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Anticipation and Expectation




The impossibly purple and orange petals push themselves from the frozen earth. Still closed, spearlike, they are coming up amidst cold, grey shrubs. It was an early winter here in the Pacific Northwest, and it looks like it will be an early spring.

The freckles of color in the garden are almost shocking when set against the background of a mercilessly dead landscape. Hope surges in my heart as I am reminded, against all previous evidence, that this is not a hundred-year winter; that summer will come, is coming. Yet close on the heels of my hope is guardedness, a fear. I have been deceived before. Each strangely warm day in March seems haunted by a week of bitter cold: the sadism of spring.

My guardedness, however, is not entirely due to the fickleness of weather. It has to do with the betrayal of my own expectation. Every spring I look forward to summer, imagining carefree days of warmth and sun and laughter. But when the summer comes, I can’t help but be disappointed. There is still work to be done, plans that go awry, and crisis to be dealt with. The summer I create in my imagination during winter and spring can never be realized by the summer that actually comes. I know there is disappointment in expectation, and yet my heart cannot help but be filled with longing and a sense of joyful anticipation.

But that is the point: there seems to be a crucial difference between expectation and anticipation.

Granted, the denotative difference between expectation and anticipation seems rather slim; it’s difficult to not be sucked down into semantics. However, there is a clear connotative distinction between the two. Anticipation is looking forward with excitement to what is coming, resting in the assurance that it will be good regardless of what form it takes. Expectation is projecting an imagined reality onto the future. Take a date by way of example. Anticipation is your heart racing, not being able to sit still from the excitement and sense of adventure that comes in finally being able to spend time with someone you enjoy and admire. The date is going to be lovely regardless of what you actually do.

Expectation is thinking through every detail of the date itself, down to the excruciating minutiae, imagining what perfection would look like. The date will never be that imagined reality, and there will be inevitable disappointment.

In the moment or the month beforehand, anticipation and expectation feel dangerously similar; both are born from the longings and desires of my heart. But the stakes are high—what seems a trivial distinction bares itself to be a dragon’s tooth. 

In my own personal skirmishes with expectation and anticipation, it comes down to control. Because expectation is a projection of my own wants and needs, the ball appears to be in my court. I know what I want and how my wants should be met, and I will that image onto the future while it is still hypothetical, before it is a reality that I can no longer control. By dwelling on my detailed script, I turn inward with expectation; I focus on and clutch at what I think I deserve. And as I have experienced a hundred times—but never seem to learn from—my expectations are always disappointed; my wants and needs are not met how I thought they should be. Thus the crucial need for anticipation.

Anticipation draws us out of ourselves because is it based on hope, and hope is external to us. Hope is not dependent on how our needs should be met, but rather celebrates that we have desires, a capacity of heart. To hold the desires of my heart in longing and to hold them with open hands is to choose hope. And hope is sacramental. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3b-6). The gospel is news of anticipation and hope. We anticipate the riches and goodness of the kingdom of God through the hope of the resurrection. It is anticipation because it is far beyond our control, yet it speaks to the deepest desires of our hearts.

And it is guaranteed.

Therefore I release control in order to allow God to dazzle and woo me. He knows the desires of my heart far better than I do, for he created them and shares in them. And so as the whisper of spring comes drifting on a winter’s breeze, I am learning to release my expectation of what the summer should be and wait instead for summer in eager anticipation, knowing that whatever form it may take, it will be good.