What Disappointment Reveals

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Throughout June our sermon topics will focus on dealing with four different types of painful experiences in the Christian life: Disappointment, Doubt, Depression, and Distance. It’s safe to say, there’s a lot of that going around these days, disappointment not being the least of which. 

It’s a tricky subject to write about given how enormous and multi-faceted Disappointment is. But in the Christian worldview, we know this much: disappointment is inevitable, it is universal to all people, and like all pain, it is indicative of something underneath the surface. So when confronted with our own disappointments in life, the question I am inclined to ask is this: 

What does disappointment reveal in us?

I offer 3 submissions.

1. Disappointment Reveals…Expectation

The dictionary definition of Disappointment is:

“sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations”

Humans experience disappointment because we are capable of having expectations. We can have expectations of circumstances, of other people, of ourselves, and even of God. Disappointment occurs when my expectation did not correspond with reality as it played out. 

In the Christian worldview, reality is defined by its Maker and what He says about it in Scripture and in the created order. God’s testimony of reality is that we live in a broken and fallen world. This effects everything from our relationships to our bodies to our work and tasks. 

Take relational expectations, for instance. I may join a church in search of trustworthy friendships. I may marry the love of my life, expecting ideal intimacy. I may raise children, expecting obedience and continuity of values. But God says that part of the consequence of living in a broken world is broken relationships. Marriages break down, friends misunderstand each other or violate each other’s trust, children disobey, parents exasperate, etc. We learn that it is unrealistic to expect ideal relationships in a fallen world. To cling to that expectation sets us up for relational disappointment. 

On the other hand, there is still a kind of disappointment experienced even when my expectations are in sync with what God says about reality. We call this grief. Grief in the acknowledgement that yes, though we live in a broken world, we know that it shouldn’t be broken. Marriages were meant to be intimate. Friendships were meant to be edifying. Families were meant to be functional and harmonious. 

We are wired to anticipate goodness, and when goodness is not where it ought to be, disappointment is felt. We grieve the discrepancy because though we inherited the broken world from Adam, but we still have the memory of Eden. 

2. Disappointment Reveals…Hope

Expectation and hope are often used synonymously, but I choose to distinguish one from the other because you can technically expect something bad or negative, whereas hope implies a strong anticipation and desire for something good or positive. You can expect disastrous news from a biopsy, yet hope for a benign diagnosis (“hope for the best, expect the worst”).  No one is ever disappointed when you expected a bad thing, but good thing happened instead. We feel relief!

But hope can be disappointed all the same, because hope is a matter of desire and longing, and there are two ways in which our desires/longings are disappointed. One is when the object of our desire/longing is unattained:

“I applied, but I wasn’t accepted”

“We keep trying, but we can’t conceive”

“I pray for healing, but I am still sick”

The other is when the object of our desire/longing is attained, but does not fulfill: 

“I have friends, but I still feel lonely”

“I got the dream job, but my work is unsatisfying”

“I’ve committed my life to Christ, but I keep struggling with sin”

The first type (Unattained Desire) touches on the subject of “The Unanswered Prayer”, something just about every Christian can relate to. Rick will have more to say about that this weekend, but for now I’ll address the second kind: the Attained Desire.

 I am reminded of a quote from comedian and actor Jim Carrey… 

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Carrey, a well-liked, successful, talented, and wealthy celebrity living out his every worldly dream, has made no secret that he is often deeply unhappy. Similarly, in Scripture we read the musings and laments of “The Teacher”: a man of endless wealth and unbridled success who has achieved all that he wanted and enjoys the high esteem of everyone. He writes: 

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. my heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecc. 2:10-11)

In other words, “I got everything I ever wanted and it wasn’t enough.” Disappointing, indeed. 

As always, C.S. Lewis had a wonderful insight regarding this lack of fulfillment that pervades our lives: 

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”

Our capacity for hope and our nature to anticipate future good brings us to the third thing that Disappointment reveals…

3. Disappointment Reveals…Promise

If there was no such thing as water, the biological mechanism of thirst would make no sense. In the same way, I would argue that if there was not the potential for fulfillment and satisfaction, the human mechanisms of longing, hope, desire and expectations don’t make much sense either. 

Our inheritance from Adam was a broken world, but it was also the memory of life before the break. Hope and expectations are like being in a desert but dreaming of a garden, though the puzzle is: how did we get the notion of a garden in the first place? Our present reality is the desert between Eden – which we were designed for (Gen 2:8) – and the New Jerusalem – which through salvation in Christ, we are destined for (Rev. 21:1-2). 

We are between gardens. 

Indeed, our present disappointments should drive us to Christ and foster a deeper longing for heaven. The response of the Christ-follower to disappointment is to lament and to seek; to bring our disappointments before God in all their naked honesty and to pursue our original desire, which is fulfilled in Him. It is right, then, for us to lean on His promises in the midst of disappointment.

In our disappointment, we are told to cry out to God, for He hears us and understands all that we are going through personally:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” (Ps. 40: 1-3)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with us, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16)

In our disappointments, we remember that we are not alone. That our personal disappointments are part of a broader reality, as Paul writes:

… For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23)

In the midst of our disappointments, we are told that we lack no good thing (Ps. 34:10), that even our disappointments can be refined for good use (Romans 8:28) and that if we align our hearts and desires with those of Christ and seek His kingdom purposes, we will find fulfillment (Matt. 6:33, Phil. 3:8). 

Finally, we are promised a day in which all forms of pain, including disappointment, will cease to be: 

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

We are promised that Christ Himself offers true fulfillment, for He is the water the slakes thirst (John 4:14) and the bread that satisfies all hunger (John 6:25-35). 

Christian, disappointments will come. But let them become signposts showing the way to our source of fulfillment: He who is our everlasting hope and our unfailing expectation. 

For further thoughts on disappointment: 

The Reality of Disappointment

Failure and Disappointment in Scripture

Cynicism is the Response of the Disappointed

God’s Promise for the Disappointed

-Written by Kellie Ade