Expectations + Desires = Guilt?

Caryn: So, Carla, we haven’t written in a while. What’s your excuse? Here’s mine: Our basement flooded (had to tear up carpet), then we were out of town a night, came back (continued ripping up carpet/cleaning basement), my mom slipped on ice and broke her hip, my two-year-old has some icky bug.

AND, this is the weekend I head to Gifted for Leaderfship’s Synergy conference in Orlando (yay!) so I need to finish prepping for a couple of workshops I’m co-leading (double yay!).

Handily enough, however, one of my workshops is “The Leader and The Family,”‘ and one of the things I’m doing for it is starting off a conversation about “expectations, desires, and guilt.” I’ve got a couple minutes to give my overview and then kind of open up the talk. Thought I might as well practice here.

My general idea is this: That these three things represent what my first grader calls “a number model” (except with words, which makes it a “word problem,” I guess). Take expectations, add your desires, and more often than not—bam!—you get guilt.

Because so often the expectations for us (either from the world at larger or people much closer) don’t line up with our desires. AND, I believe that if you “delight yourself in the Lord” as the Psalmist writes, those desires are actually God-given. Note what I’m saying here: (The following came after a very mini lectio divina I did with this verse. No major verse study of the ancient Hebrew or anything!) After reading Psalm 27:4, which says, “”Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” and mini-meditating on it for a bit (this means, leaning back in my chair, looking at the ceiling and spacing out on it for a while), I wondered if it’s less about God giving you what your heart desires and more about God giving you the desire (meaning the longing) itself.

So if that’s the case (and it may not be), then those desires are God-given—if we’re delighting ourselves in the Lord. All the more reason NOT to feel guilty when they clash with expectations.

Whatcha think? Will I get laughed out of the room? Railroaded out of Orlando?

Carla: You might experience both, but not because of this. I think you’re on to something. I remember a woman once telling me that her constant prayer was “God, please give me the desires of my heart. If not, please change my heart so I am content with what you give me instead.” That stuck with me.

As usual, I am convinced you’re spying on me. My husband and I have been having a very similar conversation lately. I have been feeling particularly clueless as a mom. I feel like every decision I make has a cost. I can spend time with my 3-year-old, but it’s at the cost of spending time with my 8-year-old. I can listen to my 12-year-old tell me about her day, but at the cost of ignoring the 3-year-old who is begging me to read to her. I can go to Target by myself, but at the cost of losing work time. I can try to chill about the mess in the house at the cost of having more work to do later.

I know I sound all self-pitying here, but at the heart of all of this is not that I feel sorry for myself. It’s that I feel like I can’t be the mom I want to be or the woman I want to be. So, as you so nicely put it, my expectations and my desires are coming together to make a huge helping of guilt (and exhaustion and irritation and frustration and and and).

This is where I get confused. How do I figure out which expectations are too high and which one’s I need to really live up to? How do I know which desires are God-given and which one’s are me trying to be all things to all people?

Caryn: I hope no one asks those questions in the workshop because those are the same ones I have! Revolutionaries: help!


16 responses to this post.

  1. OUT of my head, the both of you.

    Just this morning in the car, feeling so past my prime and pondering a different equation [Potential minus Being in My (early) Forties, equals “Why would anyone invest in me, anyway?”] I was reminded that it is possible that these ridiculous desires of mine could actually be God-given, and that maybe I just do not understand His timing. (I do not.)

    But, I didn’t take it in… not enough. I didn’t think it through… not far enough.

    Thank you this conversation, and for or being His way of making me think about it some more.


  2. Posted by lisa boylan on March 5, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    How can guilt be disposed of though? It is not a process for the faint of heart.
    I struggle (as I just read that you do, too-Carla) about the time factor with my kids and then bring into it, the time for husband, house and self … WHEW! I’m spent.
    I am a very selfish person when it comes to my private time – that is when I rejuvenate and am able to process ‘life’ … but, I do that at the expense of the other things that I am missing out on. There’s the rub. If I don’t take the time for self, then I would be an absolute beast (then, when I DO take the time for self, the guilt comes rolling in).
    I like reading this conversation ….. it’s always wonderful to read that others feel the same. The struggles between expectation, desire, need and even greed, are very complex – I would not wish it upon my enemy (providing I had enemies!).



  3. Posted by Robyn on March 5, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Desires and expectations are two different issues for me. My desire to be a good mother may not match up with other people’s expectations about how one accomplishes that feat. However, as I learn and grow, I find it increasingly easier to summarily dismiss other people’s expectations.

    My OWN expectations for myself are much more stubborn. But, I’ve developed a system that sometimes works.

    1. Make a list of things I want to do or be. (A good mom, a good teacher, a good wife, a top chef, seamstress extraordinaire, bikini model, straight-A student, concert cellist, ace photographer, Olympic swimmer, children’s-rights-activist, etc)
    2. Arrange them in order of priority. (mother, wife, teacher, student, chef, photographer, activist, musician, model, etc)
    3. Decide what is realistically possible for me to currently accomplish without compromising quality, based on the amount of time and energy available to me. (Wife, Mother, Teacher–though the order may change moment-by-moment based on circumstances.)
    4. Focus on these.
    5. Let the rest go.
    6. Repeat as necessary.

    I would also like to make the point that I believe that much of the “mommy guilt” that we experience is artificially created by others and should be rejected outright. Who is to say that asking your 3-year-old to read to herself for ten minutes so that you can focus on your 12-year-old is a “bad” thing? Both children are learning a valuable lesson: resources are scarce and must be shared in a family and community. The younger learns to wait patiently for mommy’s attention. The older learns that she is important and valuable even though she’s not “the baby.” Our children need not be the Center of the Universe in order to become happy, healthy adults. Such an expectation on their parts (that they are, in fact, the Center of the Universe) is actually harmful to their development into compassionate community members who think of others before themselves.

    One more point: I try to remind myself (constantly) that guilt is not from God. The Holy Spirit convicts us of SIN in our lives for the purpose of repentance and restoration to a relationship with God. Conviction is from God. But guilt is a largely unproductive emotion that drives us to self-loathing. It is not from God. Ever. When I feel conviction or guilt (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference), I ask myself, “Is this related to sin in my life?” If the issue isn’t one of sin, then the feeling (guilt) is not from God. If it is, then I better get on my knees fast and repent. This distinction (guilt versus conviction) helps me to discern whether the emotion I am feeling is one I should pay attention to. Or not.


  4. Posted by Cindy on March 5, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I used to bludgeon God with his promise to give me the desires of my heart. I desperately wanted to be married and have kids. As I was approaching the witching age–37–my paradigm began to shift uncomfortably. After years of painful processing, I came to the place where you are Caryn. I realized that God plants in us desires that may, in the end, look very different that what we thought. I finally realized that what I wanted more than anything else, was to be useful to Him, however that looked. After many years now, that “however that looked” looks nothing like I thought it would–or even wanted it to. And that “however that looked” is far less “normal” than I expected, but so much more fulfilling. One might say, even custom-made for me.

    I wonder if we don’t try to do too much at one time. Maybe we need to slow down a little. Our children will remember that we loved them. My oldest son is 21. He doesn’t focus on the time I lost my temper in Target. He calls several times a week because he knows I love him and I’m rooting for him to be successful. I felt guilt because I’ve always worked full time outside the home. But I’ve been there for him when he needed it. He knows it and so do I.

    I’m sure this doesn’t accurately address the equation, but I needed to slow down and let God plant the desire, and give it time to grow and blossom. To weed out the me and seek Him, not the big things I want to do for Him. To put one foot in front of the other–do the next thing. I’m almost 60 and I feel like I’m just getting started. The years of pain and struggle are just beginning to bud into fruit.

    I’ll go back to work, now. Love you guys!


  5. Posted by April G. on March 6, 2009 at 8:08 am


    I had to think about this one a bit. What really causes my guilt? First I had to decide what I felt guilty about. What makes me feel inadequate as a mother? Losing my temper, not having enough patience, not giving my children enough attention, not providing financially for my family, being overweight, having a messy house, and sometimes even the misbehavior of my children makes me feel inadequate. Yes, I believe all of those things are expectations or desires. Usually the expectations that make me feel guilty are the unrealistic ones I place on myself or my children. Sometimes society places those expectations on us. As mothers we are expected to do it all or “have everything.” That just isn’t realistic. There are things I will be good at as a mother and things I won’t be. Once I accept that about myself and give myself a break, it is easier. The other thing that has made all of this easier at least lately is reading the book The Strong-Willed Child by Dobson. It was encouraging because it helped me see the frustrations I had with my son were normal. He just happens to have some strong personality traits, and there are things I can do to help us both have a little more control. We’ve both been happier lately. He is a little more behaved, and I am a little less frazzled and frustrated at my emotions around the whole thing. I also had to let go of some of the expectations of who my children would be. They are unique individuals gifted by God with specific talents and personalities. Instead of fighting against those personalities, it is my job to nurture and guide them. In my mind at least, discipline is included in loving and nurturing them.

    Guilt is such a negative thing. I don’t think it ever brings positive results, but we sure struggle with it anyway. I liked Robyn’s assessment on all of this. We sure have some wise women (and dudes) on this blog.


  6. Posted by Carol on March 6, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Just a short comment for now… Caryn, it’s not Psalm 27:4. You meant to say Psalm 37:4. Though Psalm 27:4 is interestingly enough, somewhat appropriate to this conversation:
    I ask only one thing, LORD:
    Let me live in your house
    every day of my life
    to see how wonderful you are
    and to pray in your temple. (CEV)
    It’s what we should say when filled with guilt.


  7. Posted by Bookgirl on March 6, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Psalm 27 is a favorite….so I’m glad it turned up here!


  8. want to think more about this when i have more brain power. crazy weeks must be universal or something. the last two have been unbelievable for me. and a lot of it has had to do with processing some of this stuff & having a bit of a “crisis of denomination.”

    right now i can’t think about guilt because i’m sitting here wishing i was going to be at that conference. lw, ccj, & you? i would love to hear all of you… will any of your talks/discussions, etc. be available online after the conference? i see that the 2008 ones are…


  9. Posted by Bookgirl on March 6, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I’m weighing in here again as someone who doesn’t have kids, but it seems like the world of church adds a whole lot of guilt, at least I think so. And I think that happens with kids or without. And I’m not talking about conviction over sin. I’m talking about get-busy-with-service-already guilt.

    Like, involvement with programs and volunteering, etc., etc. It seems like it’s never enough.

    Anyone read this one? “So you don’t want to go to church anymore?”


    I’m NOT suggesting anyone leave their churches. Far, far, FAR from that. But when I read this it really helped me identify the places where I was saying yes to church stuff out of guilt…and burning myself out. It’s a trap that a lot of single people fall into. We want to belong, and the church often (mistakenly) sees us as people with limitless time and zero responsibility, and that, to borrow from the post’s original equation = a whole lotta guilt.


  10. Posted by Steve B. on March 9, 2009 at 5:09 am

    The Dude abides. This is an interesting and timely post for me as well. I agree with the above post, that churches are very very good at guilting their people. As an adult, I had to learn early on, the importance of saying no and realizing that if I felt guilty about something, church involvement was not going to fix it.

    For me, there is a much more dangerous equation: Desires + expectations = sin. This came up in my men’s Bible study just last Wednesday, and we started talking about the nature of desires. We agreed that God puts desires in our heart and intends for us to seek Him to fill them. When we put our own expectations on how these desires should be filled, they often result in sin. I also referred to Psalm 37:4 which, on the surface, seems like a nice easy formula for happiness and getting what we want. However, I pointed out how easy it is to breeze right past the “Delight yourself in the Lord” part and focus on Him giving us the desires of our heart. What does it truly mean to “delight yourself in the Lord”? It’s easy for me to delight myself in many other things, (family, camping, The Office, etc.) but what am I doing when I am truly delighted in the Lord? Probably nothing. And that may be His point. Maybe, to be “delighted” by God alone DOES give me the desires of my heart.

    Well, I apologize for the mini-sermon, but I just thought I would share what I have been struggling with and encourage us all to maybe slow down and be delighted more often.


  11. Posted by Robyn on March 9, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Steve. The important part of the verse is “DELIGHT YOURSELF IN THE LORD,” but we only see, “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” But the truth is, if I am delighted in the Lord, then he IS the desire of my heart. Thus, as my relationship with him is deepened and he draws closer to me, I receive the desires of my heart.

    It’s that feeling, when I am in communion with God, of utter peace and rest. The feeling I have only too rarely as I busy myself seeking after other things that I think will make me happy. Even as I write this, I feel overcome with emotion realizing that it is my love for my Father, and my relationship with him, that truly fulfills me and gives me meaning.

    Thank you for the reminder.


  12. Posted by Bookgirl on March 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    That was beautifully stated Steve B. No apologies needed for a mini-sermon. I love this: “I had to learn early on, the importance of saying no and realizing that if I felt guilty about something, church involvement was not going to fix it.” Thank you.

    OK…..so what DOES it mean to truly delight yourself in the Lord? Robyn, you spoke so eloquently. Do others have thoughts?


  13. Good point, Steve. I didn’t mean to drift over the “delight” part. That IS the key. Especially since when we delight in the Lord, our perspective changes. I think the word delight is so cool because its so darned happy. I think it implies a kind of starry-eyed wonder focus on God. One where we stand in amazement of God.

    Of course, this is easier said than done when life turns a bit sour. But I figure if David (Mr. Life Turned Sour Quite Often) could do it, we all can. In fact, maybe especially during these times, we need that “delighting” in God more than ever. Sort of an expectant, hopeful gazing at God.


  14. Posted by Robyn on March 11, 2009 at 8:39 am

    Caryn! How did the workshop go?


  15. I think it went well! Thanks for asking. I led it with two other amazing women (Judy Douglass and Liz Selzer—in case they’re reading….). I don’t know that my little equation was life-changing, but the expectations and guilt thing sure came up a lot.


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