Here is the manuscript for week 2 of Emotionally Healthy Relationships. Sermon video can be found at the bottom of this page!
Megan's and my first two dogs were named Hazelnut and Foster. Hazelnut was a chihuahua and Foster was a mutt that looked a yellow lab whose legs forgot to grow.
The folks at the rescue place told us he was half golden retriever half dashound, but I never saw a DNA test. We had Hazelnut (the chihuahua) for about a year before we got Foster, and when we first brought him home, I think she felt a little betrayed.
It wasn’t long before she decided that Foster was her dog. He was three times as big as she was, but she was in charge. In fact, we noticed that Foster had a long list of rules that he had to live by, that only Hazelnut knew about. It was bizarre. There were certain ways that he had to walk, apparently, because if she would catch him walking the wrong way, she would punish him.
She would rear up on her back legs, and grab his snout with her paws, and not quite bite him, but bare her teeth and make this horrible bird like sound. It’s hard to describe.
The poor dog. If he walked too fast, he was punished, too slow, same thing. If he barked at a dog outside, sometimes she would even bark along with him and then punish him afterward. The poor dog never knew what was coming. Eventually, we put a stop to it, but before we did, he was just walking on eggshells. He couldn’t predict what he would do that would make Hazelnut rear up, grab his snout and go "RAAARRRRR!!!!"
It’s pretty funny when it’s a chihuahua, but it’s not funny at all when it’s your mom, or your dad, or your spouse, or your boss.
From what I gather, a whole lot of people have someone in their life like Hazelnut…someone who makes enormous assumptions about what other people are thinking, and their intentions, someone who has a long list of expectations for others to live up to, but doesn’t ever say what they are ahead of time…they just let you know afterward, sometimes in ways that leave a mark. Maybe even a mark that lasts a lifetime.
If you can’t think of someone in your life who is like that, well, maybe it’s you! Actually, even if you can think of someone in your life who is like that, it still might be you. Because we all make assumptions, and we all have expectations of others.
If someone cuts us off in traffic, we instantly make up a story about that person, don’t we? And that story usually revolves around that person being morally and spiritually bankrupt. Right? But if we happen to cut someone off, we know our story right? We made a mistake! Sorry! Didn’t see you there. When other people’s actions need interpretation, we tend to make assumptions about their interior lives, and their motivations. But when we do something out of character, we tend to attribute that to something external, or in our environment. And that’s just with people we DON’T know.
Say your spouse didn’t text you today, and they always texts you, every day. What do you assume? That they’re mad at you, or they were murdered. But when you forget to text them? You were busy! Something came up.
Our scripture today speaks directly to our bad relational habits around assumptions and expectations, but it’s probably not the scripture you would expect. It’s not a story or an example of what to do, or what not to do. It’s one of the 10 commandments. The 9th one in fact. Found in Exodus 20, verse 16. It says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
We often simplify this commandment into one that’s easier to remember, “Don’t lie”. And while that is included in the commandment, it’s actually a lot more profound than that. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Not just in court, but ever. In our creeds and confessions, our ancestors in the faith wrote a bit about the ninth commandment as a commandment to protect our neighbors good name. That we are never to be a party to gossip, for one thing. But even more internalized than that. That we are meant to believe the best about others, until we absolutely can’t.
This is so key for our relationships. Not only with our partners, or in our families, but at work, and here at church. But we’ve become so polarized over the last few years, that we look out for any sign or signal to be able to write someone off, that it’s bled into everything.
But the ninth commandment says, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor”. And I notice that it says “bear”. When we hear something about someone that we don’t know to be true, we aren’t even to bear it. We aren’t to let it take perch on us.
And that’s not just about gossip. It’s also about our own ideas about people. Here’s an even better way that we could phrase it today:
Don’t believe your own assumptions about others.
Peter Scazzero writes,
"Every time we make an assumption about someone who has hurt or disappointed us, without confirming it, we believe a lie about this person in our head. Because we have not checked it out with him or her, it is very possible that we are believing something untrue. It is also likely that we will pass that false assumption around to others."
"When we leave reality for a mental creation of our own doing (hidden assumptions), we create a counterfeit world. When we do this, it can properly be said that we exclude God from our lives because God does not exist outside of reality and truth. "
God does not exist outside of reality and truth. When we place ourselves outside of reality and truth, we have walked away from God. But one of the great things about God is that whenever we walk away, God wants us back. Whether it’s on purpose, or by mistake, God wants us back. But in this case, God wants us back in a way that will help us not wander off again. God wants us to learn some skills that will help us stay closer to him.
And in this case, all you need to do is check your assumptions
When we feel slighted, or hurt, for some reason it makes us think we can read people minds. Why did he do that? It’s probably because he’s upset with me over that thing I said last week. But the thing is, none of us are mind readers.
If you want to have emotionally healthy relationships, don’t assume that you’re right. Find out.
First ask: "Can I check out an assumption I have?"
This lets the other person know that you’re not trying to accuse them of something. That’s important. And then, if they say yes, you say: "I think that you think (then tell them your assumption. Is that correct?"
Maybe they’ll say, “You’re right.” Or maybe they’ll say you’re not, but either way, it’s their call to make, not yours. The assumption you made sounds right, it could BE right. But the only way to actually know, is to ask.
The one who first states a case seems right,
until the other comes and cross-examines.
We have to be the ones to cross-examine ourselves, and our assumptions.
So that’s the first way that we bear false witness about people we are in relationship with. The second can be even worse.
Now, not all expectations are bad. But any expectation can be unhealthy if it has certain problems. We pick up our expectations come from all kinds of places, from our families, and cultures. From TV, and the internet. Even from fairy tales! We absorb them unconsciously, and when we do, we kind of think that everyone else has the same ones that we do.
Sometimes, our expectations are so unconscious that we didn’t even know we had them until we’re angry or disappointed. Then maybe we process some of that, and we realize that the expectation we had wasn’t even a valid expectation to have. It wasn’t reasonable.
For an expectation to be realistic, there needs to evidence to support that the expectation is reasonable. Either it has been done in the past or the person has the capacity and willingness to do it.
And even if it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s not if it’s Unspoken. I heard a great quote about this that Unspoken expectation is premeditated resentment. You’re setting yourself up to fail, to have unhealthy relationships.
If an expectation is unspoken, you might just end up like my old chihuahua Hazelnut, punishing the people in your lives to breaking rules that only existed in your head.
So what expectations do we have a right to have and what expectations do we not have a right to have? In other words, what is a valid expectation and what is an invalid expectation?
What makes an expectation valid?
1. Conscious: I am aware of my expectation. First you have to acknowledge that you have it, which can be pretty difficult for some people to do. Sometimes we like to think of ourselves as easy going, not like those other, people. But the first step is always being honest with ourselves.
A valid expectation is also:
2. Realistic: What do you think you know and HOW do you think you know it? What evidence can you point to that suggests this is a realistic expectation to have of this person? How do you know they have the capacity and willingness to meet this expectation of yours?
The third mark of a valid expectation is that it is:
3. Spoken: Have you expressed the expectation clearly? That’s how communication works!
Last, the expectation almost always has to be
4. Agreed Upon: The person you’re expecting something from has to have said they would do it. Now this doesn’t always apply to children, when their parents give them a chore to do. But the other marks sure do! And even when it doesn’t 100% apply, it’s still the best way to go about it.
Why does this matter?
Well, it matters because our relationships do. They matter more than just about anything else on earth. And as disciples of Jesus, the way that we relate to each other, and to everyone else is our most powerful witness, for good or for bad. When people say they don’t like Christians, or Christianity, it’s usually not because of our theology. It’s because they’ve met enough Christian Hazelnuts (remember our chihuahua) who seemed to be waiting for them for break some rule they didn’t know about, and they got their face bitten and barked at.
But it goes even deeper than that. This matters for our relationship with God. You see, the assumptions we make, and many of the unspoken expectations we hold, they are symptoms of our sin. They are expressions of the way that we would rather FEEL right than DO right. The way that we will take any shortcut there is to feel better about ourselves, which is usually to feel better than others, or to find our identity in always being hurt, or offended.
We will take any shortcut we can find to keep from facing the truth about ourselves. And the truth is that we’re broken. We don’t do the things we want to do. We do the things we hate, and then justify it. And we never get over that. No matter how together we seem.
But the solution isn’t to try harder, and fix one problem at a time. The solution is to surrender. You see, we are saved by grace, through no good work of our own. We are saved because God traded his own life for ours, traded God’s own righteousness for our sinfulness, and insists that we hold on to it, and use it for every situation we find ourselves in: at work, home, school, in the community, or here at church.
When it comes to all of our assumptions and expectations, the first step is often the only step. Just notice that you’re doing this. Don’t look away. Because you don’t have to! You’re not righteous because you approve of everything you do. You’re made righteous because God gives you God’s own righteousness to lean on. So all you have to do is notice, and trust God, and ask whoever you’re in relationship with if they’re seeing what you’re seeing.
It really is that simple! What if we were like this as a community together?
What if we could be a community that modeled that? We could be a place where people break out of their learned in-grained habits from their families of origin.