With my first book due for release in less than a month, I have a confession to make: I never wanted to be a writer. In fact, I don’t think I’m a good one at all. As I type this, I can almost hear hundreds of people across the country collectively muttering under their breath, “Duh.” Well, imaginary detractors, I couldn’t agree with you more.

That said, writing and, more specifically, being published has been something of an obsession for me these past three years. Although it has not been a personal goal for long, I have to admit that I felt like being published might be that one pursuit which, after attaining it, would finally make me fulfilled and content, now and forevermore. And to be sure, I do feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in this moment, especially because this story is so personal to me. But I also feel a confusing and curiously familiar emotion at the same time: disappointment.

This has been the story of my entire life, where I am utterly convinced that some career or relationship or other aspiration is going to satisfy me as a person, only to be disappointed in the end. When I was in high school, the dream was to get into an Ivy League university, a step which would set the rest of my life on its proper course. It only took one semester to realize that all Yale was doing was setting me on the course towards enormous financial debt. But I did meet my wife there, so I suppose it was worth it in the end.

So I pushed my disappointment about college to the side and set my eyes on the next mountaintop: my career. I decided to become a doctor, or even better yet, a missionary doctor. I chose “missionary doctor” because that seemed like the perfect fusion of everything that a person could want out of life: an adventurous and challenging career that allowed one to travel, all while commanding much respect and adoration from other people. This was my goal—that is, until the weekend after I took the MCAT, the standardized test for entrance into medical school. No, it wasn’t because my score was terrible. In fact, I had done well enough to attend any number of third tier medical schools located in the Caribbean. It was because that weekend God called me into ministry.

You might think that since ministry was more of a calling than a life’s ambition, I would not try to find my sense of personal fulfillment from being a pastor. You would have thought wrong. I can't help but think that part of the reason that I decided to become a church planter was as a means of self-fulfillment. For me, there was no cooler kind of pastor than a church planter. They were young, smart, and independent, often rocking hair gel and leather bracers, looking more like a member of the band Smash Mouth than a member of the clergy (this was when looking like Smash Mouth was a good thing, if you can imagine such a thing). And when a pastor who didn’t know me well made the passing comment that I might be a good church planter, I took that as nothing less than a calling that had originated directly from the throne room of God.

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You can read this blog to see how well that turned out. It was messy.

And so here I am yet again, with this uncomfortable but entirely too familiar sensation gnawing at the pit of my stomach, disappointed that yet another dream has turned out to be nothing more than a rabbit trail. But in this case, disappointment is the absolute best thing for me.

No one likes pain, whether physical or emotional. But we often forget that pain serves a necessary purpose: it points us to a deeper problem, or else a deeper need. We feel hunger because we need to eat, and experience thirst because our bodies need water. In this sense, pain is not negative because it makes us aware of a problem or a deficiency of some kind. Not feeling pain might seem like a superpower, but is actually a dangerous medical condition, and one of the main symptoms of leprosy.

This is a helpful way for me to understand disappointment. Disappointment is not just a negative emotion that I feel when things go wrong. Whenever I discover that an aspiration that I held too high failed to satisfy me as I hoped, it is then that I feel disappointment. So disappointment is like a hunger pang, the hunger pang of the soul, the unique pain that results from trying to fill the God-sized holes in my life with what amounts to a few bites of cotton candy. Blaise Pascal describes it this way,

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.

In this, disappointment serves a vital purpose because it is a sharp reminder of a truth that we too often forget: that it is God alone who can fill the enormous empty spaces in our lives.

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Now even as I say that, it's important to note that disappointment is a perfectly valid emotion, and so we need not tamp it down the moment it surfaces, or rebuke it in the name of Jesus. But it's equally important that we not get mired in our feelings of frustration because they are not so much a punishment as they are a signpost. The failure to find fulfillment in life’s pursuits is what turns our hearts to God over and over again, to the Living Water which alone can fill us to overflowing, like the woman at the well. So when we feel disappointed, it does not make sense for us to endlessly brood on what has gone wrong, any more than it makes sense for us to sit and pout for hours when our stomachs begin to growl. No, the proper response is to go and find something, or Someone, that can fill us up properly.

And so yes, perhaps I am feeling a deflating sense of letdown right now during a time when I should be feeling nothing but pride and accomplishment. But that’s what I get for thinking that publishing a book could fill a void that only Christ can fill. So if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s about time that I found something decent to eat.

Oh, and btw, you can preorder my book here.

Third Culture
Third Culture looks at matters of faith from the multicultural and minority perspective.
Peter Chin
Peter W. Chin is the pastor of Rainier Avenue Church and author of Blindsided By God. His advocacy work for racial reconciliation has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, and the Washington Post.
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