Disappointment with God

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

We have before us this week an invitation to take up a topic in our sermons that is one of the most recurring, important, and difficult topics in the Christian faith and, simultaneously, one of the least spoken about: disappointment with God.

I will say before we even get started that we’ll need to take this matter up with care. Some Christians have been taught that it is simply unfaithful to name disappointment with God, as if there is no surer mark of a lack of faith. Others perhaps don’t think it’s unfaithful but it will still feel to them a little unseemly. Faith, we’ve picked up somewhere along the way, is the opposite of doubt, which is what makes talking about our disappointment with God so difficult…and so important.

I could, of course, point to any number of Psalms where the songwriters of Israel name their complaints, grievances, disappointments, and doubts. As you read these various Psalms of lament you come to realize that naming our disappointments and doubts is integral to the life of faith and, indeed, part of the necessary process of being renewed in faith. Or I could point to Mark’s (and Matthew’s) depiction of the cross, where Jesus himself — borrowing the words of one of those powerful Psalms — cries aloud his own great disappointment and despair.

But on this day I think there could be no better passage with which to explore this facet of our faith-lives than the confession & rebuke of Peter — and both halves matter. (Which means we should start at the beginning of the scene at 8:27.) Because if there is one emotion we can imagine Peter feeling after he is rebuked by his Lord — the Lord he so desperately wants to protect from harm — it’s disappointment. Anger, perhaps also; embarrassment, likely; but at the head of all of these is disappointment. Disappointment precisely because Peter has just named — perhaps just realized in the flash of inspired insight — that this man, Jesus, to whom he has pledged himself, is indeed God’s promised Messiah, the living and breathing hope of Israel.

Which of course is why Peter reacts so strongly to Jesus’ prediction of his fate. He simply cannot imagine that the Messiah will suffer, let alone be killed. So great is his shock, perhaps, that he can’t even hear the part about rising on the third day. All he hears is the word — the awful, unthinkable word — that the Hope of Israel will be killed. And so he protests…and is rebuked.

I think a lot of our people feel that way when they voice their own disappointments with God — that it is wrong to doubt God; that they are wrong to do so. And some of them have probably been told this verbally. And yet I want to suggest that there’s not something wrong with Peter. He may be mistaken about how events will play out and he surely has more to learn about the God he worships and the Messiah he follows, but he is not wrong in assuming that God’s Son should suffer no harm. Everything he has been taught and everything he knows about God screams that this just can’t be true.

And, to be perfectly honest, do we really think we would we have been any different? I mean, who would imagine that the God of heaven and earth would redeem Israel and the world by dying a criminal’s death? Who could predict that God’s strength would be revealed most fully in weakness or that God’s judgment would be rendered so completely in undeserved and unexpected mercy? It is, plain and simple, unthinkable.

So also with us. We are not wrong to wonder where God is when we learn our beautiful child has autism, our beloved partner is sick unto death, our prized relationship has crumbled, our dream job — and with it so much of our identity — has been eliminated, or when any number of other disappointments and disasters fall upon us. Because everything in us teaches us that there things are not what God wants, or desires, or wills. No, we are not wrong to be disappointed with God.

But we may have more to learn. Because the God revealed in Jesus — and this is nowhere more true than in Mark’s stark account — shows up always and only in the broken places of our lives and world. Like Peter, we are disappointed because we do not get the God we want, the God we’ve been taught to worship, the God we have a right to expect.

But, also like Peter, in Jesus and his cross and resurrection we discover, not the God we may want, but the God we desperately need. The God whose sheds glory to join us in our shame; the God who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth; the God who abandons strength — at least strength as we imagine it — so that God can join us, embrace us, hold onto us, and love and redeem us at our places of weakness. The God we meet in Jesus, that is, comes for those broken in body, mind, or spirit to be one with us and for us. This God will understand our disappointments, and even expects them. Moreover, this God will meet us in them to teach us anew and again that it is at the places of our brokenness that we sense, meet, and are enveloped most fully in God’s strong love.

Perhaps this what Jesus meant by saying that those who want to save their life — along with all our expectations for what God should be like — will lose it and those who are able to shed those expectations and the lives they’ve built around them will find life, life abundant as it is true.

So perhaps what we can do this week, Working Preacher, is to invite people to summon their courage and name their disappointment with God — whether aloud, in writing, or in silent prayer — and, first, tell them not to feel ashamed or embarrassed and, second, remind them not only that God can take their disappointment but also that God has promised to meet them in those disappointments and stay with them until they — and we — come out onto the other side of disappointment to resurrected faith. And maybe there’s a third thing we can do as well. Knowing full well how hard it can be to name and experience our sorrows and disappointments, we can tell our people that we will be praying for them, supporting them and giving thanks for them in prayers.

The reason I think all this matters is because when we are disappointed with God we feel cut off and isolated — from God, certainly, but also from our community of faith, because we aren’t sure they can handle our strong emotions. Yet it is precisely when we are disappointed and discouraged that we need the community of faith, the Body of Christ, the most. Which is why I think it’s important to talk about, so that we can begin to imagine that church isn’t the place you go to when you have it all together but instead is the place you run to when life is falling apart.

Thanks for considering all this, Working Preacher. You, I know, also have disappoints and challenges to attend to. Some of those may have to do with your congregation, others with matters at home or in the world. Whatever they are, know that I am praying for you…and giving thanks for you and your faithful ministry. What you do matters, and I’m so grateful that you’re doing it! Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,

PS: A quick thanks to those of you who are checking out — and recommending — “In the Meantime.” There’s been a great response so far and I hope to continue offering resources that help folks see all of their lives through the lens of faith. This week: some conversation in the wake of the Academy Awards about faith and film and an article on The “Middle Zone” of Preaching.