Processing Disappointment

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?

“Huh?”

“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.”

Long Pause.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

26 thoughts on “Processing Disappointment

  1. Erna, you just put into words what I have been struggling with. I can be firm and stand in the midst of anything life throws. When it comes to being single….I always seem to encounter another layer, another perspective. I am in a season where I am having a REALLY rough time digging deeper and processing disappointment. It seems to be really messy with no timeline…It seems like I need to reach some level in singleness that I see others reach or at least it seems that way.

    • Claudia. Thanks for sharing. In different seasons a spiritual director and a counselor have been really critical to this process. I just kept getting stuck on my own. And I was in so much pain I couldn’t get myself unstuck. Don’t sweat where other people are at- you gotta be honest with Jesus about where you are at- and try to seek Him in the midst of.

  2. I think the whole disappointments are mysterious is a good lesson. It helps when people don’t understand, meaning it helps me not get super pissed/annoyed that they don’t “get it.” It also, I hope, helps me to engage better with other’s disappointments.

    One, for me, was not going straight to full time ministry after interning. I still wonder why God has me where I am sometimes, and I definitely go in and out of being bitter or sad or frustrated or daydreaming about all the amazing ministry things he will call me to once I am done learning how to work a “normal” job. I’m learning that God wanted to work on other things (specifically marriage mentorship, learning how to do multi-generational community, humility, patience, how judgmental I am of “suburban Christians”). I am also realized that I may never be in vocational ministry, and learning a lot about my identity being wrapped up in being seen as a “minister” via position authority rather than spiritual authority. I am learning it is a lot riskier for me, at this time in my life, to meet my own neighbors than to teach students to go around the dorms. Don’t get me wrong, I have no naive notions that IV staff is EASY! (HAH! ya right.) But, I am realizing there are things God is doing now in me in this season that could not happen, at least probably not for me and my thick head, if I were doing vocational ministry

    So when my mom said “I think you are where you are supposed to be” it’s a bit annoying. Seriously? I’m supposed to take 4 years of kick ass training and sit at a desk? Sure, I am helping lead some missional church things… but the pace is KILLING me. Why would I have all these skills and then constantly be reigned in? That makes very little sense to me. And then there are some of my friends, who act like it is so obvious that I needed to learn these lessons, or like they are ahead of the game because they have already gone through the grieving-IV thing. But they don’t get it… I’m not grieving a loss of community, its this weird feeling like I lost a huge amount of my purpose. And now, I can see places of purpose, but there isn’t this continual thread and vision that gave me so much life (even if it was hard, maybe because it was hard.)

    Anyway, even now I find myself wanting to explain things eloquently because the easy answer is “well, go back to staff!” or some part of me thinks that is what everyone in IV staff who I deeply admire would say or do. And in that way, it feels isolating, because the people I respect and trust the most have also become the people I’m afraid won’t understand my disappointment. God called me away. He said no. He said go. He said he couldn’t do his work at CSULB if I stayed, that he was calling me away that others could come in my place. That is painful.

    This post is WAAAAY longer than I thought. As usual, you are so thoughtful and bring up such good topics.

    WRITE A BOOK. Seriously. One–snarky authors are the best. Two–you are very self-reflective and perceptive, it is very helpful and encouraging and freeing and humbling.

    • Thanks for sharing Bri. Leaving InterVarsity is a really huge process. I was just talking to another former intern last night about this very thing. It’s so hard to go from so much structure and clarity about your life to ambiguity. It can make your head spin. And the transition is lonely. Very real stuff. Thanks for sharing so honestly.

  3. Erna, this is such a good and effective word for an experience that is common to all of us! Your thoughts really resonated with me because singleness has been the most difficult disappointment of my journey of faith. I especially appreciated this part: “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.” I think my own self-pity in my disappointment has been the worst faith/trust killer and, sad to say, nobody has called me out on mine. I think one thing that has helped me to deal with it in a way that leans into God and affirms his goodness to me is remembering that Jesus himself suffered the pain of disappointment, of an unanswered prayer (or one that wasn’t answered in the way he wanted) when he was in the garden of Gethsemane. I often meditate on those passages in scripture and try to be with him in the garden. And also just the knowledge that I don’t know what I’m being saved from or prepared for–to trust God with the larger picture that God alone sees, has been freeing and encouraging. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks for sharing Karen. It takes a good and insightful friend to talk about self pity. Honestly I didn’t really have a category for it in myself or others until my counselor called me out on it. I just thought I was supposed to be encouraging and compassionate. And of course that is necessary. But self pity is solo toxic and full of self deceit- we need to help each other out of it.

  4. Erna, this is a useful and thoughtful post. Thank you for explaining what I’ve been dealing with for the past 9 months. You’re the best!

  5. You’re reading my mail. This has been me, full of disappointment and anger at God for keeping me in the ministry limbo that is raising financial support for nearly 2 years now. It’s so difficult to embrace the truth that Jesus is enough. He has to be enough. No matter what happens, HE has to be the reward for any faithfulness, perseverance, following, obedience, whatever on my part. And I have to believe and know and remember that he is worth it. He hasn’t promised me I’d be fully funded. But he has promised me personally that he’ll be with me and that he won’t put me to shame. All other circumstances aren’t owed to me. In the disappointment, I’m learning – HE is teaching me – to uncoil the fight/anger in me, to let him soften my heart, and to trust that his goodness is meant for me, too. Thanks for this post. So necessary for anyone and very timely for me.

  6. hi erna. been a while. my wife told me about your blog recently and i’ve been reading your posts. Good stuff.

    I also liked your post about Phases of Inner Life and elaborating some more on what you did during the phase where you couldn’t read the Bible for 6 mths would be helpful to me and prolly others. I realize that the same excitement about my faith isn’t really there and sometimes God doesn’t seem that present in the nitty-gritty pay the bills and “work,work,work” (in a grumpy leprechaun voice) parts of my life. I think I’ve been kinda jaded with some events in the past and took a while to be able to trust God again while still trying to practice my faith. Your blog articulated a lot of what I’ve felt and thought while sounding very authentic minus all the religious jargon and fluff.

    All this to say that I think you should write a book. You have a gift and you’re onto something. Just have to find a publisher to fund it, although one of my friends self-published this book on Amazon.com. Maybe IVP? 😉

    • Thanks for sharing Will. During that season of not reading the Bible, and not reading evangelical (you need to DO something) books I started seeing a spiritual director. One of her foci is helping us hear how Jesus might be speaking to us through our dreams. This was totally new to me. but i started keeping a dream journal and with her help had some really deep experiences interacting with dreams. It was cool too, because all I had to do was right down dreams, I didn’t have to try and “Make a quiet time happen.” Also I moved to a very intuitive approach to my prayer times. I would just go for a walk in a garden or a museum and when I saw something I liked, that felt beautiful to me, I would sit and look at it. And sometimes that was all. Just enjoying beauty in some way. Sometimes it led to reflection or prayer of some sort.

      I also realized that the motivations of my 20s had diminished and I needed new motivations for doing the same things. In my twenties I had a lot of energy for my work because I had a lot to prove and I felt a lot of competition with my peers. My inner life was often connected to hoping Jesus would fuel me in my ambitions. But as I moved to my 30’s and I knew myself better and I wasn’t as fueled by the same things. I know it sounds really “fleshy” to be motivated by those things. But I’m not being critical of that phase, I just think it’s what that season is about. I felt sort of aimless transitioning out of my twenties. I read some Henri Nouwen, lots of books on different types of spirituality. Biographies of different mystics and saint. And I took myself through the book The Artist Way. (Not a Christian Book- but really helpful to me in that season.)

      More recently I’ve been really intrigued by some conversations that I’ve been having with folks about how we view our “purpose” and how we should view work. That would require an entirely new post.

      Thanks for the encouragement to write a book. I’m still kind of surprised to find that I like writing. I’m not sure if I have an entire book’s worth of thoughts yet. But I hope I will at some point.

      Would be glad to keep interacting over this stuff!

  7. I’m so glad Doug Schaupp posted this on facebook. Your words were just what this 36-year-old still-single needed to hear. No easy answers, no cliches, no promises of happily ever after. Just the real, honest tension. And lesson 5 was just the kick in the gut I needed. It’s easy for me to say that Jesus is enough, especially when I want to sound like an awesome Christian. But do I believe that in my heart, especially when God isn’t working on my timeline? Really. Thanks so much.

    • Helen,
      You’re truly welcome. Thanks for reading. One of the hardest parts of the singleness journey for me was the ambiguity. If I had just known when the season was going to end I think it would have been so much easier. And the tendency towards quick and easy answers in Christian circles is very frustrating. What gives me hope, is the depth and mystery of God. Beyond the cliches is the mystery of following and a good and mysterious and confusing God.

  8. Erna, great post. Thanks for being a good friend who is compassionate, encouraging and has zero-tolerance for self pity. 🙂 oxox

  9. Erna – Thank you for processing aloud with/for us. One of the Elisabeth Elliot quotes I try to forget is:
    “God’s not having taken away a perfectly normal human desire does not by any means indicate that we are free to pursue its fulfillment in any way we choose.” I have done a lot of pursuing fulfillment in ways that are not of God’s choosing and your post has helped me see more clearly that I’m fleeing disappointment and entitlement. I’ll add my vote for a book, but in the meantime, I’ll keep coming back here to read.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Elizabeth. Great quote. It’s true that the dangerous fruit of entitlement is that we can start to feel so justified in our bad choices, even blind to the sin in them.

  10. Keep blogging, Erna! Do you think you can write about what it means for Jesus to be enough when we are dealing with disappointment?

  11. Hi Erna – I’ve been keeping up with your blog via Facebook, but this post in particular inspired me to reflect on my own experiences with disappointment. The reflection got quite lengthy, but since your writing blessed me, I figured it was only proper that I share my thoughts with you… As a twenty-two year old, I obviously do not yet have the same life experiences or struggles from which the disappointments I have experienced arose.

    I think a season when I felt profoundly disappointed was when, in some messy relational aftermath my junior year of college, i had come to think that who i was – my personality, my interests – had been impaired in development because i had grown up in a broken household. I thought of my strong will, focus, ambition and boldness as weaknesses: because if I had been properly raised, I wouldn’t have had to develop those personality traits fighting for the things I wanted and needed.

    In fact, i even remember in high school, how my friend, who had recently become my youth pastor, had mentioned that his current love interest was ideal because she had come from a “good family.” I remember pressing him in that, thinking that he couldn’t mean what I thought he meant. But he stood his ground, saying that he thought it was best if his future wife came from a godly, wholesome household because then she would have had a model of a good christian home to emulate.

    And so i began to see my whole childhood as a disappointment: as a series of situations and hurts completely out of my control, but had nonetheless scarred me. A childhood that should have reared a young woman who knew what a “good christian home” looked like, but instead postured me with a suicidal mother and a cheating father with a twelve-year long divorce case. A childhood that should have been set in a multimillion-dollar suburban home, with a quaint private school and family vacations, but instead was filled with constant moving and fights with the landlord, eviction and food stamps.

    And i remember praying so desperately to God, fix me. Fix me. Fix me and make me whole, fix me and make me pure. Fix me so that I can be loved.

    At some points, I thought I could even fix myself. Get a leadership position, get an amazing internship, get a teaching position, get into an Ivy League graduate school, get a boy’s attention. But even when I got all of that, the disappointment still lay there. I still felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me, because I couldn’t change my history, I couldn’t change my personality.

    And it wasn’t until the summer after my senior year, when i started interning at PIHOP (thanks to your recommendation!), that i finally heard the Father reply, “I don’t have to fix you to love you. I love you already. I love you now, I have always loved you.” No fixing required. My childhood and who I had become was not a disappointment to him.

    I don’t think my expectations or desires were bad, per se. I do think that God would have preferred me to have a nice, normal childhood, where I would have learned from my environment that my value was not only intrinsic but high. But where that gap between our expectations or desires and reality exists, whether wrongfully or rightfully so, I think Jesus has something beautiful and precious to say about it. Sometimes, it’s not even about what he has to say, but that his presence can be found in the midst of, in spite of, that gap. His truth, his wisdom, but most importantly, his love, can be experienced in that gap.

    And maybe what can be said about disappointment is that, whether wrongful or righteous, on one side of that gap is what is good, true, and beautiful, and on the other, a lie or sinful, impoverished reality. And it is precisely disappointment that Jesus knows so intimately, because he was the one that the Father asked to stand in the gap, to make intercession for, the greatest disappointment that the Godhead had experienced so deeply and personally. He is not afraid or ashamed of our disappointments, because righteous or not, they are emotions experienced and thus a valid expression of ourselves (ie. “Jesus wept,” your compassion teachings, etc.). I learned that the most vulnerable part of offering our disappointment directly to God is not the expression of the experience, but rather, in posturing ourselves to receive how he chooses to respond. In this regard though, I think we have to hang onto the simple truth that He is indeed Love, and that any response we receive can only come from that place of pure love and adoration for us.

    The amazing thing is that in the process of experiencing the Lord’s love in response to my disappointment, I can see that my demeanor and personality have really changed. I am equally suspicious of such nice and clean endings to any sort of testimony, but as I put myself before the Lord and resign myself to hear only what he speaks to me as truth, he has begun to heal me. He has been erasing my anxiety and burdens, my self-criticism, any signs of depression. I can honestly say that I love being who I am, I love the life that he has given me, and I am so happy to be with the Lord and that he is continuing to change and grow me.

  12. Hi Claudia,

    Your blog caught my attention because I have been dissapointed for a long time. Especially being a christian and I can relate to your story. I became a christian when I was 20 years old. I gave God my life and left my past behind me and with eyes closed I followed Jesus and with all my hope and trust in him. I followed him knowing that he had a plan for me and had my future in his hands. I trusted that God knew the desires of my heart and that he knew what was best for me. You see before I became a christian I had a boyfriend who I loved very much, but he wasn’t a christian and so I left him and never looked back because I belived God would bless me with the right person who would be a christian, well years went by and that boyfriend I had, had a baby with someone else. I was hurt but kept going because I figured God had something better for me. So I went on with my christian walk and acutally dated a christian guy who turned out to be a total nightmare. Few years later I reunited with my ex boyfriend the one that had a child with someone else. Well to make things short we are together again, but I can’t get passed the fact that him having a child with someone else has hurt me greatly and I can’t understand why God would allow it to happen if he knew down the line we would be together again. Now I deal with emotions I wish I didn’t have to go through. I love his daughter very much but at the same time dealing with the fact that I will always have to deal with the mother in the picture makes it very hard, and to others it may not seem like a big deal but it’s hard when your in this type of situation, What hurts me the most is that I trusted God with my future and I feel he disappointed me. He allowed these things to happen and he knew how much pain it would cause me. I can’t seem to understand why he would allow me to go through all of this and now I feel this dissapointment has actually kept me away from God and I know it sounds dumb but It’s hard for me to trust him now. I feel discouraged and depressed about the whole situation…

  13. Hi Erna!

    It’s Anna again! I just wanted to let you know how deeply these words touched my heart… and also woke me up! I have been weighing myself (and my friends) down lately with self-pity because I know the Lord is calling me to a life of singleness. It’s disappointing, it’s discouraging, it’s not the plan I had for my life, but I know that He gives us our gifts for a reason, and that’s to further His kingdom. (Although I did hear someone ask “where the gift receipts are” at one point at Urbana, which I found pretty hilarious – never heard that one before.) I love how blunt your counselor was and, even though I know that my pride most definitely would have been wounded, I very much would have appreciated someone telling me like it is (someone has to eventually!). Your commitment and loyalty to the Lord is admirable. Truly blessed by your wisdom. (And I promise I won’t irritate you with more comments on your old blog posts – I just couldn’t resist this one!).

    • Its not irritating! And singleness is such a HUGE issue. We need real spaces to process our feelings. And yes- my pride was so wounded by my counselor. But she truly helped me by telling me the truth.

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