At some point, we all become cynical. We stop believing that miracle drug on TV will help us lose 50 lbs. We stop believing that we would look more attractive if we used hair that comes in an aerosol can. We stop believing that politicians, movie stars, and televangelists have our best interests at heart. We stop believing that our favorite reality TV shows are actually…you know…reality. I think maybe it’s safe to say that many of us just stop believing-period.
I don’t think it’s because we don’t want to believe. On the contrary, I think that every single one of us is burning with the desire to believe in SOMETHING. I’d even go so far as to say we’re hardwired to believe; that is, it’s our nature. It’s just that the fictions we often place our hopes in are so at odds with reality that, once disappointment inevitably sets in, we can no longer help but be cynical of anything that claims to point to a greater good or deeper truth.
We’ve become a society that experiences disappointment at literally every level. Work, relationships, politics- if you look hard enough, disappointment is there. Even the happiest and most well adjusted among us will know disappointment at some point. It is a universal element of the human experience. There is plenty of research that shows this to be objectively true. But let’s be real: this isn’t just some academic endeavor for us- it’s subjective, too. This is your reality. This is MY reality.
My dad is one of the hardest working people I have ever met. He spent my entire childhood working 60+ hours a week as a manager at a beef packing plant. It wasn’t unusual to hear him come in at 3:00 in the morning. It was smelly, hard, manly-man work. It was a decent job with good pay and good benefits. Oh, and did I mention that my dad hated every minute of it? At some point, our society decided that the most important thing a father could provide is money, and so that’s what we’ve come to expect from a good father. My dad wanted to be a good father. He sacrificed all of his free time so that his children wouldn’t have to experience wants in the same way that he had. By that measure, he should have viewed himself as a success. But instead a little bit of him was dying each day. He was constantly unhappy. He was frustrated. He was disappointed.
My friend “Todd” fell in love with a girl. When the rest of us went of to the “big city” for college, Todd stayed behind at a juco, just to be near her. They were the kind of couple that had pet names for each other. Like, really, really obnoxious pet names. And when they talked they used the “cartoon” voice. You know, that really high pitched, “Aww, I wub you” kind of voice. They were the kind of couple that seemed so right for each other it made you want to vomit. I’m not using hyperbole here- they were gross. Eventually, Todd and his gal pal decided to move in together. For a couple of years, things seemed good. Wedding bells were starting to look like a given. Then, out of the blue, she decided she didn’t love him anymore. Todd was crushed. He had invested everything into this relationship, pouring out his soul and sacrificing to make it work, and then one day found himself in a situation where he was powerless to do anything to save it. He found himself cast adrift, heartbroken…and disappointed.
The most excruciating time in my life involved the church. It is an apocalyptic moment when you’ve had have harm intentionally done to you by someone claiming to speak in Jesus’ name. A dozen years later a great sadness still comes over me just thinking about it. I can’t go into every detail about it here. But it was deeply disappointing.
I’m far from alone.
Every day, angry youth lash out against authority figures that seem to have it all wrong, disappointed at the human systems that seem designed to rob them of their agency and their voice.
Every day, parents pour everything into their children, only to be ignored, disrespected. Disappointed.
Every day, young men and women try to find “the one” that society has said is waiting for them, only to be repeatedly disappointed by the people (and dating apps) that were supposed to bring them happiness.
Everyday children in Africa live with the disappointment of knowing that the AIDS virus that is destroying their bodies will have to go untreated.
Everyday parents in the third world will know the disappointment of giving their child unclean drinking water, knowing it is making them sick but not knowing any other way to keep them alive.
Every day the hurting, the broken, and the lost will suffer the disappointment of being cast aside by a culture that only seems to value those who have it all together.
Even the news is disappointing. Just look at this week’s top headlines:
*Suicide Bombing Kills 27 at Arianna Grande Concert in Manchester
*37 Refugees, Mostly Toddlers, Drown Fleeing the War in Syria
*2 Men in Portland Die While Protecting Muslim Teen from Racist
*27 Coptic Christians Gunned down in Egypt for not Rejecting the Faith
Starting to get the picture?
I think all of us are, or have been, or will be, disappointed. And, even though it saddens me, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Okay, that may sound silly. Let me explain. The things that sadden us, the things that hurt us, the things that cause us to cry out in pain, these things that disappoint us- those are usually terrible, gut wrenching things that I wish didn’t happen. Suffering is not redemptive in and of itself.
But it would be worse if terrible things happened and they DIDN’T disappoint us. And I think we miss something when we don’t ask why we’re disappointed. Why do war, famine, heartbreak, disease, ignorance, hatred, social injustices, and a million other things always bring us the same unwanted emotion?
Because there’s something deeply spiritual about disappointment. It points us to a greater truth. We’re disappointed, because deep down we sense that things aren’t supposed to be this way. We’re disappointed, because it seems like we don’t have the power to fix the things that some part of us knows ought to be fixed. We’re disappointed because all of the despair, all of the hurt, all of the wrongs of this world seem very real, but also feel like they shouldn’t be.
I think we’re all disappointed because we know there’s a heaven, and this isn’t it.
I mean, it makes sense when you think about it. When we say the world shouldn’t be this way, what other world are we comparing it to? None of us has ever lived in a perfect world. Even if we just compare this world to an IDEA of what we think a perfect world should be, we have to acknowledge that our ideas about perfection had to come from somewhere outside of ourselves and can’t wholly be based on our own experiences.
And not only do we know there’s a heaven, but we long for it.
We long for a world where a father’s merit isn’t based on his paycheck,
where true love is only found and never lost,
where holy people are exactly what they seem,
where authority is only and always inherently benevolent,
where children do not view their parents as the enemy,
where poverty and disease do not exist,
where a parent never has to outlive their child,
where the hurting, and the broken, and the lost can say that they are HOME.
Following Jesus doesn’t protect us from disappointment. Think of Jesus’ disciples hiding after his death, their Messiah gone, their movement in tatters, their expectations dashed, their hope utterly destroyed. Think of Paul after his conversion, being beaten and stoned, bitten by serpents, more than a little shipwreck prone. Following Jesus wasn’t easy. These aren’t the faith stories that TV preachers like to highlight.
And yet for all the disappointment Paul must have experienced, he’s the same man who wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always…I will say it again, rejoice…” FROM PRISON… as he is most likely about to be executed.
How we handle our disappointment MATTERS.
For Paul, the disappointment of his hardships was greatly overshadowed by his joy of building the Kingdom.
This is where it gets hard for us. Most of us are good at getting disappointed. Few of us are good at doing something about it.
There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon known as the “Allais Paradox.” Without getting into all of the minutia of psychological theory that I barely understand, the basic finding of the Allais Paradox is that in certain situations human beings will almost always choose outcomes which defy the expected utility theory of what would give them the most desired outcome. There are a lot of proposed hypotheses which seek to explain the phenomenon, but the one I found most interesting was this: disappointment aversion.
People were sometimes very likely to avoid making the decision that would be the most beneficial to them because, basically, they didn’t want to get their hopes up and then have them dashed. They were avoiding disappointment without ever really knowing if they were going to be disappointed or not.
I think we all experience this on some level. We let our valid past experiences of disappointment create a fear in us of future disappointment.
We see this with Thomas. Thomas the Twin. Doubting Thomas. He avoids putting his hope in the Jesus he saw crucified until he can touch the very hands and feet that he had seen pierced. He doesn’t want to be disappointed. He is experiencing a classic case of disappointment aversion. We shouldn’t be so hard on the guy, though: when your hopes have been so high, and then so utterly destroyed, it’s hard to hope again. But when finally he decides to risk disappointment again, and comes with the disciples to the upper room, let’s not forget that he is the first to proclaim “My Lord and my God!”
Which brings us to the big question: are we avoiding doing big, hard things for the Kingdom of God because we fear that we will be disappointed? Has our rightful disappointment of this world led us to wrongly fear that God will leave us disappointed, too?
We mustn’t. If we can see that the world is broken, God can too. The role of the Christian isn’t to hunker down until the next world comes. The role of the Christian is to participate in the process of making this world the next.
In the end, we can choose Kingdom building or escapism, but we can’t choose both. Lots of things can disappoint us in this life, but only one of those two choices will leave us disappointed beyond this life. You have been created by God to bring light and hope into the places you go. Let them shine.