Keep your hopes high and your expectations low is advice that, initially, seems counterintuitive. Surely, there should be a close correlation between hope and expectation? Can you have high expectations without hope, or can you have low expectations with hope? Well, if we consider that the dictionary defines the word “expect” as regarding something as likely to happen, then its distinction from hope becomes a little clearer. When we hope (in the everyday sense of that word) we do so precisely because we are not convinced that some desired outcome is likely to occur. Indeed, hope is often aroused in unpromising situations in which there is little expectation of a positive outcome.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary arrive at the tomb bearing spices expecting to find a lifeless Jesus resting where he had been laid. Given this expectation, we might wish to know if they had lost hope in Jesus’ promises about rising from the dead? Otherwise, why bring spices to anoint and honor a lifeless body? While it is unclear what degree of hope they retained, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of hope that caused their shock at the empty tomb—having not expected it. Instead, their overwhelming grief had made them forget Christ’s promises. For, upon hearing the angels’ message, we are told that only then, they remembered his words. Thus, it was this forgetting, rather than a failure of hope, that accounted for their surprise at the empty tomb.
Furthermore, although forgetfulness of the Master’s promise resulted in their going with spices to anoint the presumed lifeless body of Christ, this loving deed was perhaps also inspired by a deep and perhaps still inchoate hope—a hope that was temporarily obscured by their grief. This is suggested by the fact of their immediate acceptance of the angels’ message without doubt or even questioning. Indeed, they immediately set out to share this unexpected (and still mystifying) news with Peter and the other disciples. And although the apostles don’t believe them since their story seemed like nonsense, hope does not seem to have abandoned them either. Thus, Peter (as it were hoping against hope) runs to the tomb to verify the women’s claim and leaves the tomb, amazed—his hope was high, his expectation, zero!
In our own spiritual journey, we need to guard against simplistically equating our expectations with the degree of hope we possess—or don’t seem to possess. Thus, when confronted with seemingly hopeless situations that engender low (or zero) expectations, we may presume that we have also lost hope—or that it is in danger of being extinguished. And whereas this might be the case, it certainly needn’t be. And this is because Christian hope is not invariably bound up with the attainment of some specific and desired outcome—regardless of whether expectations are low or high. Instead, hope binds itself with that deep (and often) dark faith that trusts that whatever the outcome of some difficult situation, God will have been working for our good and our ultimate salvation. Accordingly, hope can remain high even when expectations are extremely low.
Thus, on this glorious Easter Night if the one you seek may seem to lie dead within the depth of your darkened heart, and you have little expectation of that changing, summon this deep (and perhaps obscured) faith that trusts God despite everything. For, it is this faith that God considers and honors, and not our more superficial expectations based and constricted, as they are, by our present earthbound and extremely limited perspective. Deeper than all our limited expectations, allow hope to engage with what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.