For many years in my various ministry roles, I have had the unique opportunity of sitting with people in their deepest disappointments. I have known people who worked their whole lives to reach a goal—a dream job or position or opportunity—only to be utterly rejected. I recently spoke on the phone with a dear friend who has devoted the past fifteen years of her life to a particular career goal. After completing all of her education (undergrad, masters, and PhD), excelling on all fronts, and after building an incomparable résumé, her application was rejected again and again, dozens and dozens of times. She began to wonder if she had spent all of this time seeking a goal that she would never attain, and she was completely devastated.
I found myself in an odd position on this particular occasion because I recently came very close to experiencing a similar kind of disappointment. While ultimately I was granted that which I had hoped for, I spent a few weeks receiving rejection notices before the good news arrived. I spent three grueling weeks wondering if my dreams were unraveling. During this season, I would go for a drive every day just to talk to God. Well, it was more like talking at God. My prayers went something like this: “Why did you let me go in this direction if all of the doors are slamming shut? Why would you let me wander this far down this path if it wasn’t where I needed to be? I asked you to guide me—did you not hear me?” I was angry and fearful.
Maybe you have experienced similar feelings of rejection and disappointment before. And if you haven’t, I promise you, your church is jam-packed full of people with broken dreams and disappointments. It is in these seasons of distress that we can experience quite a bit of theological disorientation. We start to question God’s involvement in our lives. We wonder if God has forgotten us. We can even begin to wonder if our goals have been trivial or a waste of time. The disillusionment that results from these questions has the potential to launch us into despair, but furthermore it has the potential to deepen our understanding of God and ourselves.
While I agree with the overarching consensus from most counselors and therapists that there is not a one-size-fits-all way to grieve a loss, I do believe that as Christians we are called to examine these seasons of disappointment with intentionality. I would never offer an excuse or an explanation for your disappointment on God’s behalf; God does not require my defense in the midst of your disorientation. I would not even try to explain the cause for your disappointment. What I can offer you in your disappointment is one approach found in Scripture from the apostle Paul.
The letter to the Philippians is one of Paul’s prison letters. The letter largely focuses on solidifying Paul’s very precious relationship with the church in Philippi, while offering some incredibly rich theology. One of the things that Paul is intent on communicating is how he is coming to understand his suffering theologically. Paul, a man decorated in accolades, certainly deserving of honor, finds himself in prison. In many ways, he is publicly shamed and stripped of his many distinctions that he had carefully gathered over the course of his life. As he reflects on his past, and imagines the future from his jail cell, he wants to make something overwhelmingly clear to the church: he would have it no other way. While the rest of the world—even those who are deeply religious—would have the Philippians believe that their satisfaction in life is pent up in their ability to be worthy of honor, or their ability to reach whatever goals cloud their vision, Paul is satisfied in Christ alone. He writes the following:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (3:4b-11)
Paul would lose everything, and still know that he had found everything in Christ. Paul had many things, but in Christ, he found the one thing (see Luke 10:42). Does this mean we cannot grieve? Of course not. Even Christ grieved. Does it mean that our disillusionment is resolved? Absolutely not. What it does mean, is that in our disappointment we have an opportunity to be realigned to the one thing.
The question at the heart of Paul’s profession for us is this: if you never acquired one more thing of desire in your life, if you never reached those goals or received those positions, or if you never received recognition—if your life felt like a prison, and your dreams became merely artifacts of your past, would Christ be enough for you? Would you embrace Christ as your comfort in your suffering? Would you allow Christ to fill the voids of your life? This is the call to faithful disappointment. It is not an easy call, and I believe it will take all of my life to attain it. But I cannot imagine a more hopeful framework for experiencing life’s disappointments. If Paul is right, our suffering is not in vain, and it very well could be the key to understanding the fullness of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.