It was early in the fall semester. Ken and I were getting acquainted over lunch. I could tell by his incandescent grin that he was a freshman.
"I'm going to be a pastor," Ken said. "It's going to be cool!"
"What makes you so sure it's going to be cool?"
I tried not to look amused.
He seemed shocked by the question. The radiant glow of his smile dimmed momentarily, and he looked as if I had muttered an unexpected indecency. But the grin quickly returned to his face, and he dismissed my question with a shake of his head.
"I don't know," he said. "But it's going to be cool!"
Several years later, I had lunch with Ken again. He was a senior by then, and his enthusiasm had dampened. He had not quite reached the low ebb that Job's wife did. That is to say, he was not ready to curse God and die. But he did seem genuinely disappointed—with his college experience, his church, and, I think, with God.
As I listened to him talk, it was my turn to be disturbed. I thought back to our first lunch together and wondered what had soured his disposition. He did not want to talk about it. He muttered something vague and recriminating about the church. He stared darkly at his plate, and I tried to lighten the mood with small talk and encouragement. But it was no use. Try as I might, I could not resuscitate the rosy-cheeked freshman. I ate quickly and wished him the best. A few weeks later, I watched him walk across the platform and receive his diploma, wondering whether his disposition would eventually improve.
It might not. Those who serve Christ are as prone to disappointment as anyone else. If the Gospels are any indication, we might even say that disappointment is a certainty. Read the Gospels with all their sharp edges intact. What are they but a record of disappointment with Jesus on a grand scale?
Just ask John the Baptist.
Ill at ease in Herod's prison, John sent messengers to Jesus with a question: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt. 11:3). The question comes as something of a surprise. After all, John was one of the first to publicly identify Jesus as "the one who comes after me" (John 1:27). It was John who told Jesus, "I need to be baptized by you" (Matt. 3:14). John saw the Spirit of God descend on Jesus at his baptism and heard the voice from heaven say, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). If anyone had known the answer to this question, it would have been John.
It is possible that John had grown discouraged with the way his circumstances had turned out. Perhaps the darkness of Herod's prison had dimmed John's confidence in Jesus and his mission. But this too seems unlikely. John was used to a life of hardship. He dressed like a nomad and lived like a wild man of the desert, surviving on insects and honey (Matt. 3:4). Do we really believe that a prison cell could break his spirit? What is more, John would not have been surprised to find himself Herod's prisoner. He was a student of Scripture. He knew what happens to prophets. Nine times out of ten, the prophet's fate is a bad one. John would hardly have been shocked by his experience.
Setting Goals for God
John's question signals his disappointment over the report he had received of Jesus' ministry. The broad contours of John's expectations were marked out in his warning to the religious leaders when they came to him for baptism. "You brood of vipers!" John thundered. "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:7-9).
According to John, Jesus had come to winnow the harvest. He would gather the grain and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:7-12). Instead, Jesus was roaming the hills of Galilee, preaching the gospel and healing the sick. The ax had been sharpened and the fire kindled, but Jesus did not seem interested in either. This was so at odds with John's understanding of what the Messiah would do that he couldn't help questioning it. It is disappointment, not doubt, that lies behind John's question.
Failed expectation lies at the heart of every disappointment. We expect one thing and get something else. We expect beef for dinner and get chicken. We thought we would get a refund from the irs, and we end up owing money. The weather report promised sunshine for the weekend, but it rains. Disappointments like these are so common you would think that we would be used to them.
But things are different with God. We expect better treatment from him. We know that people will let us down (though this knowledge does not lessen our disappointment when they do). God is not like that. We may not know much about theology, but at least we know that God does not lie. There is no variableness or shadow of turning with him. He is reliable.
Yet this good theology sometimes leads to bad practice. It causes us to confuse reliability with predictability. Because we think that God's mind and ours are the same, we set goals for God. We know what we want, and so we put it in the mouth of God. We let our desires govern our expectations.
Sometimes the goals we set actually align with what God intends. When that happens, we can become so encouraged that we set more goals for God. But sooner or later—and probably sooner rather than later—what God does is so at odds with our expectation that we hardly know what to think.
We pray for healing and the patient dies. The job that seemed so perfect goes to someone else. That person who would have been the perfect spouse does not return our affection.
The result is more than a crisis of faith, at least as we usually define faith. Our difficulty is not that we have set the bar so high that we must now come to terms with God's inability to come through. We know what God can do. We believe he can meet our high expectations. No, the problem is just the opposite. What really bothers us is that we have misread God's purposes. We are deeply disturbed, and not merely because he has failed to do what we wanted or even expected him to do. We are haunted, instead, by the fact that God hasn't done what we believe in our hearts he should have done.
Outraged and Distressed
Of course, not all disappointments are equal. Most are minor and easily forgotten. Some are more serious. A few haunt us all our days. John's disappointment was the more serious kind. It was the sort of disappointment Jonah felt when he saw that the people of Nineveh were to be spared (Jonah 4:1-2). It was the disappointment of Habakkuk, who cried, "Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?" (Hab. 1:3) It is the same disappointment you and I feel when we see injustice around us. Oppression and evil seem to be on every side, and God appears to do little or nothing about it.
Since we are people of action as well as faith, we do what we can to make a difference. We take to the streets and befriend the homeless. We give our money to organizations that work for justice. We register to vote and try to change the system. Yet no matter what we do, the problems multiply. We keep looking for reinforcement, but no cavalry appears on the horizon. What good is the gospel if it allows a wicked ruler like Herod to treat God's prophet like his personal plaything? We are disappointed with God because he allows the guilty to go unpunished.
But just as many, it seems, wrestle not with the outrage of Jonah but with the distress of Abraham (Gen. 18:25). What disturbs them is the possibility that God might cast anyone into hell. Many evangelicals, especially younger evangelicals, see the notion of hell as cruel and barbarous. They wonder whether such an idea is consistent with a God of mercy and grace. How can a God who "so loved the world" bear to watch his creatures suffer for eternity? If he means to teach sinners a lesson, couldn't he think of a better punishment than casting them into a lake of burning sulfur?
Oddly enough, it is common to find both dispositions—outrage and distress—in the same person. Such people are simultaneously frustrated with God for leaving the guilty unpunished and distressed at the thought that he would condemn anyone. They are like the people Jesus describes after John's messengers leave: "To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 'We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her deeds" (Matt. 11:16-19). When Jesus condemns John's generation with these words, he also condemns ours and offers a frank assessment of our ambivalence. What do we really want from God? Do we want justice or mercy? It would seem that we want justice without judgment and mercy without justice.
Your God has Come to Save You
Jesus' condemnations reveal an even more disconcerting truth. They suggest that on some level, Jesus disappoints everyone. Jesus is an equal opportunity disappointer. He disappoints not only the people of Nazareth who drove him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff because he wouldn't perform miracles for them, but also people like those in Korazin and Bethsaida, where he did perform miracles. Jesus disappointed friends and foes alike.
Jesus' reply to John's question should be a clue that we have missed something. Our disappointment is mainly a problem of perception. Most striking about Jesus' answer is that he provides no new information. John already knows everything that Jesus tells him. Even the description of Jesus' miracles merely reminds John what he has already been told. So how does Jesus' answer help? It alludes to a passage in Isaiah, set in the context of a promise that John, as a student of Scripture, would have recognized immediately: "Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, 'Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you'" (Isa. 35:3-4).
What is Jesus' answer to John's messengers? "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Matt 11:4-5). In effect, Jesus is saying: Tell John that your God has come—that he has come with a vengeance. John, your God has come to save you.
In other words, like John we are disappointed with Jesus because we do not see what he is really doing. It turns out that we have been laboring under a major misapprehension. Jesus came for us, but that does not mean that he came to please us. Jesus came for us, but he does not answer to us. He will not subject himself to our agenda, no matter how good that agenda might be. Instead, Jesus demands that we submit ourselves to his agenda.
Is the solution to our disappointment, then, to "suck it up" and "tough it out"? Or to admit that "life is disappointing" and resolve to "get over it"? No, just the opposite. Jesus' parting words to John's disciples were words of both blessing and warning: "Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me" (Matt. 11:6). These were the last words that John would hear from Jesus before his death, and they are Jesus' last words to us in our disappointment—no matter what the cause.
In the face of great disappointment, we usually ask for an explanation. This is because we foolishly think that an explanation will make us feel better. Has it ever occurred to us that it might do the opposite? Instead of an explanation, Jesus offers something far superior: himself. When it comes to disappointment, there is no other remedy. It is the nature of disappointment to match us measure for measure. As long as we hold on to it, disappointment will wrap itself around our heart like a great snake. The tighter we hold on to it, the tighter it will grip us. The only way to free ourselves is to bow the knee to Christ.
We can hold on to disappointment, or we can hold on to Christ. We can place our disappointment under the power of the Cross and hold on to hope. When we offer our disappointment to Christ, we really offer ourselves to him. As long as we hold on to hope, we surrender ourselves to the grip of God's grace. John should have known. This is what the voice from heaven had said all along: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). Jesus disappoints everybody. Everybody except for One.
John Koessler, professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute, is the author of Folly, Grace, and Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching (Zondervan).
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Previous articles by John Koessler include:
Disappointed with Intimacy | We set ourselves up for confusion about God if we forget that the best is yet to come. (November 16, 2011)
The Trajectory of Worship | What's really happening when we praise God in song? (March 11, 2011)
Eat, Drink, and Be Hungry | It's emptiness, not fullness, that Jesus blesses. (August 17, 2007)
Come, Lord Jesus—But Not Too Soon | Why it's hard to be heavenly minded. (August 25, 2005)
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