Dealing with disappointment

If there’s a lesson God is teaching me this year, it’s how to deal with disappointment.

We were made with the organ of ambition. We have dreams we want to realise, objectives we want to accomplish, and purposes we want to satisfy. To this end, we make plans, a road map for achieving what we desire. But our plans do not always work out. Like driving with a GPS in badly mapped territory, real life seldom matches the calculated route. We have to take long detours, and dead-ends are not uncommon. Oftentimes, we are forced to abandon our journey and either go home or go somewhere else. Disappointment sets in.

Have you ever thought about the word ‘disappointment’? We all know what it means to make and keep appointments, though perhaps Malaysians tend to be poorer with the latter. But this is not the type of appointment I have in mind. By appointment, I refer to the act of designating someone for a position, as in “Joel was appointed as the country’s leader by the people in a stunning landslide victory at the polls yesterday” or (a more modest example) “God appointed David as King over Israel”. The word disappointment therefore carries the idea of being removed or denied from a certain position. When we are disappointed at an outcome in life, there is a very palpable sense of our ambitions being rejected.

Disappointment is a state of life and is as morally neutral as being appointed to something. Disappointment is God’s way of closing certain doors in our life. But disappointment is often accompanied by its sinful brother discontentment. We don’t feel disappointed; we feel discontented. Discontentment is a state of heart reflecting our dissatisfaction with our lot in life. Because we believe that we are entitled to a life that pans out according to the way we envision it, we are naturally unhappy when things don’t go our way. It’s like walking in with a winning raffle and being denied the prize, or paying $200 for a steak that is frozen and overcooked. We feel shortchanged. If we do not actively deal with our weeds of discontentment, they can choke out our spiritual life and lead us to reject God himself.

I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s difficult to avoid discontentment in the midst of disappointment. As certain as the fact that thunder follows lightning, discontentment is always hot on the heels of disappointment. I am well acquainted with the loss of purpose, the gnawing sense of rejection, the churning of the mind, the turmoil of the heart, the sleepless nights, the innumerable whys, the relentless introspection, the never-ending stream of regretful if only’s, the wrestling with God, and the simmering unhappiness that flows over into everything else.

You might think that I am making too much of a small thing. But there are small things, like seeds, when nurtured grow into big things. Discontentment begins with a sense of denied entitlement. To have a sense of denied entitlement requires us to name a benefactor. Otherwise, who is it that owes us something but denies it to us? If there is a God, then surely he is the benefactor. But what kind of benefactor would deny us something that we are entitled to? Only a sadistic, malevolent deity would do such a thing. And if we believe that God is not good and not loving, then we are right to reject him.

The problem is that God is good and loving, and we have absolutely no right to reject him. He is not the one that owes us anything; on the contrary, we owe him everything, including the very breath you are currently breathing. If there is someone who has a proper sense of denied entitlement, it is not us but God. He is entitled to our honour and worship but we have denied it. Yet though we are entitled to wrath and fury, we are denied it for a while longer. God is graciously at work to save individuals from all the peoples of the earth. Because of Jesus we are richly blessed with every blessing that we have absolutely no entitlement to, and denied the very judgment which we are entitled to.

In other words, we need to remember the gospel. By keeping the gospel central to our hearts and minds, we are able to drive out discontentment in the midst of disappointment. We need to remember that all that we have been appointed to and disappointed from comes from the gracious hand of a God who loves us. Yet his love does not obligate him to fulfill our every whim and wish. This is reassuring because we are not as wise as God, and must trust that he knows which appointments are best for us. More than that, it means that the goodness of God is grounded in the reality that he loves us because he chooses to love us and not because he is obligated to anything in us.

We need to remember the logic of Paul in Romans 8:32 – if God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Our appointments and disappointment pale in comparison to God’s eternal appointment of us as his children through Jesus. By this eternal appointment, we will never lack any good thing. Because we are in Christ, God is working all things for our good. Whether he is at work to appoint us to or disappoint us from certain stations in life, it is ultimately for our good. In this we can learn to be content whatever our lot in life.

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