A Theology of Disappointment
When you’re living in a broken world, sometimes believing and wanting the right things means you’ll be disappointed.
Life is one long, steady disappointment.
This dawns on most people by their thirties. Childhood is all potentiality. The teenage years are all angst—but even angst betrays some hope, since it is only quiet outrage that things could be better. A person can still carry into his twenties the illusion that the world will soon blossom. Not until his thirties does a person realize that much of what’s coming won’t be better than what has come. The forties, fifties, and on often only reinforce Alexander Pope’s infamous beatitude, “Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” To live is to be disappointed.
So cheer up. Oddly enough, disappointment can be an indicator you are seeing the world correctly. No one enjoys feeling disappointment. In itself, disappointment is akin to the sadness of loss, and ultimately we were not designed for it. But like all emotions, disappointment is a gauge of how a person perceives his life—what he believes about it and wants from it. When you’re living in a broken world, sometimes believing and wanting the right things means you’ll be disappointed.
The Experience of Disappointment
Human beings are capable of disappointment because they are capable of having expectations. We were made to dream of better days. Every Cleveland sports fan knows this. So does every acne-faced teenager, every sleepless parent of a newborn, every young professional clawing for a career, every recent divorcée sitting in a house now quiet. All of us cast in our minds a widescreen projection of a better reality to move around in, free of the most painful parts of the present. We live in a desert but imagine a garden.
Disappointment is what we experience when that garden never blooms. Of course, we know it won’t blossom immediately. But maybe it will incrementally? Maybe in the next phase of life? Maybe around the next bend? All of these maybes are the projectors on the screen of the mind. What they project we could call expectations.
We experience disappointment as a sense of loss when reality fails to meet our expectations. The key words there are reality and expectations, and both of these terms are charged with theological meaning.
A Theology of Disappointment
Reality is the world that surrounds us, a world that existed before any of us first took in a lungful of oxygen. The world is a given component of our experience, the context we are born into and move around in. It is beyond our control, it is outside our determination, and it operates according to laws we had no say in laying down. Reality is, well, reality. And it constantly fails to match the Eden we love to inhabit in our minds.
Reality is the world in which God placed us. It’s easy to overlook the theological significance of Genesis 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” God made Adam to be an embodied image of Him in a physical location. This world preceded Adam. It was outside his determination yet under his dominion to be the context of his obedience (1:28). Adam could not have simply lived in his head; he had to traffic in a reality outside his head.
Expectations, on the other hand, are a human response to reality; and as responses, we do have a say in them. Expectations are part hope, part prediction of what reality will be. They are part hope in the sense that they are an expectancy of good. No one is disappointed when something bad they were expecting fails to come about; instead, they experience relief. Hope is the anticipation that reality will be characterized by greater joy, greater provision, greater accomplishment, greater peace.
Adam lost his spot in an ideal reality by disobeying God, who sent him and his wife out of Eden and into the ultimate disappointment of a world stalked by death and decay (Gen. 3:8–24). A world that was once generous with fruit became hostile with thorns. This is the reality that Adam’s grandchildren have inherited. But they’ve also inherited the memory of that garden. Our very ability to be disappointed shows that we carry expectations of a world better than the one we live in.
So, in a sense, disappointment is an accurate response to a disappointing world. We see disappointed expectations all over the place in Scripture—from Job cursing the day he was born, to the sons of Korah comparing this place to the land of the dead, to Paul describing creation itself as groaning in pain and disillusionment (Job 3:3; Ps. 88:12; Rom. 8:19–22). This collective disappointment is a sure sign that we know to expect more.
So, how do we process our personal disappointment? Here are a few principles.
Your specific disappointments are only the manifestations of a broader disappointment. As we acknowledged at the outset, life is one long, steady disappointment. This long disappointment manifests itself in a thousand short ones. Broken families, failed careers, declining health. Years of planning and labor that result only in more uncertainty, not less. Fear that your adult children won’t carry on the values of the family. Relationships that should have been lifelong don’t even attain their half-life. Or perhaps worst of all, you’ve attained the objects of your desire, and they simply fail to deliver what they promised.
These regular disappointments are about so much more than the situation that’s disappointing you. The wise man of Ecclesiastes, sitting under the swaying fruit trees of his sunlit garden, feasting with fawning dignitaries from around the world, stared blankly into the sky, saying, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14).
The Preacher’s disappointment was not ultimately about the trees or the food or the dignitaries. His disappointment was an all-encompassing realization not simply that this world doesn’t provide ultimate satisfaction, but that it can’t provide ultimate satisfaction. Your specific disappointments are only your personal realization of this same reality.
If you want to handle disappointment in a godly way, you must start by simply acknowledging that your specific disappointments are not exclusive to you. The world is not uniquely unfair to you. It is unfair to everyone. To think that your own disappointments are a greater burden to you than those of others are to them will lead quickly to self-pity and to self-pity’s more subtle cousin, self-hatred.
Your disappointments may show that your expectations don’t line up with what God says about reality. God tells us the world is broken. Your disappointments may be because you expected more out of this world than God said it would deliver. Everyone secretly prefers an immediate return to the old garden over patient endurance to the new one. But God says that this world is marked by futility and difficulty. The happiness we experience is genuine, but it is fleeting. The question is, are we willing to accept God’s description of life in a fallen world?
Take, for instance, the types of disappointment I just mentioned: a broken family, a failed career, or declining health. God, indeed, designed family to provide intimacy and security, but in a fallen world, relationships are broken. Expecting an ideal family has prevented many people from enjoying their actual family. Work and career are an essential part of our calling, meant to provide satisfaction and provision, but in a fallen world, careers are not guaranteed. Expecting an ideal career makes us anxious about a job we might otherwise enjoy. The same is true for personal health. God made the human body to heal itself, but our fallen condition is evident in every ache and pain. Our longing for perfect health can make us unthankful for each day of life.
We expect a world untouched by the fall. When we do that, we are insisting on our own version of what the world ought to be, rather than trusting God in the world that is.
Your disappointments may, on the other hand, show that your expectations do line up with what God says about reality. Even though God tells you the world is broken, He also tells you it shouldn’t be. Your disappointments may show that you agree with Him. You feel the sorrow of a broken family because you know we were made for intimacy. You are disillusioned at the unexpected loss of your job because God designed work to yield reward. You are frustrated with a body that won’t respond how you want it to because you know God made bodies to be whole.
The difference between expectations that line up with God’s and those that don’t is in your willingness to submit to God’s testimony of what your life is: plagued with difficulty for now in order to sharpen your desire for the world to come. The grief of realizing the world is broken can be a platform to worship the God who even now is preparing an unbroken world.
Your disappointments should provoke two actions from you: lamentation and seeking. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us to lament our disappointment. To lament means to give a faith-filled complaint to God. Expressing our disappointments to God is the opposite of harboring them in our souls. Lament is a way of releasing our expectations to Him, trusting Him to restore the situation according to His wisdom and His timing.
Seeking a Better Country
The people of faith in Hebrews 11 teach us to seek a better country. Faith makes people act oddly in their present reality: they don’t settle for it. Land-dwellers build boats to save themselves from coming destruction. Wealthy men leave everything to wander. Disgraced old women give birth to nations. Princes identify with slaves to gain a better kingdom. Prostitutes become the only ones with eyes to see a better life. All were dissatisfied with the present in hope of a better future—future with God.
So cheer up. Disappointment can be refined for good use. If our present reality teaches us to lament and to seek, we are well on our way through this long, steady disappointment. And in the unbroken world that awaits us, we will solidly arrive at disappointment’s end.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine.