far back as Andrew can remember, his parents
wanted him to become a doctor. Throughout junior
high and high school his dad, a respected surgeon
in the community, tutored him in science subjects
and did everything possible to spark his interest
in medicine. When it came to acceptance in a
premed program, his father's influence was
decisive. Andrew was admitted in spite of
College was Andrew's first
experience of living independently, and the freer
university environment inspired him to consider
other career options. After several sessions with
a vocational counselor, he concluded he was best
fit for a business profession. He came close to
switching majors. Yet as he pondered the effect
this change would have on his parents, he decided
to stick with medicine. The fear of disappointing
his folks was simply too great, and in the end
their expectations carried the day.
Andrew's parents also urged his
younger sister to pursue a medical career. Yet
Janet possessed a strong independent streak, and
fought the idea tooth and nail. In college she
opted for a business major and today manages a
retail department store. Ironically, Janet
realized by her second year of college that she
would prefer a career in nursing. Yet the
knowledge that this option fell within the realm
of her parents' wishes for her life was too great
a deterrent. For Janet the crucial matter was to
be her own person, and this meant avoiding any
semblance of living out her parents'
Who made the more independent
decision, Andrew or Janet?
We're inclined to say that Janet
did. She was the one who broke the bindings of
her parents' expectations. Yet did she really?
When we look closely at her reasoning, it becomes
less certain that she acted freely. Like Andrew,
she failed to follow the vocation she wanted. And
like Andrew, it was her reaction to her folks'
expectations that held her back. The difference
was that Andrew felt compelled to follow these
expectations, while Janet felt compelled to rebel
against them. In reality both acted from
compulsion and not from freedom.
Andrew and Janet illustrate the
challenge involved in trying to live
independently of others' expectations. The goal
of being our own person is a good one. Owning our
life is vital to psychological health. It's a
vital need for the Christian, for if we always
feel obliged to please others' expectations,
we'll not be able to respond fully to the Lord's
will for our life. Owning our life is a
prerequisite to yielding it freely to Christ.
Yet the goal of owning our life
is also an illusive one. And unless we accept
that it can never be perfectly realized, we're
bound to frustration and a self-defeating
Many who fear commitment are
fiercely concerned about owning their lives.
Commitment fear is at heart the dread of losing
control. For many commitment-fearful people this
means fearing yielding control of their destiny
to anyone. They can be unsettled just knowing
that others think they are playing a role
in their life. They may feel compelled to avoid
taking any step which anyone else might claim
credit for influencing. Yet their need for
control greatly limits their options, and may
even lead them to sabotage their most cherished
goals and dreams.
Whether or not we fear commitment
at a serious level, the urge to own our lives
runs deep within each of us and is one of our
most basic instincts. It can work either for us
or against us. The challenge is to keep this
drive within healthy bounds.
Defeating Our Own Purpose
Janet demonstrates the greatest
irony of the desire to own our own life--the fact
that when this urge becomes too strong, it always
backfires on us. The obsession to avoid even the
appearance of living out others' expectations
narrows our options considerably, and may keep us
from doing what we most want to do.
The problem can become pervasive.
For some, even the vague sense that others might
have opinions about what they should do is enough
to keep them from doing it. Many who would like
the benefits of attending church choose not to
become involved, because they know others think
they should be there. They stay away out of the
urge to be their own person. Yet they are acting
no more independently than those who attend
faithfully out of social pressure.
This same mentality leads others
to abandon good relationships and marriage
opportunities. They are uncomfortable thinking
someone else could claim credit for their
happiness or well-being. They bail out of a
relationship at the point when it becomes most
promising, fearing they've become too reliant on
the other person for emotional support. They
choose lonely independence over happy dependence.
Others strive fervently to act
independently in all their decisions. If we're at
all socially active, though, it's unlikely we can
ever take any major step which at least some
people are not hoping we will take. If the
concern with being our own person is too strong,
we become immobilized. There just doesn't seem to
be any course of action which is genuinely
Facing Our Suggestibility
We shouldn't underestimate,
either, the role of our own suggestibility. We
tend to think only certain people will succumb to
suggestion--the highly compliant person who can
be hypnotized in five seconds, for instance.
Numerous studies have shown, however, that each
of us is far more suggestible than we normally
suspect. Our outlook and mood are constantly
affected by a multitude of influences around us.
As I'm working at home today, the
weather is overcast, and my energy is lagging.
Undoubtedly this loss of zest is due more to the
dreary environment than to any physical factor.
But I can't deny that it may result even more
from the fact that I've always heard that
we don't function as well in bleak weather.
Which of us has not made a
significant purchase in recent months which we
later realized was prompted more by media hype
than by good judgment? And even with our most
far-reaching decisions, when we look carefully at
what influenced us, it's often startling to find
the role that others' opinions played. Sometimes
a brief word of advice pushed us forward. A
comment made in passing--"You'd make a
great preacher"; "You've got a nose for
business"; "You should marry that woman"--stuck
with us and determined our choice.
If we're honest about it, we have
to admit that it's very difficult ever to
demonstrate that any decision we make is truly
independent. We simply cannot erase our
suggestibility. In spite of our best efforts to
think independently, we remain surprisingly
capable of being swayed by others' expectations.
Striking a Balance
Being our own person, then, is a
more subtle challenge than most of us realize. It
can require some significant shifts in our
outlook and approach to life. Here are six
suggestions for beating the challenge.
1. Accept the reality of
living in a world of expectations. If I'm
to realize my potential for Christ, I must accept
a priori that there will be times when doing what
is best will mean doing what other people think I
should do. They may even be rooting for me to do
it. They may even imagine that I'm doing it to
carry out their expectations. I'll need to remind
myself otherwise, of course. But if I'm too
ruffled by the problem of appearances here, I'll
never get off dead center. Independent action
will be impossible. The desire to rebel will make
me a slave.
Accepting the inevitability of
sometimes living out others' expectations is a
vital first step in learning to own our own life.
2. Keep the desire to own
your life within reasonable bounds.
Aristotle observed that a virtue carried to an
extreme becomes a vice. I've often noted that
Satan seems to attack us at our strong points as
much as at our weak ones. He'll take a noble
desire, for instance, and move us to focus on it
to the point of obsession.
The concern to own our lives is a
healthy desire. Yet when it becomes excessive
it's self-defeating. A moderate concern to
be free from the control of others' expectations
always serves us better than an extreme one.
You shouldn't want to let go of
the desire to own your life any more than you
would the will to live. Yet if you are obsessed
with a need for control, you should strive to
temper this drive. Remind yourself of the
problems that occur when it becomes extreme. Ask
God to give you a balanced concern for owning
your life. Christ is on your side as you seek to
keep this desire within reasonable bounds, and
will give you success as you draw on his
3. Strengthen your desire
to realize your potential and to become what
Christ wants you to be. An important step
toward keeping the desire to own our life within
proper limits is to focus our attention more on
other personal drives. Not only do we each have a
basic desire to be our own person; we have a
drive for personal accomplishment as well.
Concentrate on your desire to realize your
potential, and do whatever you can to nurture
that desire. Dwell on the benefits that come from
fulfilling God's plan for you--in work, personal
ministry and relationships. As your desire for
God's will grows stronger, you'll find it much
easier to live with the reality of others'
expectations and to know what your response to
them should be.
Paul is an interesting case in
point. At first glance his attitude toward
others' expectations seems confusing. He spoke
fervently of the need to obey God over people,
for instance. "If I were still trying to
please men, I would not be a servant of
Christ" (Gal 1:10). Yet he spoke just as
earnestly about the importance of serving others
through accommodating their expectations. "I
have become all things to all men so that by all
possible means I might save some" (1 Cor
We observe both extremes in his
personal life as well. He went strongly against
the counsel of others in pursuing certain
personal goals. He proceeded to Jerusalem in
spite of the pleas of numerous Christians who
begged him not to court disaster. Once friends
even gave Paul a prophecy of guidance, telling
him bluntly that God didn't want him going to
Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Paul went anyway.
At other times Paul was
surprisingly compliant. When he journeyed to
Macedonia, he went in response to a vision of a
man asking for his help (Acts 16:9). Paul and his
companions undoubtedly expected to find a man
active in ministry in Macedonia waiting for their
assistance. Instead, they found a devout group of
Jewish women who had gathered for prayer (Acts
16:13-15). One of them, Lydia, responded to
Paul's message and accepted Christ. She then
invited Paul's party to stay at her home, where
they remained for the duration of their visit to
Macedonia. Luke notes that Lydia
"persuaded" Paul and his friends to
lodge with her (v. 15). Paul was apparently
unwilling to do so at first, perhaps wanting to
search further for the man in his vision. Yet he
allowed Lydia to change his mind. Here he showed
flexibility and willingness to let God use
someone else to influence his thinking.
Paul's varied responses to
others' desires for him makes sense only when we
understand his frame of reference. His primary
concern was not to own his life but to do the
will of Christ. He knew that following Christ
would sometimes require going along with others'
expectations and sometimes going against them.
This isn't to say that Paul didn't cherish
independence and control. He clearly did want to
own his life. His desire was strong enough to
protect him from caving in to unreasonable
demands others placed on him. Yet it was not so
extreme that he couldn't listen thoughtfully to
counsel--and he didn't recoil from yielding to
others' expectations when it seemed advisable to
Paul's flexibility in dealing
with others' expectations is particularly
impressive when we consider how headstrong and
inflexible he was before coming to Christ. He
demonstrates the balanced attitude that results
when we become intent on following Christ and
realizing the potential he's given us.
4. Rebel by conforming.
Another important point is that even when Paul
did grant the expectations of others, he did so
as a free choice. He was able to be all
things to all people without capitulating.
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I
make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many
as possible" (1 Cor 9:19). Because his
identity was secure in Christ, he could yield to
others' wishes yet still be his own person. His
self-worth did not depend upon having to rebel.
From another angle, Paul did
continue to rebel after becoming a Christian. His
dogged personality remained intact. Yet he
channeled his rebelliousness in redemptive
directions. He rebelled against his own tendency
to rebel. He rebelled against others' expectation
that he would rebel. Many times he rebelled by
It helps if we who are obsessed
with owning our own lives can recognize that
others expect us to rebel. They expect us
to break our commitments. They expect us to go
against the expectations of others, even if it
means defying our own best interests. They expect
us to do the unexpected. If we must rebel, we
should learn to rebel against these
God doesn't expect us to violate
our personality when we become a Christian, but
to harness its energy constructively. We should
rebel against any personal tendency which
inclines us to sabotage our own dreams. We can
follow the counsel of others, even fulfill their
expectations, without sacrificing our integrity.
Owning our life is an internal matter much
more than an external one.
Manage your suggestibility. While we
cannot negate our suggestibility, we can do
plenty to manage it. In his classic The Person
Reborn, Paul Tournier stresses that God does
not bypass our suggestibility in directing our
lives but works through it to guide us.*
Our aim should not be to avoid
being suggestible, which is an impossible goal.
We should strive, rather, to put ourselves in
situations where the most healthy
"suggestions" occur. Being around
optimistic people who believe the best for us can
make a great difference. So can exposing
ourselves to healthy Christian teaching and
worship experiences. We are profoundly affected
by role models as well. I should choose to spend
my time with people whose attitude and lifestyle
6. Pray for wisdom.
Most important, we need private time, quiet time
alone with Jesus Christ. Appreciating our
suggestibility helps us understand the need for
pCersonal time with Christ, where we give him an
unhindered opportunity to influence our thinking.
The benefit of such time in helping us know how
to respond to others' expectations is
unmistakable. When I've committed the day to
Christ and sought his direction, I can go forward
confident that he'll guide my decisions in his
will. He'll give me sound perspective in the
midst of the maze of expectations I'll confront.
Jesus himself found prayer
indispensable in dealing with others'
expectations. On one occasion he arose early in
the morning and spent time praying. Immediately
afterward, he went against the advice of everyone
and left an eager crowd in Capernaum in order to
minister in other towns (Mk 1:35-39). Following
his intensive time of prayer in Gethsemane,
however, he cooperated with the designs of the
officials to capture him (Mt 26:36-56). While his
decision was equally free in each case, his
response to others' expectations was radically
different. Again, we're reminded that God
sometimes calls us to act against the
expectations of others, sometimes to fulfill
them. Through seeking God's direction in prayer,
we can resolve this ambiguity.
Perhaps God in his design of
human life has made the matter of dealing with
others' expectations ambiguous enough that we
would feel compelled to trust more completely in
Christ to guide our life. It is through a
relationship with him that we gain the strength
and wisdom to fully become the individuals he has
created us to be.