Sometimes I surprise myself with how surprised I am that things aren’t always what I want them to be. Not long ago, I realized I’d been griping a lot to my friends about how much it was costing me to heat my home in the winter months. I’m one of the only people in the history of the world to have central heat and air. It’s available to me at the push of a button anytime I get cold. But I don’t celebrate the fact that I can walk barefoot in subfreezing temperatures. I’m much more likely to complain about my bill doubling a couple of times a year.
It isn’t just a problem with my heat bill. My life is full of good things that aren’t perfect. That means it’s full of opportunities to prioritize the positive or the negative side of what I’m facing. I have three beautiful, healthy children who are sometimes unruly and always exhausting. I have a job I love that is often more difficult or time-consuming than I want it to be. I’m sure you have examples of your own you could add to my list.
This tendency to notice what’s wrong more than what’s right is a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s a sign that, at least subconsciously, we’re surprised that the world doesn’t fit the pattern we’ve designed for it. It may be we’ve established a baseline expectation of comfort, convenience, or control that has no place in a world where the outer things are passing away.
In the modern West, our baseline expectation for what life should be is set higher than at any other time or place. But this new expectation has come with a high cost we may not notice as clearly as we should.
In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that our “culture of abundance” actually feeds our dissatisfaction with what we have.5 Every day we’re confronted with an overwhelming number of choices about how to structure our lives. But with all these options it’s tough not to imagine what could have been better if we’d made another choice—especially when we recognize the limitations of what we did choose for ourselves. We’re crippled and preoccupied by all the what-ifs.
Schwartz also highlights another unintended consequence of all this choice, one that’s even more to my point. Our vast array of choices feeds a sense that life ought to be fully customizable, seasoned perfectly to my tastes. My expectations about how satisfying my choices should be rise far beyond what’s truly possible. There’s no chance I’m not going to be let down.
Here’s how Schwartz put it in the TED Talk version of his argument:
Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increase the expectations people have about how good those options will be. And what that’s going to produce is less satisfaction with results, even when they’re good results. . . . The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in—we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation— the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof.6
SETTING REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
I don’t doubt that contentment has always been a struggle no matter when you’ve lived or where. But in the modern West we do face some unique and easily ignored obstacles to joy in the good things our lives afford us. Schwartz argues that as our quality of life has improved in so many ways, our baseline expectation has settled somewhere in the neighborhood of perfection. Best-case scenario, we get what we believe is normal, even owed to us. More likely, we feel disappointed.
Schwartz’s antidote to this modern disease is interesting. “The secret to happiness,” he concludes, “is low expectations.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? Lower your standard for how enjoyable or satisfying life should be, and you’ll be more satisfied with what life is. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in what Schwartz is saying, both about what feeds our discontent and also what it will take to move forward. We need a new baseline expectation for life in the world as it is.
But how do we find our way to more realistic expectations? Here is where I would add one further argument: the path to realistic expectations about life moves through honesty about death. Our detachment from death has carved out the space for our expectations to run wild. The forgotten truth is that even if I could structure every part of my life today exactly the way I want, I can’t stop death from stealing everything I have. I may face a range of choices about life that previous generations couldn’t imagine. But I cannot choose to be immortal. This limitation casts a shadow over every area of my life.
Our perpetual discontent is a sign that, as Augustine put it, we “seek the happy life in the region of death.”8 I don’t stop experiencing the effects of mortality just because I refuse to acknowledge its grip. It’s just that I’ll be surprised by those effects again and again. I’ll continue to believe life is as fully customizable as our consumer society has promised me. I’ll continue to be surprised when it’s not. And at some point I won’t just be surprised by the uncontrollable brokenness of the world; I’ll be devastated. If I complain about the cost of my heating bill in winter, what will I do with job loss, or type 1 diabetes, or the cancer diagnosis of a child?
So long as our expectations for a tailor-made world go unchecked, we will eventually be blindsided by suffering. And when we are blindsided, we will be tempted to reject the goodness of God that is the only source of true comfort.
Here’s what I mean: if my baseline expectation of the world is comfort, convenience, and control—if this is what I assume I’m owed from life—then when I suffer, I will likely blame God. In my frustration or disappointment or pain I may see a sign of his displeasure. Or maybe a sign of his neglect. But one way or another I’ll see my suffering as abnormal, and therefore a sign of God’s absence from my life. I won’t recognize that, in fact, the brokenness I’m experiencing is not a sign of his absence but a primary reason for his presence in Christ.
REMEMBERING DEATH, FINDING LIFE
We sometimes judge the plausibility of God’s promises to us in light of what we’re experiencing now. We are tempted to believe that if God is allowing us to suffer as we are, we can’t trust him to deliver on his promise of redemption, resurrection, and an eternal life of joy with him. We can view his promises as an upgrade to an already-comfortable life, icing on the cake of the pleasant ease that is our baseline expectation. But this is not how his promises come to us in Scripture, and viewed like this his promises will never make sense. If his promises are no more to us than icing on the cake of good lives now, then those promises will always seem irrelevant and otherworldly when we suffer.
But when we recognize death’s hold on us and everything we love, we won’t be surprised that life isn’t what we want it to be. Frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction—these belong among the many faces of death, the pockets of darkness that make up death’s shadow. These experiences are normal, not surprising. Death-awareness resets my baseline expectation about life in the world.
This honesty about death then prepares me for what is truly surprising: that God the Son subjected himself to the limitations, brokenness, and death that are normal for us. That he would join me in my experience of the normal trials of life in the valley of the shadow of death. That he would do this precisely so that he can revolutionize what is normal.
The brokenness I experience—the frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, pain—is not a sign of God’s absence. It is the reason for his presence in Christ. This is why the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He came because he knows we’re thirsty for more than what we’ve tasted so far (John 4:13–14). He knows that every meal has left us hungry. He came to provide living water, bread of life, full and free satisfaction for all who eat and drink from him (John 6:26–35).
When our eyes are fixed on the weight of this glory, we can experience dissatisfaction or disappointment without discontent. We can embrace what God has given us without preoccupation by what he hasn’t given. There’s nothing we can’t enjoy fully no matter how limited. And there’s nothing we can’t do without, no matter how sweet.
Content taken from Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope by Matthew McCullough, 2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Matthew McCullough (PhD, Vanderbilt University) serves as pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee, which he helped plant. He is the author of Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope and writes occasionally for 9Marks and the Gospel Coalition.