Finding God in Disappointment

[Adapted from Sunday’s sermon at The District Church, “Finding God in Disappointment.”]

Have you ever been disappointed?

Have you ever experienced disappointment in your life with any of the following:

  • something you bought, some event you attended, some movie you watched;
  • some job that wasn’t all you thought it was going to be, some degree program that turned out to be lame, some move that wasn’t everything you’d hoped, some politician who let you down;
  • your friends, your family, someone you looked up to, someone you trusted, a romantic relationship—even a marriage?

How about this: have you ever experienced any disappointment in your life because of Christians, because of the church, or because of God?

Everyone experiences disappointment, but not everyone finds God in it; and I think God is there to be found. God is certainly at work in the midst of it all—that we can rely on, even if we can’t see him. But often when we experience disappointment, our first reaction is to pull away and to give up, instead of trusting that God is still at work even when things don’t seem to be going our way and seeking where he may be found, even in those places.

Think about how we perceive the relationship between God and our well-being even today: there’s a widely-held (and sometimes unspoken) assumption that if you’re doing well financially or relationally or materially or professionally, God is blessing you—and that may well be the case. But the problem comes when we assume:

  1. that that’s always the case—that material prosperity and God’s blessing are the same thing; and
  2. that the converse is also always true—that if you aren’t doing well, then God isn’t with you.

Even if we might say those things aren’t true, there’s still a sense in which we make judgments about others and about ourselves when things don’t go our way. I remember, when I was still single and a relationship didn’t work out, wondering why God would put me through that again. Or when I was applying for jobs and didn’t hear back from a single one, being like, “God, haven’t I done everything you wanted me to do? What gives?”

In Luke 24:21, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus say, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one”, but they had to lay those hopes to rest. What hopes have you had to lay to rest? In the wake of a loss, a breakup, a letdown, a layoff, an unfavorable decision; love denied, job denied, school denied. “We had hoped …” The disciples’ hope was that Jesus was the one to bring redemption to Israel. What disappointments have you experienced when it relates to the resurrection and all of the things you feel like you were promised because of Christ?

In the 1500s, a Spanish monk by the name of Juan de la Cruz—in English, John of the Cross—wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul,” which is not simply the experience of suffering but the experience of suffering in what seems like the silence of God. Can you relate?

Last week we remembered Christ’s death on Good Friday and we celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, but one day we didn’t talk about was Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is the day when Jesus was dead and in the tomb, and there was no guarantee that he was coming back. Holy Saturday is the day when doubt and despair and darkness held sway, and hope and faith were hanging by a thread. Holy Saturday is the day that reflects the reality of how many of us experience life right now—even after the resurrection: it’s the time theologians describe as the “already but not yet,” when Christ has already come but not yet come again, when Christ has already won the decisive battle but the full restoration is not yet here, when sin and death and evil were defeated on the cross but they have not yet been obliterated.

I think Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus were still living in a Holy Saturday reality—they’d heard about the resurrection but they hadn’t seen the risen Jesus; they weren’t sure if it was even true or not; their disappointments and their doubts still dominated. For them, Jesus was dead and God was silent; hope was gone and God was silent.

Something that struck me this week as I was reflecting on Luke 24 was verse 16: “they were kept from recognizing him.” The disciples, shorn of hope, weighed down by disappointment, experiencing a dark night of the soul, were kept from recognizing Jesus. He could have shown up and said, “What’s up, guys? It’s me! Rumors are true. Back from the dead.” Their hearts would have been lifted, their hopes would have been restored, and their souls would have rejoiced. But instead, he keeps them from recognizing him for the whole journey; he pretends not to know what’s going on; he allows them to stay in their disappointment. Why would Jesus do this?

John of the Cross writes:

There will come a time [in a person’s spiritual life] when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul [the sense of his presence] in order to teach it virtue.

John Goldingay said this:

When John [of the Cross] talks about the dark night, he talks about it in terms of stripping away the things that do not really matter to us. The dark night takes us back to basics. It raises the questions of who we really are and what we are really aiming at … makes us concentrate on what deserves concentration.[1]

In February, we talked about uncertainty, and I said:

Sometimes God has something to teach us in the midst of uncertainty that we could never learn—or never be open to learning—in the midst of certainty. [Uncertainty] can provide perspective for us and give us the opportunity to see unimaginable beauty that we would otherwise miss, just like darkness allows us to see things—like the stars—that we could never see in the light.

Darkness allows us to see things we could never see in the light. Disappointment allows us to see things we could never see in success. Discomfort allows us to see things we could never see in ease. In Psalm 131, one of my favorite psalms, the writer says: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Ah, contentment with God, quietness and stillness and calm. Isn’t there a part of us that, in the midst of busyness and stress and anxiety, really longs for that? But what else does the psalm say? “Like a weaned child.”

What is weaning? A series of small disappointments effected in order to help the child move from their mother’s milk to an adult diet, to help the child grow up? It’s a series of “No’s” so that the child might arrive at a better, healthier, more mature relationship with their parents, and with their own needs and desires. The purpose of weaning is to help the child grow into a place of contentment and satisfaction. But to get there, they have to pass through the land of disappointment. “There will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper.”

Why were the disciples kept from recognizing Jesus? Maybe because they needed to work through some things; maybe they needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them—he doesn’t mince words when he says, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe!”; maybe they needed to see that the women whose testimony they had disparaged (see Luke 24:11) were right; maybe they needed to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe they needed to grasp that the expectations they had had of Jesus, the expectations that had not been met, the ways they thought Jesus had let them down, that those expectations were actually wrong.

The relationships that didn’t work out—the ones that broke my heart—I needed to experience those to realize that my worth doesn’t come from what someone else says about me but it is grounded in God. The jobs that I applied for but didn’t get—I needed to experience those rejections in order to focus my attention more fully on what God was really calling me to; if I’d gotten any of those jobs I’d applied for—jobs in advocacy and politics—I may not have ended up as a pastor, I may not have ended up doing what I know I was made to do. But when I was going through those times, I couldn’t see that. When I was going through those times, they were absolutely dark and disappointing—I couldn’t discern what God was doing through them; they just seemed like closed doors.

Maybe there are places in your life that feel dark or disappointing where Jesus is with you but he’s actually keeping you from recognizing him right now. Maybe because you need to work through some things—and he’ll be with you in it, even if you aren’t aware of him; maybe you need to listen to what Jesus has to say to you—truths you’ve dismissed or convicting words you’ve tried to ignore; maybe you need to see that someone you wrote off was right; maybe you need to learn what faith looks like when it’s tried and tested; maybe you need to grasp that the expectations you had had of Jesus, the expectations that have not been met, the ways you thought Jesus has let you down, that those expectations are actually wrong.

Sometimes Jesus keeps us from recognizing him immediately because there are things we need to learn and work out and realize, because faith grows in all sorts of ways, even in darkness and disappointment. In fact, sometimes darkness and disappointment are invitations and unique opportunities to press in. Let me ask you this: What if you can’t actually truly experience resurrection unless you press in to it?

Here’s what I mean. Jesus called the disciples “foolish”—as in, slow to understand (hence his explanation)—and “slow of heart”—that’s how it’s phrased in the Greek. The heart is not about your cognitive understanding but rather your inner commitments, dispositions, and attitudes, the things that determine your life. See, you can sit back and complain when things don’t go your way—as if that were ever promised; you can do only what’s necessary to get by—show up at church once in a while, show up at small group as long as it doesn’t interfere with your social schedule.

Or you can press in—you can pursue God and life and truth and hope in the midst of whatever darkness and death surrounds you, entrusting yourself fully into the hands of God, leaning into God and caring for others even when things don’t go your way. Only one of those postures opens your eyes to what God is doing in and through and around you. Maybe, just like the disciples, it is as we press in to the resurrection of Jesus, walking in community, sharing our sorrows with God, listening and learning from Scripture, inviting others to speak truth into our lives, that we cultivate the conditions for growth and healing and learning and maturation and sight, that we create space for God to transform us and we begin to find God in the midst of disappointment.

Rembrandt’s “Christ at Emmaus”

When they got to Emmaus, the disciples invited Jesus to stay the night—it was late and the road wasn’t safe after dark. And as they sat down for dinner, “Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him …” (24:30-31). It was only then that they recognized him—after experiencing crushing doubt and cruel disappointment and community division, after walking with Jesus unbeknownst for two hours, after listening to the words he had to say, after inviting him to share a meal with them. It’s only then that they’re able to look back and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” I long for these moments when our eyes are opened and we recognize God, when our hearts burn within us with the realization that God is here now; I pray for these moments—for myself and for all of you—but only in God’s time, because we might not even recognize God in those moments if we aren’t looking with the right eyes, if we aren’t living with the right heart, if we aren’t seeking to understand with the right mind, if we aren’t practicing resurrection as active participants.

So remember these two words, recite them and remind yourself of them no matter what you encounter:

Press in.

Press in to Jesus in the midst of your doubts and your disappointments and your darkness.

Press in to Jesus by reminding yourself of his promises in Scripture.

Press in to Jesus by seeking genuine community—friends who will encourage you and challenge you, people who will help knock off those rough edges and refine you for the kingdom.

Press in to Jesus and find God.

He is with you, even in your disappointments.

[1] John Goldingay, Walk On, 66.

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC

Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

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