know I am. I need to hold expectations loosely enough to be useful in experience without strangling the life out of experience.


  1.  I’m thankful for this aspect of the training and I think they prepared us as well as I think is possible for a missionary sending organisation. 

Fav Provs 28: Less than ‘great expectations’

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Proverbs 28:3

A ruler who oppresses the poor

is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

High expectations. Our society has them. I definitely have them, just ask my wife.

What is the result of our high expectations – oppression. High expectations are oppressive as we expect more out of people than they are able to give.1 The result of our high expectations is that we become slave drivers; like a driving rain on a crop. We deprive the poor, or those under us. I’m guilty of high expecations in my family and in my work.

This proverb speaks to all of us, since oppression isn’t just in the obvious forms of oppression that we might see in the actions of a dictator, or totalitarian regimes. Seeds of oppression are in all our actions, no matter how big or small. In all of our interactions in some way we are–to take the image further–all are robbing others of their fruitfulness or cropfulness.

The antidote then, and even business sense has seen this, is to make those around us great. Rather than rob, we give. This doesn’t just mean gifts or handouts, but having the right expectations of those under us. Giving them the space they need, giving them the resources or support to complete tasks we give them. The result of good expectations is that those under us thrive, rather than being left cropless. Right (or better) expectations are good for those around us. But better expectations are good for us as well, lowering anxiety and worry and and freeing us from the overworking tendencies of those high expectations to just working with what you have. The result is that right expectations are good for those under us and good for us as well; oppression not only robs the oppressed, but also the oppressor.

We won’t remove all oppression in this life, but we can work towards reducing it. We need to recognise the oppression in all our actions and repent, constantly. Then the God who is kind to us in Jesus will, by his Spirit, help us to drive away oppression, instead of driving away others. When I am kind and look out for others I enable them to bear the fruit that my oppression would have just stripped away.


  1. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have high ideals. But ideals need to be brought down into the realm of reality, working with people where they are at.