The Darkness of Disappointment

Disappointment … a common experience for all people, but painful. The Cambridge dictionary defines it like this: 'the unhappiness or discouragement that results when your hopes or expectations have not been satisfied'. Based on that definition, one of the antidotes to disappointment would be to have no hope or expectations. If there's no hope, then there's no disappointment!

Right now across the UK, we are being met with the headlines ‘Christmas has been cancelled’. At the end of a very difficult year, we had all been looking forward to some sense of normality through sharing Christmas with loved ones. And then, BOOM! Family travel and festive bubble plans, based on previous government guidance, have now been dashed; many people feel like the carpet has been pulled from under them. Many people and families are sharing a sense of palpable disappointment.

How do we respond to this discouragement that results from our expectations being shattered? Perhaps the best approach is to adopt a posture of permanent pessimism. If we don’t hope for something, then we can’t be disappointed. But who wants to live without hope?

I remember our early days in Ukraine. As international, cross-cultural missionaries used to a relatively efficient society, we were often flummoxed by the inefficiencies of getting things done in Ukraine. Things that should take an hour took all morning; things that should take a day took a week or two. It felt like swimming through peanut butter.

But then there was the disappointment experienced when we let ourselves hope that the local corner shop might have a shipment of our favourite treat … bad idea, hoping. That’s why one missionary friend of our adopted this twisted life philosophy: expect nothing, and be pleasantly surprised.

In the Christmas story, the human emotions on display are all over the map. Mary’s journey began with shock and awe at the angel’s announcement; she soon felt the pangs of uncertainty and isolation.  

And with Joseph - put yourself in his place for just a moment. No one gets engaged, hoping their soon to be spouse is going to be unfaithful between betrothal and the wedding. But Joseph had no other category by which to understand ‘pregnant by the Holy Spirit’. As a righteous man, he planned to divorce Mary privately; he had no desire to expose her to further, unnecessary shame.

But as a man … surely he was disappointed. He would have been excited, hopeful, expectant, looking forward to a a new life with his new bride. It was a dark moment in Joseph’s life.

It was at this very moment that ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”’ (Matthew 1.20-21).

It was the message about Jesus that changed Joseph’s life, Joseph’s situation, Joseph’s perspective. Into the darkness of his disappointment came the light of God’s promise. He could move forward with no fear because that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. In a moment, Josephs disappointment was transformed; it is the message of Jesus - the promised Saviour - that brings light to his darkness.

It's a radical thought to consider that disappointment might prompt us to turn to God. Paul reflects on disappointment in Romans 5:3-5:

And not only this, but we also celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Like so much of following Jesus, what Paul outlines here is counterintuitive. What he gives us is backwards thinking, because Paul tells us to celebrate in our tribulations knowing that the end result is hope. But this is not the kind of hope like, ‘I hope the corner market has Milka chocolate’, or ‘I hope the government doesn’t cancel Christmas’. Those things are beyond our control and in the hands of humans.

The hope Paul calls us to have is in the love of God: God’s love has been poured out within our hearts by the Holy Spirit; along with this love, ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 2). The point is that God’s love towards us in Christ is not something that is contingent; God’s love towards us in Christ is consistent, strong, perpetual, and rock solid.

Also notice that hope is the fruit of God’s love. Paul writes that we have hope because the love of God has been poured out. In other words, we don’t hope God loves us, but we hope because God loves us.

The government might restrict our travel, but nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8.39). So whatever else happens – or doesn’t happen this Christmas, open your heart to the love of our good, good, Father; be refreshed by the hope of his love that chases away every shadow of disappointment.

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