Disappointment: When Your Dreams Die
Joni Eareckson Tada, known for her best-selling autobiography, simply titled “Joni,” is an international advocate for people with disabilities. As an author, an artist, and a speaker her story and her words have been a source of encouragement and hope for millions. In one speech that she gave, she told the story of returning to her hometown for her 30th high school reunion. She spoke of having the typical insecurities we have when we go to those reunions, noting everyone else’s expanding waistlines and receding, or completely gone, hairlines. And then she said this. “I had such fun eating dinner that evening at the reunion with my high school girlfriend Jackie.
Jackie is a friend with whom I used to share history homework, a couple of boyfriends, a lot of milkshakes, and at least 25 laps around the hockey field. We were on the [field] hockey team together, and we laughed and dug out many warm, sunlit memories. We commiserated about the time our hockey team went for the Baltimore County championship against Parkville High School. We were so excited. All the cheerleaders got on the bus with us, and we sang songs all the way, trucking up the Beltway to Parkville High School. The clouds were beginning to gather, but the whistle blew. The game began. I was center forward. Jackie was my defense man. We went back and forth and forth and back, hitting goals, defending balls. It was a fantastic game. But just as the rain began to fall in the last quarter, Parkville slipped a goal by us, and we lost.
Jackie and I and the rest of the girls were downcast. We slung our hockey sticks over our shoulders, grabbed our sports duffel bags and went back to the bus and climbed on board amidst pouring down rain. As the windshield wipers went clunk, clunk, clunk all the way back down the Beltway to Woodlawn Senior High School, some of us cried. We had worked hard. The season had been long.
Jackie and I took the back seat of the bus. We were the saddest. I was the captain of the hockey team. We felt responsible. But being Christians, we clasped our hands together, dried our tears and, believe it or not, we sang there on the back seat of that bus bumping down the beltway. “Man of Sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came.” We were glad we had a Savior who understood our heavy hearts.
What rich, wonderful memories. God was good to us back then, very, very good … A couple of months after that hockey championship I graduated from school, and a month later I dove into shallow water and broke my neck.
Suddenly God didn’t seem so good. Suddenly he seemed uncontrollable, unsafe. I was anxious. I wanted to believe in the goodness of God. I was short on finding answers, understanding reasons for my paralysis. But I certainly wasn’t short on people to sit by my hospital bedside and flip through the Bible, with Jackie being one of them, although she had gotten a job and was going off to college, and other friends were getting married. Life was going on.” Her friends were getting jobs, going to college, getting married. And she was now a quadriplegic, an athlete and leader who no longer had the use of her arms and legs.
How do we handle as followers of Christ disappointment? Deep disappointment. Not just the everyday “I’m so disappointed. Meijer was all out of my favorite cereal” Or “I’m disappointed I won’t get to see you this trip. Maybe next time.” But the disappointment that looks an awful lot like grief; the disappointment we experience when dreams die. When we don’t get into the school or program we’ve dreamed about. When we can’t handle the academic work for the career we want more than anything. When we’re passed over for a job that we think is the perfect job. When our best just isn’t good enough. The pain we feel when someone lets us down.
Psalm 107 cuts right to the heart of life’s disappointing circumstances and how we face them as followers of Christ. And it all revolves around not our own faithfulness or goodness or ability. Our response to disappointment find’s its source not in us, but in God’s steadfast love. God’s goodness. Interesting, isn’t it, when you realize that the thing we question the most when we face disappointment and struggle isn’t the power of God. What we question the most is the goodness of God, the steadfast love of God. When Joni Eareckson Tada faced life as a quadriplegic while her friends were getting married or getting new jobs or heading off to college, she didn’t question the power of God, she questioned the goodness of God. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we do the same thing. Look at Psalm 107:1-3.
God’s steadfast love is a good translation of the Hebrew word “Hesed.” We don’t really have a single English word that captures the substance that “Hesed” communicates. It is often translated simply as God’s love, or kindness, or combining the two, as God’s “loving kindness.” It also appears as loyalty, favor, devotion, and mercy. I think the phrase that gets the closest is probably the one used here: “steadfast love.” At its core, it gets at the goodness of God. Exodus 34:6-7 is probably the most concise description of God’s steadfast love that we have. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
God’s steadfast love contains both God’s mercy and grace and love and also God’s punishment of sin. Now, I know, we don’t like to talk about punishment for sin. That gets kind of close to the wrath of God and we’d rather not discuss that. At least not when it applies to us. We’re perfectly open to the concept when we’re thinking about those who hurt us. We want God’s grace for ourselves and those we love. We want everyone else punished. But that isn’t how God operates, is it. And so in the cross of Christ his steadfast love is seen most clearly, for on the cross, sin is punished AND God’s mercy and love is revealed for all to see. God’s steadfast love is his eternal and unchanging loyalty and devotion to his people. It is because of God’s steadfast love that Christ came to take the punishment for our sin upon himself. And it is God’s goodness, God’s steadfast love that lies at the core to our response to the disappointments of life, those times when our dreams die. This Psalm begins and ends with the steadfast love of God. (Read Psalm 107:1 & 43). Unlike human love, the love of God never ends and never fails. His loyalty to and goodness to his people is there in the face of our betrayal, or sin, our shortcomings, and our flaws. It is the bedrock upon which our life in Christ is built. You are infinitely, irrevocably, passionately, steadfastly loved by God. And because of that, he brings us to, and through, the difficult, discouraging times in life. Look at Vv. 4-9.
When we lose our way, God finds us. The image here is of wanderers in the desert, perhaps the Israelites themselves during their wilderness wandering between the Exodus and their conquest of the Promised Land, or their wandering through the desert on their way back from exile in the east. But it’s important to realize that in both instances, the people wandering in the desert were following God’s direction. We know that the people wandered in the desert for 40 years between Egypt and the Promised Land because of their grumbling and rebellion against God. Even the great Moses was forbidden to enter the land. But God also used this time in their history to harden them as a people, preparing them for the rigorous campaign that lay before them. Sometimes, the doors God opens for us in life do lead us to desert places. Places where we wander about aimlessly with no real purpose. Where provision and protection aren’t easy to find. And it’s easy for us to become discouraged in those places. Maybe it’s a time when you’re between jobs, or between careers. Maybe it’s that time after a marriage has ended. A time when you’re wandering around, wondering why you’re here at all, what’s my purpose? Why was I born. Or maybe you’re sensing that God is seeking you, calling out to you, but you haven’t yet responded to his love for you. God, in his steadfast love, brings us to and through those times. When we get lost, when provision is scant and protection is scarce, God finds us and provides for us.
But maybe you’re feeling more suffocated, trapped by life. Look at Vv. 10-16. The image here is of prisoners condemned to die, wasting away in dark prison cells. It’s a good picture of the Israelites in exile, in bondage, in Babylon and Persia because of their rebellion against God. When we lose our freedom, God saves us. When we are in bondage, God sets us free. When we ignore God’s word, when we ignore the life in Christ that God offers to us, we can wind up in dark places. The painful circumstances of life can lead to dark places and bondage. Maybe you’re stuck in an addiction. Maybe you’re in bondage to poor body image or low self-esteem. Maybe you’re stuck in a pattern of sin that you just can’t break. When we are in bondage, God sets us free.
Now look at Vv. 17-22. In the Bible, a fool is never someone who lacks intelligence. In fact, fools might be very intelligent in some areas, but they deliberately disobey God and suffer the consequences. In Psalm 14, the psalmist David describes this kind of predicament by saying “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good” (Ps. 14:1). And that kind of living leads to sickness. In the Bible, sickness is often used as an image for sin and its deadly consequences. Sometimes sin does lead to physical illness, but not all sickness is the result of sin. But the truth is that you can be in incredible physical shape and still be dying inside with sickness in your soul. These are people who have made their own bed and are lying in it. They’re responsible for their situation. Their struggle and discouragement are their own fault. And yet … they find themselves healed, restored, whole again. God, in his steadfast love, heals and restores those who, through every fault of their own, have found themselves in trouble. When we hurt ourselves and those we love, God heals.
The lost wanderer is found. The prisoner in bondage is set free. The rebellious sick are restored and healed. And there’s a fourth image, a fourth source of discouragement, that the Psalmist paints a picture of here. Look at Vv. 23-32. The Israelites, especially in the Old Testament, were not an especially sea-faring people. They were more known for their time in the desert than on the water. But there were times, during Solomon’s reign, for example, when they did dare to cross the seas in ships, not war vessels, but merchant ships. Under Solomon they had an entire fleet, and goods flowed into and out of Israel. It was then that they experienced the feeling of being tossed around by storms in what today we would call very small craft on very large seas. But there’s something really specific the Psalmist wants us to see here. These experienced sailors were very aware of their smallness in the face of the raging storms. Storms are out of the sailor’s control, aren’t they. They can control a lot of things, but they cannot control the storm itself. They simply have to do the best they can to make their ship secure as they ride it out. Sometimes life and events that are outside our control leave us feeling small, insignificant, and helpless. Discouraged because our best efforts don’t make a difference. We can feel like a ship tossed about by the waves, not really in control of the way things are going. And discouraged, we lose hope. But when we lose hope, God is our hope.
So what is our response to the disappointments we face in life? The Psalmist tells us in the opening verse. “Oh give thanks …” We face disappointment with gratitude. Gratitude that finds its source in the steadfast love of God. That’s one of the reasons we share God Moments during worship every Sunday and set aside two or three Sundays a year as testimony services. It’s because God’s work in your life is an encouragement to me, and I hope his work in my life is an encouragement to you. But for our gratitude to be real, we have to be willing and able to see ourselves in this Psalm. We may be lost, trapped, diseased, or overwhelmed. It may be our fault, or it might not. God may seem kind to you, or cruel. Good things and bad happen. But through it all, the ups and downs, times of plenty and times of famine, the good times and the bad, God is good. And his steadfast love for you endures forever. When we fall down, he picks us up. When we flee, he pursues us. When we dig the pit into which we fall, he lifts us out.
But there’s one thing the people in each of the images was willing to do that we also must be willing to do. They cried out to God for help. V. 6. V. 13. V. 19. V. 28. Here in America in the 21st Century, many of us have a real sense of control over our lives. Not everyone has that sense, even in this country, and we need to be mindful of that, but many do. Especially those of us who are middle class or upper middle class and higher. We have money. We have jobs. Retirement accounts and IRAs. We have a sense of safety and security. Tomorrow isn’t a huge source of anxiety for me because I have a warm bed to sleep in tonight, and food in the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and a job to do that allows me to earn money. But it’s a false sense of security. I am not in control of as many things in my life as I think I am. Neither are you. Vv. 33-42 paint a picture of a God who is in complete control, and we who are not. Compared to a lot of people, I am a pretty good person. But my heart is still full of sin and selfishness. My soul is sick. I need to be healed. My life has a sense of direction, but sometimes I lose my way and need to be found. There are sins and addictions that I struggle with. I am a prisoner who needs to be set free. And like you, sometimes life reminds me that this universe is immense, life is huge, and I am but a vapor.
I have two friends right now, one a friend from college, the other a friend here in Traverse City, who are fighting very rare and deadly cancers. Both are pastors. One is in his mid-40, the other in his mid-50s, so neither is really old. One, Matt, a pastor in Georgia, has been told that he has a 10% chance of living two more years. The other, Paul, well, it depends on how his body and brain respond to the radiation. Both had dreams for tomorrow. Both had dreams of watching children and grandchildren grow up, of retirement, of years spent with their spouses keeping their yards immaculate and having fun with their grandkids. The first thing cancer kills isn’t the body. It is the dreams we had for our tomorrows. We have to be willing, no matter how healthy our bodies and bank accounts are, to see ourselves in this Psalm, and to cry out to God for salvation.
German pastor Martin Rinkart served in the walled town of Eilenburg during the horrors of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Eilenburg became an overcrowded refuge for the surrounding area. The fugitives suffered from epidemic and famine. At the beginning of 1637, the year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenburg. But one abandoned his post for healthier areas and could not be persuaded to return. Pastor Rinkhart officiated at the funerals of the other two. As the only pastor left, he often conducted services for as many as 40 to 50 persons a day—some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his own wife died. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. Yet living in a world dominated by death, Pastor Rinkart wrote the following prayer for his children to offer to the Lord:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.[i]
[i] Harry Genet, “The Unlikely Thanker,” Men of Integrity (3-3-00)