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. Even in ministry. You will look hard and long for a pastor or minister who won’t admit to disappointment with at least some aspect of ministry. 

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.

How we experience 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.

Disappointment is a gauge of how a person perceives his life—what he believes about it and wants from it.

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.

Dealing with disappointment

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.

Editors’ note: This article was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.