The Expectation-Experience Gap

My youngest son, Philip, just got married two weeks ago in the same chapel where Rob and I were married almost 35 years ago. As I anticipated walking down the same aisle that ushered me into my marriage, I inevitably thought back to many fond and joyful memories…and also to the painful lessons of dying to self that brought both of us to our knees countless times in our manifest need for God’s grace. Before Rob and I said our “I do’s”, we had absolutely no idea how much devastating sin was lurking in our hearts. We didn’t even make it through our honeymoon before it became painfully evident that there was more to marriage than romantic moonlit walks and late-into-the-night conversations.

In Aaron’s first message in his new “Kindred” series, he mentioned the necessity of managing our expectations in marriage – a marriage that has wed together two sinners. Like many other young brides, I was disillusioned by the challenges in marriage which seemed to ignite a hidden anger and impatience in my heart at the slightest provocation.

Everyone brings conscious and subconscious expectations into marriage. They may be as simple as a desire for a clutter-free home or as emotion-laden as determining where and how to celebrate holidays. Unless we understand our expectations and the power they can wield in our relationships, the unity and intimacy in our marriages will be undermined and damaged.

In Peacemaking Women, authors Tara Klena Barthel and Judy Dabler warn couples about the danger of unrealistic expectations: “While some expectations are legitimate, many of our expectations are unrealistic because they require far more than anyone can give. We look for people to say, do, or be something specific – and then they fail to meet our expectation. We encounter a ‘gap’ between what we hope for and what we actually experience.”

In the first days of my marriage, I fell headlong into that expectation-experience gap (actually, more like a chasm). I had been so idealistic about marriage – believing that only bad marriages were hard. My disillusionment and disappointment often left me feeling hopelessly discouraged. In those early months, God was so faithful to gently and mercifully teach me life-giving Scriptural truths that would take decades to learn but would build my marriage into one of intimacy and deep friendship that were only possible by His grace.

In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus has an encounter with a sinful woman at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, with whom He is eating dinner. Simon is contemptuous when Jesus accepts the woman’s humble worship. Jesus rebukes Simon, and says, “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

In his 1706 commentary on the Bible, Matthew Henry explains that this verse is better rendered, “…her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, therefore she loved much.” He continues, “It is plain that her loving much was not the cause, but the effect, of her pardon. We love God because He first loved us; He did not forgive us because we first loved Him.” This woman’s love was the direct effect of her acknowledgment of her sin, her true repentance, and the forgiveness that Jesus offered her. She knew well the depth of her sin, and her love reflected that contrition.

The measure of our love for God and others is inextricably linked to the understanding we have of the depth of our own sin (not the sin of our spouse). The sinful woman in Luke 7 was overwhelmed by her sin. She recognized that her offense was before a holy and righteous God. She was sorrowful and penitent. She knew Jesus was her only hope.

Our sin may not be the same as hers, but our response to this passage should be one of deep personal identification with her. Our responses to our spouses when our expectations are unmet (e.g. anger, impatience, resentment, self-pity, etc) are an offense before a holy and righteous God. Like the sinful woman, we cannot hope to “love much” until we acknowledge the depth of our sin, even when we believe it to be insignificant or justifiable.

We so easily blame our spouses, highlight their sins, and build an airtight case against them. One of God’s main intentions for marriage is to expose the undeniable condition of our sinful hearts, so that we understand our desperate need for a Savior. In How People Change, Paul Tripp says, “As much as we are affected by our broken world and the sins of others against us, our greatest problem is the sin that resides in our hearts. That is why the message of the gospel is that God transforms our lives by transforming our hearts.”

Psalm 139:23-24 is so instructive. In these verses, David does not speak of the sin of others. He asks God to examine his heart:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting!

 David does not point his accusing finger at someone else. His heart is the concern of his cry to God. And it is to the extent that we understand our sin and embrace the completeness of our forgiveness that we are truly able to love our spouse with the freedom and fullness that God provides for us in Christ.

When I experience the expectation-experience gap, it is by God’s grace that I choose a response of patience instead of impatience, gracious and respectful communication instead of angry outbursts, forgiveness instead of resentment, compassion instead of contempt.

Marriage pushes us to the cross. It is there that we find hope, motivation, and power to learn how to be a loving spouse. Jesus Paid It All to do for us and in us what we could never do for ourselves:

I hear the Savior say,

‘Thy strength indeed is small!

Child of weakness, watch and pray,

Find in Me thine all in all.’