Life can be harsh sometimes. It delivers painful lessons.
One of those is disappointment.
There’s something soul-destroying about disappointment. It can wear you down, drain you and finally crush you. Unless you learn to deal with it.
Disappointment in Myself
Our physical lives – We can be disappointed in our own work performance. We’re not disciplined enough, not smart enough, not savvy enough to achieve our goals. We don’t prioritise the right things. We could be a better worker, spouse, father, but we make choices which let us down. The teacher’s report says, “could do better.” As time rolls by, we pay the price for our ill-discipline, our lack of focus, and the disappointment deepens.
Our moral lives – Of course, we’re sinners. But we’re not improving, we’re not sinning less. In fact, now we’re sinning in areas where once we didn’t sin. We’re getting older, but if we’re honest, we’re not getting wiser. We’re not monsters, but we’re just coming up short. Again and again. And that’s disappointing.
Disappointment in Others
Where to start? The church, maybe? I love church, except for all the people. People are disappointing. Period. They will let you down and disappoint you, and there is no world in which that doesn’t happen. Either you will learn that late or you will learn it early. But learn it you must. People who fail to deliver on their promises or those who say one thing and do another. Hypocrisy, rejection, unmet expectations, they all lead to disappointment.
Disappointment in Circumstances
New Covid rules mean your holiday is cancelled. Your child applied for a university, achieved the grades, but for some reason, they were rejected. Accidents, delays, bad weather, sometimes life can be very disappointing.
Disappointment with God
There is no getting around this one. It comes in two parts.
Prayer – God isn’t answering me. I can’t hear him. I can’t feel him. I can’t see the way forward. Where is he? There is a disconnect between what I’m expected to say each Sunday and my actual experience of him right now. It’s killing me.
Life – My mother is in hospital. My brother’s about to lose his children as he goes through a horrible divorce. My neighbour is suing me for something that isn’t fair. An idiot rear-ended my car last week and oh, my migraines are getting worse. A lot worse. I can take a certain amount of pain, but this is just ridiculous. I’m crying out but I’m not hearing you, Lord. That’s the truth. All I hear from people who “counsel” me is “pray more,” “trust Jesus more.” To be honest, I think I’m going to hit the next person who says that to me.
God, what is going on?!
Still reading? Glad you’re still with me. Now for some thoughts on how to deal with disappointment.
Actually, that might be part of the problem. We are so indoctrinated by the Protestant work ethic, we think we can do something to solve this. Do, do, do. Pray more. Trust more. Take action. Solve it. Fix it. But here’s the thing. Disappointment isn’t really something you can solve. There is no to-do list to make it go away. So my first heading is one you might not like or even accept.
Disappointment is an emotion. It’s a reaction to something that is hurting us. Emotions themselves are like the ocean. You ride the ocean, you don’t change it. The ocean rises and falls. Just like life. Emotions swell and build, then they fade and fall away. Disappointment will run through you, and it will do that whatever you try to do with it. It just will. Accept that disappointment is a part of life. Instead of fighting it, explaining it, arguing with it, just look at it and admit that you are, at times, filled with it.
Disappointment makes us feel powerless. It also drags us back into the past, which cannot be changed. The future, by contrast, is held out to you by God. An invitation to live in his grace, to enjoy him, praise him, to believe that whatever has happened, God has been there, is there, and will be with you as you move forward. His faithfulness is unfailing, even when you don’t feel that he’s there.
The Lord Jesus did not float along six feet above the ground, removed from the agonies of life. He formed real relationships with real people. Those people disappointed him over and over again. You can see his frustration in these verses from Matthew’s gospel.
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “Because you have so little faith.”
He sounds impatient, doesn’t he? But I think he’s also disappointed. He knows he’s working with imperfect materials, but he had hoped for more. And the disciples still haven’t understood. Not really. But it’s during the Passion that he is stung the most. Simon Peter, his best buddy, lets him down. We often focus on the verse about Peter weeping bitterly, but spare a thought for Jesus, who, in the midst of his cruellest hour, is abandoned by his friend. Though he knew it was coming – he prophesied it, of course – it must have hurt very much.
And this takes us back to earlier in the story - the Garden of Gethsemane scene which we all know so well. I’ve often wondered about Jesus’ plea for his father to “remove the cup.” He knew perfectly well that his path was fixed before him. There would be no escape. There was no alternative plan to save humanity. Yet still he prays. And sweats blood in his distress.
How heartening to know that even Jesus prayed prayers of pure emotion. He knew it was just emotion, that his father had no intention to “remove the cup.” Yet still he prayed. He poured out his agony to his father. He wanted to know that his father was right there with him during his darkest hour. I think that is a picture to carry us through disappointment. Our Lord knows how disappointing life can be, and how much pain we carry, but he’s right there with us. And he hears us when we cry to him. So when you’re disappointed, turn to him, and pour out your heart. Coming out of lockdown may lead to tremendous disappointment for many leaders.
But God is right there with you. He’s always been with you.
So share your heart with him. He’s been there too.
Disappointment the Teacher
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Allow me to begin with a quote from the writer, Larry Crabb.*
Disappointment is inevitable. More than that, it is good. Following Christ must take us through seasons of disappointment, because Christianity remakes our dreams before it fulfils them.
Christianity remakes our dreams before it fulfils them. Marinate in that thought for a while. We are not what we should be, and without God, we are not even capable of grasping the extent of our need. We need to be remade, and disappointment is part of the process. Again, Larry Crabb.
Christianity promises happiness – that’s part of the appeal – but we will not find it by traveling the route we’ve already laid out in our heads. Disappointment, severe enough to be called death, is unavoidable in a true spiritual journey.
Listening to a podcast the other day, I heard of a writer who wrote about death and resurrection. She said that the Christian life requires repeated death and resurrection for us to grow. Every challenge, every fractured dream, every soul-destroying disappointment can kill us, but in dying we surrender our own selfish ways in order to experience the resurrection, the new life of our Lord within us.
Disappointment hurts most when we cling to our unrealised dreams, dreams which are based on our own ideas of happiness or success or fulfilment. When we die to those dreams, we are free to embrace the resurrection life of Jesus.
That is a truth worth pondering today. Let me end with a final quote from Larry Crabb.
Soul-crushing struggle supplies the energy that nudges us along in the process of shifting from token hope, the kind that generates pleasant feelings, to the real thing that anchors us through life’s storms.
None of us wants token hope. Pleasant feelings are not enough. We want the real thing. Of course we do. But it’s only when life’s disappointments re-shape us, re-form us, that we die to our selfish dreams.
Death and resurrection. We must die, if we want to be born to eternal life.
The real thing that anchors us through life’s storms.
*All quotes from Larry Crabb are from Becoming a True Spiritual Community. 1999.