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This is an expansion of a previous post on disappointment.

“Spread over the whole creation there is now a veil of melancholy” ~ Herman Bavinck[1]

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Life east of Eden is riddled with disappointment.

I wanted to be the fastest runner in elementary school, but I wasn’t. I wanted to be the best basketball player in middle school, but I wasn’t. I wanted to be a state champion wrestler in high school, but I wasn’t.

You may either be thinking or saying under your breath, “Suck it up, Joe. People in other parts of the world have real problems.”

I agree. But for a less-than-resilient teenager such as me, these constant failures made disappointment my ever-present companion.

During my thirteen year stint in public school, I took the obligatory classes on reading, mathematics, composition, and biology. But the institutions I attended never offered courses on disappointment or failure and how one might profit from these rather inconvenient realities. Instead, I was assured that a hero resided on the inside of me, and that if I worked hard enough my dreams would come true. My teachers propounded these platitudes—and other inanities—with such verve that I expected to achieve my goals with relative ease. Failure and disappointment engulfed the indolent, not the industrious, I was told.

One psychologist I read recently said that disappointment with life usually sets in around age thirty. In addition, another counselor observed that disappointment usually enters our lives for one of three reasons: 1) Due to our lack of preparation we fail to meet a standard either set by ourselves or others; 2) we experience it as a result of someone else’s failure; 3) sometimes we just feel like failures, for no apparent reason.[2]

Taking these insights into consideration as well as assessing the biblical data leads me to the following conclusions regarding disappointment.

Finding this world disappointing indicates that your perception is accurate. If you’re disappointed when the guilty go free, the innocent are treated unjustly, children go hungry, or a teenager takes his or her own life, you’re seeing things accurately. If you’re on the brink of tears as you watch the evening news, wondering what’s wrong with the world, you’re seeing things accurately.

We all live, move, and have our being in a world filled with briars and thorns. We inhabit a space littered with sadness and unmet expectations. But—and here’s the catch—the memory of Eden lingers in our consciousness. The verdant pastures of an unspoiled world are lodged deep in the theatre of our minds. Within every human heart a longing persists to enjoy the unending serenity of beauty, lively fellowship, and joy-filled worship. When the world of transient pleasures is forever gone, no longer to enter our brains we’ll know why our forefathers and mothers desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).

Your feeling of disappointment isn’t unique to you. While unevenly distributed, the world is still unfair to everyone. A failure to believe this results in self-pity, pessimism, negativism, and cynicism.

Without succumbing to an unhealthy sense of resignation, embrace the reality that disappointment and failure are the inevitable result of living in a fallen world. Your disappointments may be a consequence of expecting more than God actually promised. Clinging tenaciously to an ideal anything—career, marriage, and/or family— can lead not only to a failure to enjoy the career, marriage, and/or family you actually have, but can also engender sinful anger.

And sinful anger, as Tim Keller notes, usually reveals what our hearts are trusting in for happiness.[3] Hence, take note: that scenic vacation spot, that tantalizing image of you free from your responsibilities with no one to look after and care for but yourself, that skyscraper filled with “important” people with jobs that “matter,” that person with whom you long to spend the rest of your life—the one you’re sure will make you happy, guess what? None of these things, people, and locations, can be God for you.[4] You’re aiming too low. You were created for more.

Expect failure, but pray that you’ll profit from it. Since failure will be part of our lived experience in this world, we petition God for wisdom while enduring trials (Jas. 1:2–8), and pray that growth is the byproduct of such seasons. While never easy, sufferers are aided by keeping an eternal perspective and trusting that God is at work. “[T]he only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering,” wrote William F. Buckley Jr. “Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about—the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies—is suffering, affliction.”[5]

We endure tribulation not by passively adopting a stoic disposition, but by actively placing “our whole confidence in him,” knowing that “God has engaged to be our guardian,” and that he is providentially carrying out his will for our lives (Genevan Catechism Q/A 1 and 29). As John Webster beautifully expressed it, “Providence is gospel consolation. . . . To embrace and trust ourselves to divine government is not resignation, but hopeful action toward the end secured for us by a loving Creator.”[6]

The gospel declares that as believers in Jesus Christ, we’re not defined by our failures. Those disappointed due to their failures can lift their heads and look to Jesus Christ because the gospel is good news for failures. Indeed, the church might consider changing the lyrics to a much-beloved Christmas to hymn to, “O Come, All Ye Failures.”[7] Through faith in Jesus Christ, believers are no longer defined by their failures. True, failure is part of our lives. But Jesus, “our never-failing life,”[8] washes away our failures and wraps us in his righteous garments. Hence, the beautiful promise: “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12).

Our hope isn’t anchored in a sparklingly clean past, but in what Christ accomplished two thousand years ago on the Place of the Skull. Because of what he accomplished there, we can lift our heads and hearts today and every day. “It is finished, sin is vanquished, hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”

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[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 182.

[2] David P. Murray, “Failure and Disappointment in Scripture,” Tabletalk 42:5 (May 2018): 11.

[3] Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs (New York: Viking, 2017), 120.

[4] See Mary Karr, “This Lesson You’ve Got,” in Sinners Welcome: Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 13.

[5] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Introduction,” in Seeing through the Eye: Malcom Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), xxii.

[6] John Webster, “Providence,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 164.

[7] Murray, “Failure and Disappointment in Scripture,” 16.

[8] Ignatius of Antioch (35AD–108AD) referred to Jesus this way. See his “Letter to the Magnesians” (1. 2).