Let’s say there are five things you really want in a local church. Through reading good books and listening to helpful podcasts, you’ve drawn up a list of key qualities. You want deeply biblical expositional preaching, passionate zeal for evangelism, close-knit and sacrificially-minded small groups, worship that is both physically expressive and grounded in truth, and a congregation that displays all the diversity of the neighborhood around. Those are good and noble desires. But this is the real world. So you can have three of them.
Only three? Yes, only three. Realistically, a church may excel at three of these, but it’s unlikely to be better than mediocre at the other two. Why? Because we live in this world and face disappointing but inevitable limitations. Your church leaders are limited people—they are limited by their sin (so they inevitably call some evil things good and some good things evil); they are limited by their weaknesses (while they have strengths that address three areas, they have weaknesses that cause them to underperform in two); they are limited by their gifting (they have been gifted by God to excel in some ways, but they are no more than average in others). And your church leaders aren’t the only limiting factors. Your church is also limited by its location, its history, its size, its facilities, and its finances. It’s limited by its membership, by the spiritual maturity of the people who call it home. It’s limited by the need to assign limited resources to an unlimited number of potential priorities.
This is life in this world. If there are five things you want your church to be, you can have three. The question is, what will you do with the other two? How will you relate to the church when those other two continue unaddressed or unimproved or under-prioritized? How will you live with such imperfection?
If this principle is true of the local church, it’s equally true in other areas.
It’s true in marriage. If there are ten things you’d like your spouse to be, you can have six or seven or maybe eight of them at best. If you were to put together a list of those traits you value most, it’s unlikely your husband or wife will ever tick every box, or ever tick every box at the same time. There will inevitably be gaps, inevitably be areas of weakness that are going to go unaddressed from now until death do you part. Your husband will never be all you want him to be, your wife will never fulfill every one of your desires.
It’s true in parenting. If you were to make up a list of all the hopes and aspirations you hold out toward your children, you’d better be prepared to see that they will fall short in some significant ones. They will never meet your every hope, your every desire, your every expectation. Maybe (maybe!) they’ll get to sixty or seventy percent.
It’s true in pastoring. While you will be genuinely grateful for your pastors in some areas, you’d better prepare yourself for the times they will fall short, they will let you down, they will fail to rise to your expectations. If there are a dozen things you want your pastors to be, you need to start thinking about how you’ll respond to the four or five they won’t ever be.
Of course it’s true of ourselves as well. In moments of honesty and transparency we have to admit that our greatest disappointments are with ourselves. However we judge personal success, whatever personal expectations we hold to, we know we will fall far short. If it’s a list of ten, we may see significant success in six or seven; if it’s a list of fifty, perhaps thirty or thirty-five.
It is right and good to expect much from our churches, our marriages, our children, our pastors, and ourselves. But so much of our discontentment in life comes through expecting too much, through setting our expectations far too high. It is right and good to guard against apathy, but there’s a difference between being apathetic and being realistic. Realistically, we have to know that while our greatest needs are met perfectly in Christ, all our other desires are met imperfectly through imperfect people. We have to learn to find joy in this imperfection and despite this imperfection. We have to learn to commend grace where we see and experience it, and to look forward to the great day to come when our reality will finally reach and even surpass the level of our desires.