Can you remember the last time you felt the near-paralyzing darkness of disappointment descend — the kind that drains the blood from your face, turns your stomach, and catches you more off-guard than an unforeseen left hook? I can — far more recently (and far more often) than I’d like to admit.
I’ve felt that devastation when relationships ended, applications were rejected, disease persisted, and yet another effort to expedite life events according to my own timeline failed. Maybe you’ve felt it when someone else was selected for the promotion, your offer wasn’t accepted for the house, your child got passed over for the scholarship, the business deal fell through, or the celebration was indefinitely postponed due to sheltering-in-place.
The implications of past disappointments can loom heavily over the present, and the possibility of future disappointments sits as a constant threat on the horizon. Yet along with every disappointment come promises from God that are strong enough to steady us, comfort us, and lift our eyes to him.
1. How near will our God come?
One of the first names of God recorded in the Bible is declared by Hagar, Abram’s servant, after she desperately fled to the desert (while pregnant, no less) to escape harsh treatment by her mistress Sarai. There the angel of the Lord found her, comforted her, and directed her next steps (Genesis 16:7–10). In response, Hagar called the Lord El Roi, declaring, “You are a God of seeing. . . . Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Genesis 16:13).
This name would be continually affirmed through the Old Testament. God saw the heartache of Leah (Genesis 29:31–32). He saw the injustice done to Jacob (Genesis 31:42). He saw the suffering, enslavement, groaning, and misery of the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 2:23–24, 3:7–9). And he sees your heartache today too.
Even more than just seeing, Jesus himself, God in the flesh, bore our griefs and carried our sorrows in his love for us (Isaiah 53:4). And in the end, God himself will wipe away every tear from his children’s eyes (Revelation 21:4). But until then, he promises to draw near to the brokenhearted and save the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
Right there in your room as you curl up on the floor in speechless sorrow, right there in the car as you bang your steering wheel in anger, right there in your office as you drop your head to your hands in despair, right there in your neighborhood as you pace your streets in anxiety — as you draw near to God, he promises to draw near to you (James 4:8).
2. What dangers may have been avoided?
One of the stories I find most bizarre yet comforting in all the Old Testament concerns the prophet Balaam and a talking donkey. Against God’s will, Balaam attempted to travel to Moab, so God sent the angel of the Lord to draw a sword and oppose him (Numbers 22:21–23).
Balaam couldn’t see this life-threatening danger ahead, but his donkey could. In response, the donkey first turned aside, then pressed Balaam’s foot against a wall, and finally lay down in downright refusal to proceed, all resulting in Balaam’s ever-increasing aggravation (Numbers 22:23–27). But when God opened Balaam’s eyes to see the true danger ahead, Balaam fell on his face in repentance and gratitude (Numbers 22:31–34).
I’ve often felt fully confident in the path I wanted (and even felt called) to take, only to find my way cut short by immovable obstacles time and again. These roadblocks along our most determined paths can inflame our impatience, anger, and embarrassment, as they did Balaam’s (Numbers 22:29). But could it be that farther along some of our most determined paths are dangers we cannot now see? And could it be that if our eyes were fully opened to see as God does, we might thank him for what feels today like a painful setback, but is actually a merciful refusal for our good?
This possibility has ushered solace and surrender to my soul, prying my fingers from the roadmap of my best-laid plans. For now, our foot may be crushed against a wall as we are brought to a sudden halt. But if the purpose is to spare us from a sword wound ahead, we too will one day thank this stubborn donkey of disappointment for refusing to acquiesce to our will.
3. What good have we lacked?
God promises that those who seek him lack no good thing (Psalm 34:10). In reality, our most painful disappointments often seem like God’s withholding of a good thing from us. The married couple’s desire for children, the recent graduate’s desire for work, the godly politician’s desire for election, the cancer patient’s desire for healing, the new student’s desire for friends — these are all aimed at seemingly good ends.
But if God is always working for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), then either what we longed for — in the exact way and at the precise time we desired it — was not good, or else God is not finished redeeming this disappointment for good.
And in the meantime, we have God himself. He alone is good (Matthew 19:17). Every good and perfect gift comes from him (James 1:17). With him as our shepherd, goodness will follow us all the days of our lives (Psalm 23:6). And nothing — not even the most devastating disappointment — can separate us from his love (Romans 8:31–39).
Every disappointment I’ve faced has been a humbling and convicting invitation to test whether my heart truly seeks after one thing — to dwell with, gaze upon, and inquire of God alone (Psalm 27:4). God is the ultimate and only all-satisfying good. No disappointments can take him from us, but they can often point us to him.
4. Will we trust in his sovereign wisdom?
The stunning reality of God’s sovereignty implies that he could have produced the outcome we wanted. Although this truth has not always been a comfort to me, God’s sovereignty over our disappointment lifts a yoke of responsibility we are unable to bear.
In college, when I received a rejection letter for my first choice of summer internships in Colorado, I was devastated. As I talked with a friend about it while we stretched after dance class, I mentioned that even though the internship still seemed like God’s best for me, my own shortcomings and lack of experience must have gotten in the way. Her response stretched me even more: “You know, if God wanted you to get that internship, he could have gotten you there.” In one sentence, she humbled me to remember that God’s best for me relies not ultimately on my own sufficiency, but on his sovereignty.
Of course, God commands us to take intentional, responsible steps of initiative in the direction of obedience to him. But we do so knowing that ultimately, our strength, intelligence, and charm are not to be credited for every victory. Likewise, our deficiencies, weaknesses, and failures are not to be blamed for every disappointment.
For every plot turn we desire, God’s sovereignty frees us from both pride if it comes about and shame if it doesn’t. There is an Author of life (Acts 3:15) — a scriptwriter who weaves in setbacks and victories as he develops his characters and directs his story toward its ultimate resolution. So, rather than leaning on our own understandings, we can trust him (Proverbs 3:5) — even with our disappointments. And in doing so, we can take heart with faith that those who trust in and wait on him will not be put to shame (Psalm 22:5; 25:3).
Why Allow Disappointment?
Perhaps the most honest (and helpful) conversation about disappointment I’ve found in the Bible takes place between Jesus and Martha after the death of her brother.
Lazarus was sick. But his sisters knew that Jesus loved him (John 11:3). They also had faith that Jesus could heal him, so they sent word to Jesus to help. But he didn’t come in time. In fact, when Jesus heard the news, he intentionally delayed from coming (John 11:6). And Lazarus died.
Can you imagine the sisters’ disappointment, sorrow, and confusion? Perhaps they were tempted to bitterness, anger, and abandonment of all they had come to believe — as we often are in our greatest disappointments too.
Four days later, Jesus came, and both sisters, in separate conversations with Jesus, met him with the same honest words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Jesus saw their sorrow. Even more, he was moved to deep emotion himself (John 11:35, 38).
But as the story unfolds, we discover that Jesus’s delay was not the result of unawareness or uncaring. It wasn’t punishment for the siblings’ sin. It wasn’t an error. And it would not end in hopeless loss. In reality, Jesus had two reasons for allowing this disappointment: his love for Lazarus (John 11:5–6) and his plan to show his glory (John 11:4) — both of which he demonstrated by raising Lazarus from the dead.
Could it be that these are the same reasons he has for allowing our disappointments too? Could his love for you and his desire to show his glory be the train tracks that led you to the circumstances in which you find yourself today? And if so, would it change your perspective, your prayers, your hope?
No matter what we’ve lost or may one day lose, still we have all good things in him. His ways and thoughts are higher than our own. We who trust in him will not be put to shame. And as our broken hearts wait for faith to be made sight, we can be sure that he draws near to save us.