Disappointment and the Sovereignty of God

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.

This 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).

515yTCF4tHLThirdly, 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.

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8 thoughts on “Disappointment and the Sovereignty of God”

  1. On living out a bloody vocation…
    You have put my tears in Your bottle,
    You have wrung me out like a rag,
    You chase me and pursue me!
    To the horizon itself You hound!

    Is this then how You love me?
    To make such demands on my life?
    All I ever tried was to be faithful
    And still I was crushed to the ground.

    Do the shades praise You?
    Shall they proclaim Your deeds in the lands?
    Will they raise their hand to the plow?
    And make known your name on this earth?

    And yet, You are my strong oak –
    The One to whom I came home,
    Eternal and unshakeable,
    My shelter in the storm.

    You are the end of all my journeys,
    And the beginnings of all my days,
    You are the One whom I call faithful,
    Though I don’t quite grasp Your ways.
    ©Catherine E. Walcott Oct. 2013

    This one is mine – in the midst of discernment and the beginning was awful enough to feel like getting crucified. Basically, I had to move parish and God put people into place to get round the 2 individuals who gave me so many problems. The above was written much later, but I’ve only just really after 3 years of nagging and shouting from God got the discernment from others about what it’s been feeling like inside. There were often enough periods of despair with it all. God works in a process of synergy, i.e. with humans, and sometimes the humans really mess it up

  2. Ian, this makes sense of much if what I have struggled with in the Christian community. Often when we bbelieve our actions are part of His plan, there is much excitement and verbosity . Yet when things don’t go as expected, everyone goes quiet and the dissapointment is swept under the carpet.
    Thank you for posting.

  3. Thanks. One of the difficulties is that there are always personal issues involved, and relationships. I realised I could write a book about how people and systems in the church have hurt, disappointed and damaged me, but that would break all sorts of confidentialities, and also harm others…

  4. You could write one of those let’s guess who they are talking about novels! Seriously, is one of the dilemmas I have with some of the shame material I am writing about in my thesis.

  5. This makes me think of God’s promise to Jeremiah (‘a hope and a future’). This is often (rightly) quoted to encourage Christians, but usually overlooking the details of the life Jeremiah was forced to lead! Thank you for this very thoughtful piece, Ian.

  6. As cute as this image is, it’s not the look of true disappointment; it’s the look of “Eh, I’m unimpressed.” Disappointment, on the other hand, is the profound difference between idealism and cynicism. To quote George Carlin, “Inside every cynical person is a disappointing idealist.”


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