This question usually arises due to confusion over different uses of the word, "expect" or "expectation." It can mean several things:
- It can mean what one assumes will probably happen in an unknown future. If I say, for example, that, "I expect the package to arrive today," I mean that I don't know if the package will arrive by I am confident that it will. It might not, but it is what I expect to happen. In this sense, God does not "expect" anything to happen because he knows exactly what will happen.
- It can also mean, however, an eager anticipation of something that one is certain will occur, like when we talk about a pregnant woman "expecting" her child or ancient Israel's "expectation" of God's promised Messiah. In this case, "expectation" is used in the sense of eager anticipation rather than uncertainty. In the KJV, God is said to have an "expected end" for Israel (Jeremiah 29:11 KJV), and Jesus is said to be "expecting" His future return (Hebrews 10:12-14 KJV), which seem to be "expectations" in this second sense. These things will definitely happen, and God delights to bring them about in their appointed time.
- Expectations can also be responsibilities, duties, or things demanded. My landlord "expects" me to pay my bills. My father always "expected" me to clean my room. This has nothing to do with probability or anticipation. These are obligations. They are things I am charged with by proper authorities who have the right to bind me to them. They are standards to which I am expected to live up. In this third sense, the Bible is FULL of expectations to which God holds men accountable.
What often happens is that, in a lazy equivocation, people will abuse the first sense of the word to try and undermine the last. Such men will first point out that, since God knows the future, He doesn't merely expect future events to happen. He knows what will happen. True enough, as far as it goes. But they will then turn around and say, "so don't let anyone tell you that God has expectations of you. God doesn't expect anything of you at all because an all knowing God can't have expectations." We see an example of this in the popular novel "The Shack," in which "God" says to the main character:
"I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else. The idea behind expectations requires that someone does not know the future or outcome and is trying to control behavior to get the desired result."1
The problem is that this is a word game. It's flipping back and forth between two entirely different meanings of the word. It would be like me saying, "a trunk is the long nose on an elephant, and cars obviously don't have noses, so cars don't have trunks. Don't let anyone ever tell you to put something in the trunk of a car." The word "trunk" means something different when applied to elephants than it does when applied to cars. The argument is absurd. Or imagine I told you that "the opposite of right is wrong, and therefore you should always use your right hand because the opposite hand is the wrong hand." That's obviously not what "right hand" means. There are multiple uses of the word "right," and it's just silly to conflate them. My dad once told me a playful riddle:
Q: You are in a concrete room with no doors or windows. All you have with you is a saw and board. How do you get out?
A: You use the saw and cut the board in half. You then put the halves together. Two halves make a whole. Now you climb through the hole and get out of the room.
In the case of this riddle, the spelling of "whole" and "hole" differ and it works better when said out loud, but the principle is the same. It is merely a witty word play. It has no connection to reality. The same applies to one who says that God has no moral expectations of mankind simply because He doesn't expect future events the way we expect something in the mail. It's a semantic trick. Replace the word "expectations" with a synonym like "obligations" or "duties." Does God's knowledge of the future forbid Him from obligating people to obey His commands or holding them responsible for duties under which He has placed them? Whatever God has commanded men, they are bound to obey. Indeed, Jesus says:
"So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done,’" (Luke 17:10).
Yes, God does indeed place expectations on us. We have fallen short, and so depend on the merits of Christ. We lack the will to obey and desperately rely on the Holy Spirit of God to renew us. Even if we fulfilled His expectations for us, it would earn us no special commendation for it is merely our duty. Salvation is by grace alone, and our works add nothing to it. But Jesus is Lord. He is Master and King. We ought to obey what He says. Indeed, He rightly expects that of us.
- 1. William Young, The Shack (Windblown Media, 2007) 206