Expectation and Experience
I’ve been reading quite a bit lately from Pehr Granqvist, a psychologist in Sweden who had done a great deal of research on relational attachment to people and how that’s connected to how we attach to God. There’s a huge amount of detail that’s not really necessary to deal with, but it’s mostly reinforced a simpler idea. Our experience of God will to some extent reflect our expectation of who He is and what He is like. Our expectation, shaped by past experience, colors our present experience.
I feel like perhaps I’ve been delving into academic talk to long enough now that I’m started to spout it. That might have been unclear. Let’s back up, then.
We come into this world not really knowing what people are like. We’re born wanting to connect to people, but we don’t know how that works and what they’ll be like when we try to connect. As we interact with folks, especially Mom and Dad, we gradually create a sort of picture of what people are like. Are they nice? Are they mean? When I do this or that, how do they respond? We learn how to relate to people and learn what to expect from them based on this internal picture, though what exactly that picture is is something we’re not generally aware of. It’s not a conscious map that we reference; it’s automatic.
Now, this picture that we create generates our expectations of people and how we think about them. How we think about people affects our behavior and interpretation of others’ behavior. This means that what we expect seriously colors our experience. We expect Marcy to not really care, so when she doesn’t call us back, we chalk it up as proof that she doesn’t care. Of course, it could be that she doesn’t care, or it could be that she’s tied up with the kids, but our picture of what people are like has shaped our perspective. We’ve learned people are uncaring, so we assume Marcy isn’t, and our experience has now proved it. Never mind the 473 other times she has called back; they don’t reflect our people-map, so we may not take them into consideration. They don’t count.
Now, God is a person. In fact, He’s three people and the reason for the very term, person. This means that our expectations of people based on this internal picture get mapped on to God, too. We expect God to be a particular way based on what we’ve learned people in general are like, even if that particular way isn’t true or isn’t even what we’ve been taught directly. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Experience and our internal pictures often trump our knowledge or even push it completely out of our minds. So we have this picture of God that we hold to, which is typically pretty similar to our picture of people in general, and we expect Him to think, feel, and act in particular ways. We have an at least partially unconscious picture of God – if He’s nice or mean or powerful or manipulate-able and how He reacts both emotionally and behaviorally when we do this or that.
Once we expect God to act in particular ways, then our expectations of Him will shape our experience of Him. This is especially true of God, since He doesn’t usually manifest Himself directly. We have to interpret what we experience of Him. We expect Him to be harsh or distant, and so we interpret what we experience to demonstrate that He is harsh or distant or whatever it is that we expect (again, usually unconsciously).
So somewhere buried in our hearts is a picture of what God is like, and that picture will shape what we experience Him to be like. Is that picture true? Ah, well, that’s something worth exploring. God is never completely like what we expect Him to be like, and sometimes He’s very different than what we’ve learned. Our experience of God could be distorted because our understanding and expectations of Him are wonky.