Disappointment and God’s sovereignty

disappointmentI wonder if you have heard this kind of story recently. A friend of yours is perhaps happy in a particular job or ministry role, or perhaps senses a need for change. An new opportunity comes up, and something stirs in your friend. Other people sense the same, and perhaps get in touch. ‘Could this be God’s plan for you?’ ‘This has your name written on it!’ ‘I read this, and immediately I thought of you.’ Perhaps there is a sense that God is speaking through a Scripture reading or a word in a church meeting.

So there comes a point where your friend feels this is of God; not to apply would be disobedient; to apply is to follow God’s lead. Your friend feels more excitement about the possibility, and perhaps starts imagining what this new role will be like. The selection process happens…and your friend is not selected. Disappointment, frustration and puzzlement take hold. Why was someone else appointed? What does it mean? Was I mistaken—did I not hear what God was saying? The questions together can be seriously disorienting.

Disappointment is all around us, whether a story like this—or the still more profound occasion of sitting with someone, holding their hand as they fight cancer, to learn just a few days later that the end is near.

The Wikipedia entry on ‘disappointment‘ offers an interesting introduction:

Disappointment is the feeling of dissatisfaction that follows the failure of expectations or hopes to manifest. Similar to regret, it differs in that a person feeling regret focuses primarily on the personal choices that contributed to a poor outcome, while a person feeling disappointment focuses on the outcome itself.

So whilst there is often some inner questioning of my behaviour, when I am disappointed I focus on the outcome—why did it not work out the way I expected? And of course that question then focusses, for Christians, on the one who is supposed to have the whole world in his hands.

I have been nurtured in a theological tradition which offer a particular understanding of the sovereignty of God—if God is sovereign, and I have been open to his leading, then the decision must have been right. Since I have committed myself to God, and to being obedient to his call, then the decision must have been his will. And I have been encouraged in this view by friends through various disappointments.

But as I have reflected on my experience, I have become aware of two difficulties with interpreting my experience in this way. The first is that it encourages us to respond with praise, and praise alone, which can lead to an unhelpful suppression of our disappointment, frustration and even anger. And in fact, our sense of disappointment then almost sets us against God, and God against us: we should accept his will gladly, when that is the last thing we want to do.

The second difficulty is that if we accept decisions as ‘God’s will’, there is a real danger we don’t address important issues that have led to the decision. All too often, the processes that lead to these decisions are far from perfect—yet acceptance of a decision as God’s will can quickly translate into acceptance of institutional status quo; a compliance to God becomes a compliance to culture or circumstance. There are times when we need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, or the corruption, or laziness, or vested interests which have shaped decisions that affect us and those around us.

As I look back, I realise I have experienced a long litany of being treated badly by the institution of the Church—poor advice, lack of finance, lack of support, bad decision-making—over many years. Were all these things ‘God’s will’? No, of course not. And for me, reflection on these experiences suggests another way to interpret them: to believe that what has happened is not God’s will, that in fact his will has been frustrated. There is a danger here that we will then find it harder to let go of the decision and accept it. But there is a major transformation: God shares our frustration. He is on our side, and feels what we feel.

This might sound odd to some ears, but there are three key things from Scripture which support this. First, the sovereignty of God in the New Testament is expressed primarily in terms of the Lordship of Christ. And this is expressed not in terms of explanation, but of demand. It isn’t primarily a promise that all will be well, but an invitation to accept and respond to.

515yTCF4tHLThis leads to the second, related truth. There is an ‘eschatological postponement’ to seeing God’s sovereignty fully realised. Jesus is Lord to be yielded to—but it is clear that this does not yet happen. Jesus will be recognised as Lord one day (Phil 2.10–11), but until then his will is not fully expressed. That is why, when John writes to the Christians in Asia, he writes as their ‘brother in kingdom [recognising Jesus as Lord], tribulation [because the world does not yet do so] and patience endurance [as we wait for the kingdom of this world to become the kingdom of God and his Christ]’ (Rev 1.9).

Thirdly, this realisation both creates space in our lives, personally and together, for lament amongst God’s people, as we realise that God’s purposes continue to be frustrated, and as we long for the full coming of his kingdom. This is much needed in the face of disappointment, at every level. It was a consistent feature of praise in the Old Testament, and needs to be part of worshipping vocabulary. It puts paid to the lie that faith is all about the ‘wonderful plan God has for your life.’

In many ways, we see all this as far back as the story of Joseph—as he says to his brothers at the end, ‘you intended it for harm, but God for good’. He is not saying that somehow, in their throwing him in the well to die, that God’s will was expressed in the action, but in some mysterious way God is able to enact his purpose through—and in spite of—the frustration of his will in specific actions and decisions.

We often think of God’s purposes much in the way we think of our own—in terms of positions, appointments and opportunities. But God is much more concerned with our formation and our fruitfulness, and much less worried than we are about the particular places we find ourselves in. When Paul expresses confidence that ‘God will complete the good work he began in you’ (Phil 1.6) he is really concerned about our maturity in Christ.

Here is a song and a poem I have found helpful in living with disappointment.

I will praise You Lord my God
Even in my brokenness I will praise You Lord
I will praise You Lord my God
Even in my desperation I will praise You Lord

And I can’t understand All that You allow
I just can’t see the reason But my life is in Your hands
And though I cannot see You I choose to trust You

Even when my heart is torn I will praise (trust) You Lord
Even when I feel deserted I will praise (trust) You Lord
Even in my darkest valley I will praise (trust) You Lord
And when my world is shattered and it seems all hope is gone
Yet I will praise You Lord

I will trust You Lord my God
Even in my loneliness I will trust You Lord
I will trust You Lord my God
Even when I cannot hear You I will trust You Lord

And I will not forget That You hung on a cross
Lord You bled and died for me
And if I have to suffer I know that You’ve been there
And I know that You’re here now

My Life is but a weaving between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors He worketh steadily.
Oft times He weaveth sorrow And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper, And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas And explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares, Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those Who leave the choice with Him.

(First posted January 2014)

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11 thoughts on “Disappointment and God’s sovereignty”

  1. Thanks Ian, very helpful and thought provoking as usual. All through reading this I am recalling how many times I have been to see a DDO in different Dioceses (apologies to non-Anglicans on here!) and had a no every time. I have been to several conferences and found that I tick (usually) all of the boxes. I have spent much of my time fending off comments urging me to go forward for ordination. I have made several big life decisions based on feeling a call to ordained ministry only to realise that there is no chance of that now – I am 63 this year. I find that guidance is often – and should be – multi-facetted; circumstances, prayer, yes, advice and counsel from others. Your example above of the job application – the rejection was part of the guidance and should, as you say be the start of a learning process. Why and how did it happen?

    I realise that I now have to come to terms with my disappointment. I also have friends, some ordained that have expressed surprise and even anger at my continued rejections. I also have to come to terms with the fact that the last DDO I saw then met my wife a few weeks later in the Cathedral and said he would have said yes if I had been a little younger! An ordained friend of mine then pointed to people older than me going forward in the Coventry Diocese – that hurt!

    This is an ongoing ‘learn’ for me and it does hurt but I have to see God in it somewhere. I probably would not have done many of the things I have done if I had been ordained but the fact still stands that either I have misheard God or maybe it’s others’ fault?! As pointed out in your article Ian there is a wider scope and a future hope in the face of the imperfect here. Hope it has been OK sharing this personal example – the question of calling/vocation can be as exciting as it can be frustrating. I can also laugh as many regard me as someone with a gift of ‘hearing God’ – amusing in this context!

  2. This is really helpful; many thanks Ian for opening it all up.

    I think we’re sometimes too quick to decide whether something is God’s will or not. Perhaps faith is learning to live with the fluidity and contingency of it all, and operate with the free will He gives us.

    As you say, formational; but it sometimes takes a while to get to that point!

  3. This is very helpful – thank you.

    Increasingly I consider that God’s plan is not to “take us from A to B” but to “make us from A to B” – ie he is less concerned about *where* we are (though he may be that as well) but *who* we are.

    Likewise, God is less a puppet-master pulling every string than a master chess player whose game plan can never ultimately be out-witted.

    Surely it is in the cross that we most see the perplexing reality and pain of human evil and plans and yet, at the same time, God’s over-arching purposes, redemptive action of wickedness, and sovereignty.

    I’ve found Jerry Bridges book “Trusting God even when life hurts” and the Ronald Dunn book “When heaven is silent” very helpful on matters such as this. Good wishes, and thank you again.

  4. A very timely exploration for me, Thank you for reposting this at this time Ian. There is a clear distinction growing in my mind between the will of God, or God’s plan, (as we see it related to ourselves), and God’s purposes for us, and his church and world. It reminds me of the distinction explored by Susan Howatch in A Question of Integrity where the co-existence of good and bad ‘intermingle’ – a comment on Romans 8:28 and God’s redemptive action in all things. The bad never becomes good, but God works out his purposes in the midst of of suffering etc.

  5. In my experience as a Spiritual Director, I find disappointment one of the most corrosive emotions. And one of the most difficult to deal with. It quietly goes about sapping faith in God. Its cumulative nature is particularly nasty. It strikes right at the heart of who Abba is, of our relationship with Jesus, of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Lament is actually the key. A profound acknowledgment of disappointment, with time and skill, can lead to an equally profound renewing of the mind, and eventually of faith. This is slow work, not to be confused with fatalism or resignation! Rather it is a journey into truth that sets us free. I do wish disapppintment was preached about, it may not be endemic but it is widespread. Thank you for raising it.

  6. in my experience there have been times when Ii have applied for things, not been selected and been disappointed. The reflections i have gained have been that
    a) I have almost always learned something in the experience, about myself, my actual calling and what might suit me better.
    b) That if God micro-managed to the extent that only the person whose name was on the job ever applied we would live in a very odd environment. The point of opening up appointment processes is that as different candidates are seen there will be choices to be made about which aspects of a role are most important and who will best it in terms of the description and the feel of the post.There will be several people who will be possible
    c) That I may feel, and others may feel i am “right” for something. But there will always be other people who might be equally or more “right”
    d) That discernment is a process not a decision. The old cliche about pushing the door to see if it opens is a really important thing. It is about being open both to God’s ‘yes’ and God’s ‘no’

    • And the point of it being part of a process is that even the disappointments can be vital steps on a journey. Yes, it hurt to be told ordination wasn’t for me (it was also partly a relief!), but if I hadn’t applied I probably wouldn’t have get enthusiastic about going to theological college, wouldn’t have gone as an independent student, and probably wouldn’t now be doing a job I love and feel called to where being a lay person can be a positive advantage!

  7. Oyyy! I see a Devine Human Relations department, the Lord, Jesus and Holy Spirit whirling about sorting through a flood of discernments. And, then the Department of the Disappointmented.

    I don’t think the Lord is working that way. I’m afraid we’re discerning through a corporate culture lens. I recommend retreading Gilead, by Robinson, Job, maybe an attempt to rewrite your on version of one or two of the angry psalms can help. Come follow me, and you’ll have a nice career. Not really. I like the photo, and the question. John

  8. God accomplises all his pleasure all the time, just as he did through the hands of wicked men putting Jesus on the cross. The Bible clearly teaches that.
    Never interpret scripture from experience.
    (i don’t think you have really justified you’re thesis with scripture here anyway.)
    I do agree that we must process things though, but a robust grasp on the sovereignty of God is not opposed to that at all, which is maybe what your trying to help people with?

    • Thanks. But you are not offering a ‘robust’ grasp of the sovereignty of God, but expounding a position known as ‘meticulous sovereignty’. I don’t think Scripture supports that view.


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