Little-known fact about me: I am a sucker for miraculous-feat-by-the-underdog sports stories, like McFarland, USA; Remember the Titans; Invictus; and The Boys in the Boat. I think this is partly because, though my days are full of joyful, inspiring, truly good moments, real life rarely feels like it turns out as good as I hope it will.
Which is to say, I’m a perfectionist (and thus, an idealist), so I always want things to be as good as they can possibly be. This makes for a lot of disappointment, most often in myself for not doing something as well as I wanted, or in God for not acting in the way or in the time frame I think he should.
At 37, I feel like I should have disappointment figured out. I’ve experienced it too many times to count, from losing games as a child and then tennis matches when I was a bit older to seeing dating relationships end and dream jobs (and, most recently, MFA-program spots) given to someone else.
But when I’m disappointed, I still want to do what the four-year-old of the family I live with—typically a happy little girl who breaks out in song regularly (#delightful)—does when she is exceptionally tired: have a melt-down, wailing with every ounce of passion in her little body, “But I waaaaaaaaant it!”
Looking for Hope
What do we do with disappointment? What do we do when there’s a gap between what we wanted or expected and what actually happens? When we don’t get the grade, award, grad school acceptance, spouse, house, job, physical healing, baby, or break we wanted (or needed)? Or, when we do get what we wanted and find out it wasn’t all we hoped?
Even more, what do we do with God in the face of disappointment?
The Jews constantly wrestled with this. Many didn’t know what to do with a God who came to earth as a vulnerable baby, rather than a leader of armies who would defeat the Romans; a God who healed some, but not all; a God who claimed to be the Messiah and then let people kill him on a cross. It’s no wonder that many of Jesus’ followers—even those who ate of the bread and fish he miraculously multiplied—“turned back and no longer followed him.” After 400 years of waiting for the Messiah, they felt disappointed by the Jesus they got.
I wrestle with similar questions today. What do I do with a God who sometimes miraculously heals cancer and opens infertile wombs, but more often doesn’t? Who seems to clearly lead me into specific situations that sometimes end up being incredibly life-giving and other times are incredibly painful? Who seems to be letting the wicked prosper while the most vulnerable suffer?
While I don’t “turn back” when I’m disappointed, my gut response is usually not pretty. Bitterness and anger swell up. Then, I beat myself up for having a temper tantrum (of sorts) and for being upset with God, who I know (intellectually) is good. I chastise myself for getting my hopes up in the first place. And, I’ve noticed in this season of applying to (and, ahem, as I mentioned, getting rejected by) grad schools, I try really, really hard not to get my hopes up again.
But I’ve also realized that we are a people bent on hope. Often, when we feel like we have no hope left, we find something, either consciously or subconsciously, that we can cling to. But one of the consequences of living in a broken, fallen world is that we often shift our hope to things that only bring more heartache.
What’s a better response? I don’t have definitive answers, but here are a few suggestions I’m trying to intentionally do in the face of unmet expectations.
1. Be disappointed with (not in) Jesus.
Disappointment is not a sin. If anything, it is a sign that we were made for a perfect world. Grief over sin and over the brokenness of the world, in particular, is a good thing and something Jesus himself experienced.
Surely his weeping over Jerusalem was, at least in part, a cry of disappointment that God’s own people could not see the salvation that was literally in front of their eyes. He wanted so much more for his people, and they chose otherwise. In naming our disappointment to Jesus, we agree with his sadness over a world that has not yet been made fully right.
And even when our disappointment is over something that seems frivolous, Jesus invites us to come to him. I often think of Psalm 103:14 in times of grief: “The LORD . . . knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Jesus is ever aware of the fact that we are frail and have hearts that can easily break, and he receives us with tenderness and compassion—not judgment—when we bring our “But I wanted its” to him.
Anytime we come to Jesus, more intimacy is built, which is always a good thing. Some of my deepest experiences of God’s care have come in the midst of disappointment. So, sit with Jesus in your sadness.
2. Recount the good that happened. If you can’t see it, ask God to show you.
Sometimes the good takes some work to see, and sometimes we really cannot find any shred of good in a situation until later. That’s okay.
This is not an exhortation to fabricate a false sense of cheer or optimism in the midst of what feels like soul-numbing disappointment. But we can still ask God to show us his presence and even the tiniest glimpse of the transformation happening in us through his Spirit as we grapple with a world that can dash our hopes on the rocks. We can try to look for him in the midst of the wreckage and to be awake to the Spirit’s transformation of us in the middle of our disappointment.
We can also recount disappointing circumstances from our lives in which, looking back, we can now see how God was acting for our good. Scripture is helpful in this. The God who waited a few days to go see Lazarus when he was dying is the One who raised Lazarus from the dead when he arrived. And Jesus was, thankfully, not focused on overthrowing the Romans because he was zeroed in on a much bigger, fuller, permanent kind of salvation—for the Jews and for the world. Remembering his faithfulness in the past can bring healing to disappointment in the present.
3. Practice faith in God’s goodness.
Recently, I realized that I was afraid to trust God with my desires. After a couple of big disappointments in which I sensed God lead me into situations that seemed good at first but ended up being painful, I felt like God had not treated my desires with care—and even, maybe, like he was manipulating me.
I’ve wrestled with what it looks like to know and experience God’s goodness. I know that my disappointment does not mean he isn’t good, and I certainly don’t think his goodness only comes through circumstantial or material blessing. In my hurt though, I’ve struggled to really, really trust that he is good. What helped me were words from a devotional reminding me that if he is even a little bit manipulative or mean-spirited, he cannot be fully good. He is either completely, constantly good and trustworthy, or he isn’t.
Disappointment, then, is the perfect time to choose to practice faith, which is, as the writer of Hebrews so helpfully put it, “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, faith involves confidence and hope precisely at the moments when we can’t see any evidence that the thing we’re hoping for will happen. It is a choice we make to believe that what God has communicated about himself is true, even if we can’t actually see or feel evidence of that in the present moment.
I think of this choice often when I hear the four-year-old wail out her disappointment. It’s as if she believes that if she could get her (wise, loving) parents to understand just how much she wants the thing of the moment, they would give it to her. The truth is that, in the moment, everyone in the house knows how badly she wants that thing; that is never in question. But her parents know that not letting her do or have the thing she wants is, in the end, actually better for her.
Often I believe the lie that if God really knew just how badly I wanted something, and just how sure I was that it was the best thing for me and/or others, he’d give it to me. The truth, of course, is that he does know how much I want something, but he is more committed to acting or (seemingly) not acting for my good than with satisfying my often-misguided desires.
So, I can let my bitterness fester, or I can choose to reassert my faith in his absolute goodness, even when I can’t understand what he’s doing. I can choose to submit myself to his perfect wisdom and perspective that has the entire picture in mind—not just my life, but my life in connection to the lives of others who make up our world—and believe that somehow the present disappointment is part of a greater master plan that started before me and will continue after me. And I can choose that even while I’m sitting with Jesus in my sadness.
I know more disappointments are coming. But I’m learning that feeling the disappointment and choosing to trust God’s goodness don’t have to be contradictions. Both are possible, and both come to me as invitations from God and opportunities to draw closer to him. Those truths raise in me something that feels like hope.