“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 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, 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 another. 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 mediocrity?
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 that attitude.
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 hope.
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.