The Doctrine of Disappointment

If you were to look through the Old Testament, you’d be hard pressed to find a prophet whose life didn’t end in overwhelming disappointment. There’s Isaiah for one, who, in the midst of his calling (Isaiah 6) asks of the Lord, “How long?” In other words, how long was he supposed to cry out as a prophet to his people? The Lord answered, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant…and the Lord removes people far away.” Destruction and exile. (Not to mention Jewish tradition, which holds that Isaiah was eventually murdered, sawn in half by Judah’s King, Manasseh).

The list goes on from there: Jeremiah, whose ministry consisted of hardship and ridicule, and finally the destruction of his home and exile. Habakkuk, who was told to wait patiently as the Lord brought the Babylonians down on his people. Ezekiel, whose ministry was supposed to be that of a priest in the temple of Jerusalem, but instead it consisted of a life marked by exile in Babylon and the death of his wife. Disappointment.

But this type of story is no stranger even to the New Testament. Recently, I had the opportunity to teach 2nd Timothy in our School of Biblical Studies. This book is the last letter we have from the apostle Paul, a man whose life has marked the church in ways innumerable. If you read 2nd Timothy, you’ll quickly realize that Paul’s life doesn’t end happily, surrounded by friends and family in a comfortable bed. He’s alone, in a prison cell, deserted by those he loved (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:6, 10-16), and would be eventually beheaded by Nero.

If at this point you’re thinking to yourself, “Yes, well their lives were quite different than mine!” (as I often like to do), I would direct you to another passage that Paul wrote in 2nd Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” How am I doing so far in convincing you to follow Christ?

Here’s the twist, in the last recorded words we have from Paul to his “beloved child” Timothy, he includes this fun little message, “share in the suffering.” Consider for a moment that you are wasting away in a prison cell, far from home, deserted by friends and family after you have devoted the last 30 years to faithful service to the Lord. What would your final words be to your loved ones? “Don’t do what I did!” comes to my mind. “Stay safe and keep a low profile,” or perhaps even, “It wasn’t worth it.” And yet, Paul has found reason to believe that the very best option for the person he potentially loves most in the world at that point is to share in the very same sufferings and hardships that he had (Of which there were many! For a more complete list of Paul’s hardships, see 2nd Corinthians 11:23-29). Share in it Timothy. What kind of faith would you need to have in something to wish Paul’s end on your own child? What kind of hope must he have had?

Paul knew that following Jesus, and the general nature of this world would often lead to earthly disappointment, pain, suffering. It’s unavoidable. As the great, Dread-Pirate-Roberts Wesley once said, “Life is pain, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

At this point, some might say, it’s simply a lack of eternal perspective that causes us to feel pain at life’s hurts. But I would argue otherwise. In John 11 we see Jesus come to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, where he also encounters Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. Upon seeing them in their distress, we get the verse that’s famous for its length, “Jesus wept.” Why? Surely if anyone had a correct amount of eternal perspective, it was him? Surely he knew that all he had to do was raise Lazarus from the dead (which he did) and all would be well again? And yet, I think, Jesus himself was grieved by the loss that is felt in this world. There’s something about what is temporary in this life that makes our hearts cry out for the eternal.

As one of my good friends once philosophized, “It’s interesting for a world that has never known something eternal to long for something that is.” The author of Ecclesiastes will say “..he (God) has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” If something about this life doesn’t sit right with you, you’re on the right track. There’s a solid Scriptural foundation for the doctrine of disappointment, one need only look to the Psalms to see it written on nearly every page. The world can’t offer our hearts comfort that will not eventually pass, or cisterns that will never run dry. It was never meant to.

Grief is one of life’s greatest obstacles and it will drive most of us to tears and hard questions. The Bible has no problems with that. In fact, I would go so far as to say, it encourages it. There is much that can be said of the joys available in this life, the love that can be felt, and it should be said! But disappointment is a Biblical emotion that finds its roots in the very act of God creating humanity in His image. He feels disappointment too, and He’s even now making things right. In times like this, where the world is in chaos amidst COVID-19 and deaths of loved ones, the Spirit of God is at work, bringing glimpses of the eternal into our temporary world. It’s our job to walk in step with the Spirit when the world around us is broken, bearing its gifts as we go: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Like the early Prophets and Paul, we are not without an anchor for our hope, and our desires for that which does not disappoint will not go unanswered if we put our faith in the one who was, and is, and is to come. Our Savior, Jesus!

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new

Rev. 21:3-5

Come, Lord Jesus!

– Jacob McRae

4 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Disappointment

  1. “ This world has nothing for me this world has everything. All that I could want and nothing that I need“ ( -Caedmon’s Call). Well done.


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