Dealing with Disappointment
--"What kinds of things disappoint you?" I once asked
a friend out of curiosity. "Yuck! Don't ask me that!"
she exclaimed. "I'd rather focus on the positive!"
Disappointments can be quite painful, regardless of their magnitude.
My friend Nancy1 terminated a long-term relationship
in which she'd struggled for decades. Harsh words, bitter memories,
and daily friction had taken their toll. "I've never felt
the emotional closeness I hear other couples describe," she
explained. Hopes of deep satisfaction became a tarnished nightmare,
and broken dreams prompted her to end the relationship.
Another friend, Bob, lost a job he loved. His friends and coworkers
appreciated his accomplishments, but his supervisor seemed strangely
distant, offering naïve criticism and little praise. Feeling
throttled and under-appreciated at an otherwise satisfying job
frustrated Bob immensely. Losing his livelihood was even worse.
Then there's Susan. She knew something was wrong before the doctor
even spoke. "Your biopsy shows a malignancy," he explained.
"A lumpectomy or mastectomy might remove this cancer."
The next few moments were a swirl of confusion as Susan struggled
to grasp what was happening. This wasn't supposed to be part of
her charmed life: always class president, cheerleader, socialite,
proud wife and parent. Cancer happened to other people. How was
she supposed to handle this tragedy?
When I survey my own life, I realize I'm no different than my
friends. We all experience disappointment: troubled
relationships, poor job evaluations or test scores, death of a
loved one, health challenges, social snubs, athletic loss.
Disappointment can compound into depression or despair, which
may lead to serious consequences. UCLA psychologist James C. Coleman
lists several examples. "Shipwreck victims who lose hope
may die after a few days," he says, "even though physiologically
they could have survived many days longer." He notes that
despair can contribute to suicide, while hopelessness bred by
poverty might manifest as apathy. "Values, meaning, and hope
appear to act as catalysts" for mobilizing energy and finding
satisfaction. Without them, Coleman reports, life can seem futile.2
HOW TO KEEP HOPE ALIVE
1. Adjust your expectations. Not every team
wins the Super Bowl or Olympic gold. Not every applicant gets
the job. Illness happens. Not every marriage soars. It might make
sense not to set your goals so high. But who wants to settle for
On the one hand, hope can be misplaced. If your highest hope
is in achievement, you will eventually be disappointed—success
is transient. King Solomon wrote, "As I looked at everything
I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless
. . . like chasing the wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:11). On the
other hand, if we're so afraid of disappointment that we lower
our hopes, we can close ourselves off from what God may have in
mind. The proper balance can be elusive.
2. Learn from your defeats. Disappointment and
failure build character and patience, when allowed to do so. They
can teach you to win and lose with grace, an increasingly lost
art these days. Romans 5:3-4 says it like this: "We can rejoice,
too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they
are good for us—they help us learn to endure. And endurance
develops strength of character . . . " Inner spiritual strength,
the kind resulting from sincere faith in God, helps cultivate
Teenage Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm to
a 1,500-pound shark. Her upbeat response startles observers. "This
was God's plan for my life," says Hamilton, "and I'm
going to go with it." Three months after the mishap, she
was back surfing competitively—she regards her tragedy as
an opportunity to inspire others with God's care.
3. Build friendships. God often ministers to
our hurts through other people. It can be tempting to put up walls
when you're feeling especially vulnerable, but if you shut out
friends, you could be sealing off healing and hope. During a particularly
lonely time in my life, I was very glad to have close friends.
My wife was divorcing me, some coworkers had betrayed my trust,
and I had a cancer scare. Two days before the divorce was final,
a longtime friend called to see how I was doing. I wept into the
phone as I described how my world was crashing in. Knowing that
my friend was there—and that he cared—gave me strength
and hope to endure.
4. Go deeper with God. Friends are essential,
but humans can let us down and err in judgment. I had earlier
discovered that God would never desert me. He said, "I will
never fail you. I will never forsake you" ( Hebrews 13:5).
His friendship had sustained me over the years amidst criticism
from friends and adversaries, financial challenges, educational
disappointment, and broken relationships. God had a good track
record; it made sense to trust Him.
Paul found strength and hope through his friendship with God.
He wrote, "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?
Since God did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us
all, won't God, who gave us Christ, also give us everything else?"
(Romans 8:31-32) Paul was convinced nothing could separate him
from Christ's love: "Death can't, and life can't. The angels
can't, and the demons can't. Our fears for today, our worries
about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can't keep God's love
away" (v. 38). The more we stake our security in God's enduring
love, the less power disappointments will have to undermine our
5. Focus on ultimate hope. During that dark
time in my life, my mentor reminded me of what Paul said in this
same letter: "God causes everything to work together for
the good of those who love God" (v. 28). That "hasn't
been repealed yet," my friend said. He was right.
While we sometimes get stuck focusing on the here and now, our
present situation isn't the end of the story. Paul knew how disappointing
life could seem—we only have to read his letters to know
that. Yet he never quit encouraging his fellow believers to see
the big picture in the midst of their trials and hold on to their
supreme hope in God. He wrote, "Therefore we do not lose
heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are
being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles
are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them
all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal"
( 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). God's plans are nearly always bigger
than we think. The sting of our relatively short-term disappointments
in no way compares to the ultimate hope we have in Him.
First Peter 1:13 counsels, "Prepare your minds for action;
be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given
you when Jesus Christ is revealed." In other words, wonderful
things will come our way once Jesus returns to this troubled planet.
But even now, God offers compassion, forgiveness, and strength
to those who trust in Him. Relationship with Him gives us the
great hope that empowers us to face any disappointment.
1. Names and some details have been altered to protect privacy.
2. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life.
Copyright © 2005 In Touch
Ministries. Reprinted with permission.
is an award-winning author, journalist, and university lecturer
with Probe.org who has spoken on
six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and
Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities,
Rusty’s special interest is communicating Christ to secular
audiences in sensitive, culturally appropriate ways. To view a
wide variety of seeker- and skeptic-friendly articles that you
can use for free on your website to help open hearts to the Gospel,
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