Right-Sizing Your Garden and Safeguarding Against Foolish Choices

The Foe of  Unrealistic Expectations

In my work with Christian leaders over the years, and certainly in my own life, one of the biggest foes of flourishing that I’ve noticed is the subtle yet incredibly insidious foe of unrealistic expectations.

Unrealistic expectations are often the most significant precursor to foolish and ultimately even tragic choices.

These unrealistic expectations come in the form of two major categories:  expectations from within, and expectations from without

 Expectations from Without

By without, I’m talking about the expectations that others place on us, that are either spoken or  unspoken.  Bosses, parishioners, volunteers and even at times coworkers can place expectations on us that simply exceed our capacity.  It can be extraordinarily difficult to set limits when we feel insecure and have a strong desire to please, a good natured tendency which is certainly not rare in the world of Christian leadership.

Expectations from Within 

What can be even more dangerous though, is when we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves.  “I can add that,”  is an internal phrase that nearly all of us are guilty of chronically using.

Or, to go big, where many of us are vulnerable to live: “I can lose weight, be more productive, strengthen my marriage, finish that book, keep up with my blog, be a better parent, and break that world record in speed skating that I’ve wanted to  break for the last 10 years, (even though I’m now married with kids and a full time job, and oh yeah, in my forties)…all in the next six months. Yeah, that should work!”

My point here is that for reasons we’ll talk about shortly, it is so incredibly easy for all of us to think we can do more than we can in the limited time that we have.

The Dangers of Unrealistic Expectations

What is the most insidious though about unrealistic expectations is the fatigue and stress that they create.

And as fatigue and stress accumulate, that’s when we get stupid. 

The primitive fears and irrational thinking that fatigue and stress make us vulnerable to fall into, lead us to think and do things that we would never do if we were not so fatigued or stressed. At times like that, our maturity and commitments to the the Lord, and our love for others can be ruthlessly usurped by our depraved flesh.


I’ve heard a number of painful stories first hand over the years in my therapy office from pastors and other Christian leaders who had unrealistic or naive expectations of themselves.  They didn’t think they needed to share their struggles, fears and vulnerabilities with a safe person as pressures, losses and expectations mounted, They didn’t think they needed a break to emotionally and physically reset, and regain clarity. They thought they could handle the burden of their personal visions and dreams, and all the stress and demands that came with it…only to see them come crashing down.

Lord have mercy.

The Ruthless Trickster

So, what’s behind all this?  Why are so easily tricked into blowing past what we can really do, and put ourselves in places that compromise the values and relationships we cherish the most? While nearly all of us can acknowledge the reality of an evil force that entices and nudges us towards our worst nightmares, what is often harder to see is how much work that force does on the front end to lure us into those awful places.

That force has been at it a long time, and intriguingly, one of his primary initial strategies was to get us to think we could be more than we actually are. He is the first one to get us to enticed by unrealistic expectations, and has been at it ever since.

His line “you shall be like God” and all the incredibly alluring capacities and endless possibilities it brought with it, was a critical part of seducing Eve and Adam into choices that have had tragic and sobering consequences ever since.

The Solutions

As I was preparing for a recent talk on accepting and setting limits, I was led to an insight that was profound.

God gave Adam a garden to tend, not a universe.  

He asked them to do what was in their capacities, not what was beyond their capacities.

Before the Fall, I’m sure it was a lot easier to accept limits and not be motivated by the fear of disappointing others, or by the allure of dreams of personal greatness.

God have given each of us a garden to tend.

He has given each of us a calling where we are to increasingly look to God for what he has given us the capacity to do.

I believe He is asking us explicitly go to Him and confess our vulnerabilities to make decisions based on our own self-reliant fears and self-glorifying dreams.  To surrender our vulnerabilities to go our own way and foolishly believe we can be limitless just like HIm.

I believe He is asking us to lean into a greater faith in Him…to trust Him with the expectations of others, to accept our limits, and to look exclusively to Him for validation, worth and praise.

How would a healthy person live my life and do my job?

In my coaching work, I work with a lot of leaders who work in jobs that routinely ask them to go beyond their capacities, and powerfully pulls on their vulnerabilities for people pleasing, self-reliance and the pursuit of personal glory.  The question I will often pose is:

How can you learn to craft your job and live your so that a healthy person would want it?  

While God has given each of us different bandwidths, I believe one of our greatest contributions in fulfilling our callings is to consistently persevere in our efforts to right-size our gardens, namely our lives and callings, in ways that truly reveal just how much God can transform a life.

May you find your way to the size of a garden you can really enjoy taking care of.

May He help you find delight in a garden that helps you learn to accept and even embrace your God-given limits.

May He help you move away from the fatigue and stress that have shipwrecked many with good hearts and good intentions.

May you live that out in compelling ways, so that the fruit of your life is that much more tasty (yes, tasty!), and the aromatic fragrance of your soul lighten and lift the hearts of those who you love and lead.