Processing disappointment has been one of the harder things I’ve had to do as a Christian. This post won’t be exhaustive in any way, and I know it won’t connect with everyone’s experience with disappointment. But I’ve found that disappointment can be hard to talk about in Christian circles, so hopefully this will create space for more conversation.
I’m wary to use personal examples, not because I don’t want to be vulnerable, but because the things that we feel deep disappointment about are very personal. For example, I felt incredible disappointment and sadness when I wasn’t married by my late twenties. But for some that doesn’t sound like a big deal and to others they would have felt disappointment at a much younger age. One thing I’ve learned is that some of the deepest points of pain and disappointment are very unique and so easily dismissed by others who don’t see them as a big deal. We begin to share something that feels very live and painful and get responses like-
Don’t worry, it will be fine.
I’ll pray for you.
Oh you’ve got plenty of time- insert happy version of your story.
And I understand that people are trying to be encouraging, but it can be very invalidating. For me, it was often a mystery why I was in so much pain. It took a long time to tease apart why I was so sad and angry about being single. And sadly as Christians we can be uncomfortable with grief, pain, and ambiguity.
Lesson 1– So a lesson I’ve learned along the way is that our disappointments are unique to us, and what deeply affects one person may not deeply affect another.
I’ve found that I’m often caught off guard by disappointment because I didn’t even know I had such firm expectations to disappoint. As I worked through my disappointment with staying single I realized it wasn’t just about being single. I had had an expectation of God that I would be rewarded with a marriage.
In college, I had realized that boys were too important to me and I made a 1 year commitment not to date. My ongoing difficulty at staying single during the course of that year showed me that I had more to work on than I thought. So I continued to stay committed to being single until I knew that Jesus was the central love of my life and that He wouldn’t lose His spot the moment I started dating a boy. My senior year of college I had a prayer time where I felt Jesus invited me to stay single for two more years in order to truly break a pattern of unhealthy and codependant relationships in my life.
I did. And He did. That pattern never showed itself again.
Unbeknownst to me, during that time, I developed the expectation that I should be rewarded for this rigorous obedience. I should be rewarded with a healthy marriage somewhere around 27 years old. When that time came and went I felt upset with God. I had been faithful. Obedient. I had sacrificed. I had taken the harder path. I felt my expectations of a relationship were very reasonable.
I became bitter and frustrated. I felt entitled to this reward. When it was suggested that deeper relationship Jesus was the reward- I had to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t think that was good enough. Jesus was not enough of a reward. And that messed me up too.
Lesson 2– Nothing reveals entitlement like time. As in – you don’t get what you want WHEN you want it. My singleness triggered disappointment, but it also revealed a lot of entitlement.
Also, this situation was not fair. Other people who had not taken this part of their lives very seriously were off and married. I had a friend who was known for getting into unhealthy relationships, and then began dating a baby Christian, and then went on to have some physical boundary issues in that relationship- but they got married and things worked out fine. And everyone kept saying how great it was that God had redeemed all that brokenness.
I was so pissed. ( Anger is a major way I express disappointment. That’s not true for everyone. ) If I had known there was a “Do it jacked up, its OK, God will redeem it route” I would have gone for that option. How come I, who had been rigorous with herself and chosen obedience and sacrifice, was now getting screwed? The pool of eligible and socially normal Christian men seemed to be shrinking at the speed of light. Turns out, I could have just hooked up with some young Christian hottie, made out, and let the Lord “redeem” it.
Lesson 3– Apparently disappointment is fertile ground for bitterness.
Six or eight months into this season I was seeing my counselor, a Godly woman in her 50’s who was also single. I was sharing with her that I had cried myself to sleep a few nights before. I had been feeling so lonely and sad. I was expecting sympathy. I was expecting her to join the girls club of sympathy, and say “Don’t worry- you’re so cool. Christian men can’t handle strong women.”
Instead she said “Oh did you invite anybody else?
“Did you put out plates and little cups?”
“What are you talking about?” I was truly confused at this point.
“Did you put out extra settings for that little pity party you were throwing yourself.”
I couldn’t talk for a minute- because her foot was so firmly up my butt.
But then I realized she was right. I was FULL of self pity. And nobody had called me on it. The self pity was a distraction. So I picked myself up and tried to get back to the real work- I didn’t think that having a deep relationship with Jesus was enough of a reward. Or honestly, a reward at all.
My counselor Pam also challenged my sense of entitlement. I was full of ranting- and she corrected me.
Even when you are angry
Even when you are hurt
Even when you are raw
He is good and will show Himself to be trustworthy.
I had thrown that assumption out the door.
She wasn’t telling me to pretend everything was fine and put on a happy Christian face. But she was challenging me that my pain wasn’t an excuse to dismiss every truth I knew about God.
Since she had been on this journey for a while longer than me, I couldn’t shut her down with a “You don’t understand.”
I was humbled.
Lesson 4– Self Pity is also a pitfall of disappointment.
Lesson 5– When processing disappointment you need sympathy and you need ass kicking. Good community will give you both.
But I still had to circle back to the fact that I didn’t think Jesus was enough. He wasn’t enough of a reward for obedience. And he wasn’t enough if he didn’t give me what I wanted. And He wasn’t enough if others didn’t have to go through what I was going through.
Lesson 6– Self pity, Bitterness, Anger, Entitlement, Comparison- all emotional distractions. I needed to learn to work through them without getting completely sidelined by them.
And there were important emotions to engage with- there was grief. There was loneliness. It was a rough year when I was invited to about 800 weddings because both my peers and my former students were getting married.
I needed a new way to frame my life with God, and I was confused and sad. I was having a hard time trusting Jesus with my heart again.
What surprised me was that I can be pretty emotionally resilient in other hard situations.
I made a commitment not to date and it lasted 6 years. That’s tough.
The summer I decided to go on an Urban Project instead of go home and do summer school- my mother threatened to disown me. I stuck with it.
When I came on staff she cut me off financially and wouldn’t let me fundraise from any of our friends and family. I was undeterred.
When my Father died. I grieved. But I wasn’t disappointed.
All of those experiences were hard. And painful. But they didn’t knock the wind out of me like disappointment. That’s the mystery. I can process grief and persecution a lot more cleanly that disappointment.
I’m not going to be so trite and act like every experience with disappointment wraps itself up in a nice bow full of singing Blessed be Your Name.
I know some people out there have suffered horribly painful experiences of disappointment- betrayal by spouses, physical illness of children, and many other painful experiences. But like I said- I think we need more space for the conversation- so I’m offering what I have.
I can say that my disappointments have often taken my breath away, but they have shaped me. Over time they helped me go deeper with Jesus. Singleness felt like a place of pain until I got married, that never changed- but it was less infected in the interim period.
There isn’t a perfect way to close a discussion on disappointment. We seek God- confused by Him, but trying to trust him. We examine ourselves- in pain, but trying not to grow infected with bitterness and self pity. We lay down expectations.
Tell me what you’ve learned along the way.
Or just share your story. No need for a lesson to be included.