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Lesson 14: Dealing with Disappointment

Alice had huge, brown eyes and a sweet voice that made me think of a little girl. She wanted to talk to me, she had explained, because of a recent physical problem she'd experienced.

"What kind of a physical problem, Alice?"

She stared at me for a moment, trying to find the right answer. Finally, with tears in her eyes, she said just one word: "Miscarriages . . ."

"How many, Alice?"

"Three. The third one was a week ago . . ."

After that, Alice was unable to speak for a few minutes. When she finally did, she was full of hard questions. "Vickie, how can you say God loves me when He never answers my prayers? The one thing I want most in the world is a baby. Is that too much to ask?"

"God loves you, Alice. There's no doubt about that." "But if He loved me, wouldn't He see how much pain I'm in? How much pain 'Tom is in? We want a baby more than anything, and we'd be godly, loving parents. Yet, when you look around, everyone else gets pregnant. Everyone! People who don't even want babies get pregnant and then kill them in abortions. I've promised the Lord I would quit my job and care for my child. I'd teach it to know the Lord. It's just so unfair. We pray and pray, and God doesn't hear our prayers!"

The Shadow of Disappointment

Disappointment comes in all sizes, doesn't it? Any time our hopes are not realized or our expectations or desires are not fulfilled, we feel disappointed. Disappointment can be a passing emotion over a temporary loss, or it may strike powerfully when something permanently changes our lives. A major disappointment can remain within us all the time, shadowing our reactions to everything.

We all experience disappointment for different reasons. In itself, feeling disappointed is not a sin. How we handle it is the crucial issue. Disappointment is so common to humanity that it was difficult to choose which biblical characters to best illustrate it. The Bible is full of disappointed people!

Think of the years of disappointment experienced by Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Month after month, year after year, they saw the evidence of their childlessness. Job and Joseph had good reason to be disappointed, too, both in people and in God. Elijah the prophet expected the great evidence of God's power on Mount Carmel would bring revival. Instead, it only put a price on his head. He was so disappointed he asked to die.

Moses—A Man Who Understood Disappointment

If anyone was ever faced with a repeated disappointment, it was Moses. In infancy he was rescued from death by the faith of his parents and the ingenuity of his mother. God arranged for him to be adopted by the princess of Egypt. But he spent the first formative years of his life being raised by his own parents. From them he learned of God's promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was taught that the Israelites were God's people, chosen to bless the world, and that God would make them a nation and give them a land.

Moses was never able to forget what his parents had taught him, even after he went to live with Pharaoh's daughter, his foster mother, in the palace. This double identity must have caused him a great deal of tension. As he grew, he saw the Hebrew slaves struggling under terrible bondage while he lived luxuriously, enjoying all the privileges of royalty. Finally, Moses tried to do something to help his people.

"When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not" (Acts 7:23-25).

Many years before God called him to do so, Moses longed to be a deliverer of his people. He was willing to use his power and influence to change their desperate situation. But they rejected him. In fact, he had to flee for his life from Egypt to live in the backside of the desert for another forty years after the murder incident. Talk about disappointment!

Two Key Reasons for Disappointment

Moses had two reasons to be disappointed. First, he was disappointed in people—because his expectations that his people would understand what he wanted to do for them and would accept him were not fulfilled.

Second, he was disappointed in his circumstances. After years of privilege and education in Egypt, he certainly had never dreamed that he would spend the rest of his life tending sheep in a desert. What a discouraging future!

Today, we become disappointed for precisely the same two reasons. When we set our hearts on people or on circumstances, we are usually disappointed. God wants us to set our hearts only on Him. He wants us to trust in His goodness, even in the midst of our deepest disappointments.

Moses was leading a flock of sheep around the Sinai wilderness when God spoke to him from the burning bush. What a shock it was to hear that this was the time for him to do what he had once wanted to do—to deliver his people from Egypt.

"The LORD said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. . . . And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt'

"But Moses said to God, 'Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'

"And God said, 'I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain" (Exod. 3:7-8a, 9-12).

Despite the thrilling experience of hearing God's voice coming from the burning bush, all of Moses' self-confidence was gone. For the rest of Exodus 3 and half of Exodus 4, God patiently answered each of Moses' objections and insecurities. He promised to be with him. He gave him the power to perform miracles. He assured him that the Israelites would follow him this time and that God would compel the Egyptians to let them go by His great power.

But Moses was a discouraged and defeated man. Even God's wonderful promises didn't convince him.

"Moses said to the LORD, 'O LORD, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue!

"The LORD said to him, 'Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go: I will help you speak and will teach you what to say'

"But Moses said, 'O LORD, please send someone else to do it" (Exod. 4:10-13).

This time God was angry; nevertheless He agreed to allow Moses' brother Aaron to accompany him and be his mouthpiece. Then Moses and Aaron told the elders about Israel God's message.

"Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped" (Exod. 4:29-31).

This time the people accepted him and worshiped God, and Moses was encouraged. Things were working out as God had said they would. Now it was time to tell Pharaoh.

'Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, 'This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: "Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert."'

"Pharaoh said, 'Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go" (Exod. 5:1-2).

With these words, the battle lines were drawn between God and Pharaoh. Pharaoh oppressed his slaves even more, until life became unbearable for them. And who was to blame? Moses, of course.

"When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, 'May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us" (Exod. 5:20-21).

Can you imagine the disappointment Moses felt when he heard their words? He had told them God would deliver them. Instead, their circumstances were worse than ever. Naturally, Moses was disappointed too. But in handling his disappointment he showed us what to do when our own expectations are not realized.

"Moses returned to the LORD and said, 'O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all" (Exod. 5:22-23).

Moses blamed God for all the trouble. He accused God of not keeping His promises. But the important thing is that he came to God and expressed his doubts, fears, and feelings. God can handle that; He knows how we're feeling anyway. When we honestly tell Him of our disappointments and heartaches, He can reassure and comfort us and give us strength to go on.

"Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country' . . .

"But Moses said to the LORD, 'If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?"' (Exod. 6:1, 12).

Poor Moses! He was in the pits! He was depending on his own ability instead of realizing that he was simply the instrument in God's hands. God would accomplish the deliverance of his people, not Moses. His faith had a lot of growing to do, and God was very patient. He let him suffer disappointments because they drove him to know God, enabling Moses to trust Him to a greater degree. Of course, He does the same with us.

We're all familiar with this story describing how God displayed his mighty power in the devastating plagues that ruined Egypt. Ultimately, on that first Passover night, while the Egyptians mourned the deaths of their firstborn, Israel marched triumphantly out of the land of their long and cruel bondage.

God opened the Red Sea for them to pass on dry ground. In the days that followed, He led them with a pillar of cloud and fire. He fed them with manna. He gave them water from the rock. He supplied their every need. The Israelites heard God's voice at Sinai when He gave them His law to live by.

But over and over, the people complained. They were disappointed about one thing and then another. Even though Moses increased in his faith and dependence on God, the people's constant griping drained his strength. In Numbers 11 they complained about the monotony of eating manna every day. Again, Moses was disappointed and discouraged.

"Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. He asked the LORD, 'Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, "Give us meat to eat!" I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin" (Num. 11:10-15).

Moses was worn out. Instead of a grateful, joyful people, willing to endure anything to get to the wonderful homeland God had promised, he had to play nursemaid to a bunch of babies who were never satisfied, no matter what he or God did.

Do you ever feel disappointed and exhausted with the mundane routines of life? There is such monotony of doing the same thing every day: the meals, the carpool, the kids, the laundry, the shopping, the housecleaning. Do you have a job that is far below the skills you trained for? Do you have aged parents to care for, to the point that your own activities have had to be severely curtailed? Are your children demanding and too young to appreciate your efforts? God recognizes genuine stress and will help us. Look at the way God relieved Moses:

"The LORD said to Moses: 'Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone" (Num. 11:16-17).

First, God gave Moses seventy men to help him carry the burden of all these people. He didn't punish him; He helped him. God still uses other people to encourage and help us. But God wasn't finished. He told Moses to tell the Israelites, "Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The LORD heard you when you wailed, 'If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!' Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the LORD, who is among you, and have wailed before him saying 'Why did we ever leave Egypt?'" (Num. 11:18-20).

God gave the people the change in diet they craved. But He showed His displeasure about their constant complaining and ingratitude by sending death with the quail He provided. For many, their first bite of quail was the last thing they ever ate.

Moses's Final Disappointment

Moses wasn't through with disappointments. How his heart must have broken when the people refused to go into the Promised Land because of the bad report of the ten spies. When God punished them with thirty-eight more years in the wilderness, Moses had to endure it with them, even though he had wanted to go forward and possess the land.

His worst and final disappointment came when he was forbidden to enter the land himself. This happened because of an outburst of pride and anger. He begged God to allow him to go across the Jordan. After all, hadn't he been a faithful servant for forty years? But God's answer was a resounding "No."

"The LORD was angry with me and would not listen to me. 'That is enough,' the LORD said. 'Do not speak to me anymore about this matter" (Deut. 3:26).

Imagine God forbidding Moses even to pray about it anymore! Moses had to be satisfied with a bird's-eye view of the land from a mountain before he died, but he did not lead his people into it. There are some circumstances that will never change. We have to learn to accept them and to keep trusting God in spite of our disappointment. Only in doing so are we able to experience life at its fullest.

David and Disappointment

Like Moses, David also experienced grave disappointment. When he was a teenager, God ordered the prophet Samuel to anoint David to be the next king of Israel. God had rejected Saul as king and had told him that none of his sons would be king after him. David's great victory over Goliath vaulted him into the limelight, and King Saul made him a military commander.

As David's popularity grew, Saul's fear and jealousy that David might be his replacement also increased. Saul was determined to thwart God's revealed will and kill David, so David had to flee for his life. He was a fugitive from Saul for about ten years.

There were times when his discouragement was so acute that David's faith in the future that God had promised him vanished. He consequently did things that were wrong and foolish. At one point, he even pretended to have lost his mind. Another time, he tried to run away and hide among Israel's enemies.

"David thought to himself, 'One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel, and I will slip out of his hand.'

"So David and the six hundred men with him left and went over to Achish son of Maoch king of Gath. David and his men settled in Gath with Achish. Each man had his family with him, and David had his two wives: Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail of Carmel, the widow of Nabal. When Saul was told that David had fled to Gath, he no longer searched for him" (1 Sam. 27:1-4).

To be safe in the land of his enemies, David had to play the role of a traitor to Israel. Worse, he had to deceive and lie to his host. David wavered between discouragement and faith, just as we all do. He didn't understand God's timing. He didn't understand why he had to be on the run for his life when he had always been loyal to his king. Going to the enemy was not the right solution. But that's what he chose to do.

Sometimes God's way of doing things is really difficult for us. If He would only keep the schedule we've laid out for ourselves! If He cooperated, we wouldn't have doubts or disappointments. Of course the truth is that the most important time for our faith to be sturdy is precisely when we are disappointed and confused about what God is doing. Despite David's lapses, God did for him exactly what He had promised, and when he was thirty the throne was his. He wrote the Eighteenth Psalm after he had been delivered from all his enemies:

I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer,
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.
He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise,
and I am saved from my enemies. (Ps. 18:1-3)

It's easy to look back and praise God for what He has done. But true faith believes ahead of time what can only be seen by looking back.

Disappointed Disciples

Disappointment among God's people wasn't limited to the Old Testament. Jesus' disciples also knew what it was to be keenly disappointed. They had fervently believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and they expected Him to usher in the Messianic kingdom. Instead, He was crucified and buried. And all their hopes were buried with Him in that tomb.

The disciples expected Israel to be rescued from Roman oppression when the Messiah came. Instead, the One on whom they had set their hearts died a criminal's death on a Roman cross. Listen to how Jesus scolded them for doubting Him.

"He said to them, 'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself' (Luke 24:25-27).

God had a much bigger plan that the Old Testament foretold. Jesus died and rose again to rescue all humanity from the bondage and oppression of sin. His redemption was not just to bring about a local and temporal change in earthly circumstances but a change in their eternal destiny. Did you ever think that. Jesus can be disappointed with us? He was obviously disappointed with His disciples and their unbelief.

Disappointment: The First Seed of Doubt

Disappointment is the first seed of doubt that intrudes on our faith. Disappointment sounds so harmless, but it's the tip of a wedge that will stop our spiritual growth and make us bitter and defeated (more about that soon). Think of disappointment as a test permitted by God to see if you'll continue trusting Him, obeying Him, and believing that He is good. That brings us back to those two sources of most disappointment: people and circumstances.

Has a Person Disappointed You?

When we place our expectations on people, we are usually disappointed. Has a close friend turned away from you? Has someone betrayed you? If you have set your hopes on your children being all you want them to be, you could be headed for a huge letdown. Did you marry, thinking your husband would meet all your needs? I have to tell you something: No man can meet all of a woman's needs, and no woman can meet all of a man's needs. God made us with a vacant space in our innermost being that only He can fill. So He will always let us experience disappointment with people so that we are driven to find fulfillment in Him.

Are You Disappointed in Your Circumstances?

If our joy depends on circumstances, we are in trouble, because circumstances are always changing. There are too many variables for them to remain the same. Did you expect a promotion, and someone less qualified got the job instead? Has illness interrupted and permanently altered the plans you had for your family? Has a divorce you never wanted radically changed your circumstances? Disappointment works in our lives like the wedge illustrated in Figure 14-1.21

Figure 14-1.

Satan has a strategy to invade our spirits and bring us down until we are defeated. The tip of the wedge seems so harmless. It is simply disappointment.

But if we let our disappointment fester, the wedge is driven in a little farther, and we experience discouragement.

Unchecked, discouragement because disillusionment.

Then the wedge invades even more territory as it proceeds to depression.

Ultimately, we end in defeat.

How do we prevent the penetration of this deadly wedge into our spirits? We find the answer in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "Give thanks in all circumstances."

Thanksgiving—the Antidote to Disappointment

No matter what we are going through, we can find something to be thankful for. First and foremost, we can be thankful because we belong to God. If we have trusted Jesus Christ, God is our heavenly Father. He knows everything we are going through, and He is the only one in the universe who can make bad things work together for our good. So we can thank Him for His presence, His love, His blessings. We can rejoice that He has good plans for our future and that we receive His daily care, no matter how dark our circumstances seem.

Take another look at the wedge in Figure 14-1, and you'll see that the best place to give thanks is at the disappointment level. If we break the progression there, we won't go on to experience the other emotions that stunt our spiritual growth and drag us down to defeat.

We have to learn what the writer of the Seventy-third Psalm learned. When he contemplated the injustice all around him, the success of the wicked, and the troubles of the righteous, he lost his perspective. Then he went into God's house and thought on God's ways, and he adjusted his focus. The psalmist realized that no matter how successful the wicked seemed to be on earth, their destiny was eternal separation from God. And, in contrast, he knew God, and God knew him.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you. (Ps. 73:23-26)

The psalmist had learned that when you have nothing left but God, you realize He is enough. Your questions will not all be answered. Your circumstances may not be improved. The person you set your heart on may not live up to your expectations, but God is the strength of your heart and your portion forever.

The prophet Habakkuk learned this same lesson. After God revealed to him that Babylon would conquer and destroy his country, Habakkuk came to the conclusion that no matter what his circumstances were, He would find his joy in God. His words could, and should, be ours.

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD.
I will be joyful in God my Savior (Hab. 3:17-18)

21 I'm grateful to Dr. Paris Reidhead for sharing with me in a conversation several years ago this idea of a wedge-shaped progression of harmful emotions.

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