Organic Discipleship - Helping People Troubled by High-Expectation Relating

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From the book:

Personal relationships are at the heart of Christian living and ministry. When we are discipling in community, we should be in a position to watch our disciples relating to their friends. We can also gain insight into their relational tendencies from our own relationship with them. As we gain information over a period of months, we may begin to notice patterns of strength or deficiency that point to opportunities for encouragement or for needed change.

For instance, we may find that our disciple exhibits a pattern of high expectations on others. These become apparent when our person is continually offended by others' actions or omissions. Such people are “hard to please” or “high maintenance” in their relationships. They seem to feel like they deserve a certain standard of treatment from others. Properly understood, these expectations are really love demands that make a person a love-taker rather than a love-giver.

High expectations are signaled by regular complaining about friends. Or, you may hear your disciple describing how his feelings were hurt in situations that sound suspicious—the incident doesn't seem like it would have been that hurtful. You begin to realize your disciple is “thin-skinned.” Of course, you can't tell whether the complaints are legitimate just by listening to your disciple, because high-expectation people are able to demonize those they complain against in a way that sounds awful. Here is where being in community together makes all the difference. Your knowledge of the other people involved may contradict what you hear in the complaints. Or, you might even have been present during an interaction that is later characterized in a way you know is wrong.

Even when he has been wronged, you may sense a larger problem with the high-expectation person's inability to forgive. High-expectations seem to go along with an exacting perspective that can't overlook offenses, even when they are minor. This perspective tends to be judgmental—even reading into people's motives in a negative way.

When people believe their relational expectations are legitimate, those expectations ruin one relationship after another. These expectations are a system of rules that nobody knows or accepts other than the love-demander. Consequently, love-demanders are never satisfied for long with their relationships. They punish others for offending their list of rules, creating more hard feelings. Their refusal to forgive leads them to build ongoing cases against people. They manifest bitterness and suspicion of people. How can we help such people?

  1. Awareness and understanding. Helping high-expectation people overcome their weakness is usually a real wrestling match. They are convinced their expectations are only reasonable. They can't understand why anyone would question their right to feel offended or hurt. It all just seems so unavoidable! But we know this approach to relationships is morally wrong. As difficult as it is for such a person to accept, their way of life falls far short of God's call to Christian love. Through a process of teaching and admonition we gradually convince disciples that God calls us to a better way, such as that described in 1 Cor. 13.

  2. Practical ideas. When working with a problem this serious and pervasive let's remember that we probably can't completely fix the problem. We are just looking for progress. Once disciples gain insight, the next step is trying to live out the biblical perspective. Working with personal forgiveness and projecting the grace of God in relationships takes creativity from our disciple and from us. We usually find that once high-expectation people accept God's view of their love demands, progress is noticeable from that point on, especially if we suggest ways to respond to hard feelings and situations.

  3. Support and encouragement. Growing Christians tend to develop a growing appreciation for forgiving and accepting others because the Holy Spirit guides them in this direction. But as disciple makers we can move this process forward more quickly by helping people see God's viewpoint in relational situations and by encouraging them when they respond in a more godly way.

Although relational habits like having high expectations, judging others, and inability to forgive are hardly unusual, they are potentially devastating, and they change very slowly. In the most striking cases, we have seen significant change in as little as a year. But in most cases, helping someone with this kind of problem is a multi-year project, and even then, change will be only partial. Our goal is clear: helping the person reach a point where he can build and maintain deep relationships. Unless he reaches this point, he is too immature to lead in the church.

When it comes to the field of pastoral counseling we see why so many Christian workers choose to focus on outward actions and sins of the flesh while ignoring inward problems like this. Tangling with an entrenched relational pattern like high-expectation relating is just too difficult and messy for anyone who demands quick results. Therefore, we should continually seek out God for a positive vision for disciples who struggle in these areas. God has a vision for them, and we must adopt his vision as our own.

More ideas for helping those with high-expectation relational patterns

We have to begin a lengthy process of persuasion from the word of God, centering in a study of what scripture teaches about love. From the Bible we learn that real sacrificial love doesn't have high expectations or even low expectations. It has no expectations! Paul explains that “love is patient.” (1 Cor. 13:4) That means that people's disappointing behavior doesn't hurt our feelings or offend us. Instead, we see these as areas of need in another, and patiently work with them to see change. He also says love “is not provoked.” (1 Cor. 13:5) In other words, if a loving person becomes angry, it isn't because he lost his temper or took offense. Anger would only be manifested for the good of another. In some cases, a controlled show of anger may be necessary in order to make a point. But it would never be an indulgence of the flesh.

That's because love “doesn't take into account a wrong suffered.” (1 Cor. 13:5) It's not that loving people don't suffer wrongs, but that they don't take them into account. This seemingly unlimited reservoir of forgiveness is only available to those who have come to grips with God's unlimited forgiveness. Paul even says that love “bears all things” and “endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7) Paul's picture of a loving person points to someone who is extremely easy to please in relationships. When a loving person holds another accountable to some relational standard, he does so only for the good of the other, not because he feels slighted and is protecting himself.

We need to convince our disciple that failure to forgive from the heart is one of the real serious sins a person can commit. Jesus' emphatic language signals how important he thought this was: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Mat. 6:14, 15) We should feel grateful that this formula reflects a law perspective. Jesus often taught the true intent of the law of God when he was refuting the Pharisee's watering down of the law. A grace version of the same teaching says, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:32) In this grace version, our forgiveness is not contingent on our actions, but has already been given. But our response to being forgiven should be just as sweeping as Jesus suggests. Paul makes this even more clear in another passage: “bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” (Col. 3:13) “Whoever” and “anyone” are pretty inclusive terms. It's hard to find exceptions here, especially when he clarifies it by comparing it to God's forgiveness of us. The truth will be hard for our high-expectation disciple (and really everyone else, too) to accept, but God calls on Christians to forgive everyone for everything.

In most situations, judging people is also a very serious sin according to the Bible. Paul says, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Rom. 2:1) This statement is invariably true. We don't have to watch for long before we find our high-expectation friend doing the same kind of thing he resents so much in others. In another passage, Paul pleads, “You, then, why do you judge your brother?” (Rom. 14:10) He is especially critical of one who would try to judge another's motives: “Therefore do not go on passing judgment1 before the time,but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God.” (1 Cor. 4:5) Assigning sinister motives to others is the source of constant division and unrighteous judgment. How difficult it will be for high-expectation people to change in this area!2

As with other problem areas, then, our first hurdle will be the high-expectation person's blindness to his own sin. Before any change can be expected, the person must admit in his own mind that his expectations are no longer legitimate if his sights are set on practicing real biblical love. Through teaching, study, and discussion, we will have to gradually make the case for what real love is, and watch to see if our disciple understands the difference between the biblical picture and his own pattern of relating to others. We can usually use a questioning approach to guide people into self-discovery. Studying good books like Larry Crabb's Understanding People can help the process.

Gaining insight is a first step. But action is different. Once we've had discussions with a friend about how his relational habits fall short of God's call in this area, we are in a position to help them make progress in applying their earlier insight. Perhaps another situation arises where our disciple feels offended or hurt by someone in the church. We may want to let their tirade pass at first, but later come back to the situation and ask, “So, do you think that might be another case of the high-expectations we were discussing earlier?” Whether or not he agrees, this should lead to another discussion of the problem. If we are unable to convince our disciple, we could consider dropping the idea and waiting for God to drive the point home in the following days. But if we feel no progress is being made, we may feel led to argue the case more forcefully. Pacing is important. So is prayer. This is patient work, described by Paul as “agonizing for you.” ( Col. 2:1 NLT) We don't want to nag our disciple, or seem so critical that he closes up and stops sharing his feelings. But if we don't press for change, we are not loving our disciple.


1. In Greek, the word “judge” can be used in different ways, similar to our use in English. Having sound judgment in a situation is a good thing. It means we are able to tell right from wrong, true from false, and important from unimportant. Similarly, we find positive references to judgment in the New Testament, where “judging” means “discerning.” Jesus urges his hearers to “judge what is right.” (Luke 12:57) Paul says he had judged a man in Corinth, in the sense that he had determined that his behavior was unacceptable in the church. (1 Cor. 5:3) He tells the Corinthians, “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.” (1 Cor. 11:31) here again meaning judgment as discernment. Judgment is bad when it is condemning, or results in holding someone in contempt.

2. Larry Crabb, Understanding People, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987).