I prayed. I believed. I trusted. I hoped. And in the end, I was disappointed.
This December, like many before it, God’s response to my prayers is no. No, your son will not be home by Christmas. No, that baby in your womb will not live. No, that marriage will not survive. Dashed hopes and unfulfilled longings are familiar companions to my holiday celebrations.
I know I am not alone. This is a particularly hard time of year for many. Because expectations are higher, we’re more easily disappointed. Traditions remind us of losses suffered, setting us up for grief. For many, this month will be as full of heartache as it is of joy.
“God, how could you be so unkind?” In my own losses, I find myself looking with confusion toward heaven in the same way my daughters look at me when I withhold what they ask for. Unable to see the bigger picture, my children are easily and quickly sent into despair. If only they knew what awaits them under the tree.
I cannot know what God knows. I cannot perceive His divine wisdom, His eternal perspective, His profound and un-superficial love. I know in theory. I affirm in mind. But my heart drags behind, slow to recognize and accept His faithfulness and His predisposition to do good to sinners. The aches of unfulfilled longings are a black shroud, darkening and blurring the abundance of God’s kindnesses present in each morning.
Deferred hope feels like coal under the tree, a confirmation that God has passed over you to shower His blessings on someone else this Christmas.
LONG LAY THE WORLD
The people of God ought to be experts at handling disappointment.
Abraham, promised to be father of many nations, is married to a barren, elderly woman. After God miraculously gives her a son, that son marries a woman who is barren for 20 years. Can you imagine how Isaac and Rebecca felt 15 years into marriage with no child? How will our family bring about many nations when we cannot even get pregnant? Five more years would go by before Isaac prayed and God finally answered.
The enslaved Israelites in Egypt would have wondered if God had abandoned them. Where is the favor of God now? We are slaves and our children are thrown into the nile. Miriam surely had hope as she watched her baby brother Moses be saved from the infanticide. But it won’t be for another 80 years that he returns to free his people. What did she think 10 years after Moses fled from Egypt? Would he ever return? Did he forget about his family now that he was safe from Pharoah in the wilderness?
By the end of 2 Kings, God’s people are taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar. God promised to restore these exiles to their land but He told them they must first spend 70 years in Babylon. Many would have died before this promised was fulfilled. How did the people feel 50 years into the exile? How sure did God’s promise seem when many Israelites had known no other home but Babylon?
Rarely do the people of God get exactly what they want, when they want it, in the way they want it. They are disappointed, left in waiting, crushed with grief and filled with anxiety.
And yet, amidst the hard God continues to make promises like: I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31), a ruler shall rise up from ancient days from Bethlehem and he shall be our peace (Micah 5), and he shall bear our iniquities and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53). In fact, in the very last words of the Old Testament, God promises to send a forerunner before the Long-Expected Promise-Fulfilling Messiah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:5-6)
What expectation Malachi’s words bring! He’s coming! God is sending Elijah to prepare the way. Finally!
100 years go by. Nothing.
100 more years. Nothing. Silence.
100 more years. Nothing. Silence. And more silence.
100 more years of excruciating, nerve-wracking quiet. Has He forgotten us forever? Maybe all His promises were just empty words the prophets said to keep us from despair. Surely they cannot be true. It’s been 400 years and God has ceased to speak. Surely He’s abandoned us.
Can you imagine waiting on God to fulfill a promise He made in the 1600s? That is the condition of God’s people when the angel Gabriel is sent on His mission in Luke 1:
“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children…” Luke 1:13, 16-17
Gabriel’s pronouncement to Zechariah breaks the silence and precedes his more famous proclamation to the teenage virgin in Nazareth. In just a matter of months a baby Boy from ancient days will enter the world He made. For long laid the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
THE BEST MONTH FOR HEARTACHE
Of all the months to experience heartache, few of us would select December as our chosen preference. But I’m beginning to think it’s God’s kindness that allows our disappointment to coincide with the celebration of the incarnation. For it’s in this season we remember God’s faithfulness to send a Savior at the perfect time. It’s in this season we remember God’s compassion to enter our world, becoming like us in all respects yet without sin. It’s in this season we remember the humility of Christ, emptying Himself and willingly choosing the form of a servant, being born in our likeness. What better to surround our temptations toward despair than a thousand reminders of a faithful, compassionate, and humble God.
We should not be surprised by hardship, as if something strange were happening. First, we are in the company of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Naomi, Ruth, Hannah, Samuel, David, Elijah, Elisha, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. None of their lives were a breeze. All had disappointment, loss, years of waiting, suffering, failure, disgrace, humiliation. Secondly, we are the followers of Jesus, a rejected and crucified Lord, who calls us to take up our own instrument of death and follow Him. The way is not an easy one. The people of God don’t get everything they want, when they want it, in the way they want it precisely because God is kind! He plans to give us so much more than what our small, limited, and short-sighted desires set their affections on.
Brothers, Sisters- Do not be alarmed or surprised by heartache this month. Grieve what ought to be grieved; cry out to God in your suffering. But also be grateful for the provision of this season and its reminders of a faithful, compassionate, and servant-hearted God who came to save us. A God who longs to give you so much more than what you want. He plans to awaken and satisfy superior desires, and sometimes disappointment is the first step toward that awakening.
Because God said no to letting me hold our first 3 babies, a longing for joy deeper than children arose. Because God said no to reconciling a marriage I prayed for, a desire for a their reconciliation with God arose. Because God is saying no to our son coming home in 2016, a longing for fellowship with Jesus in suffering is arising. And oh what delight my soul finds in being given the fullness of joy in His presence, in seeing dear family members reconciled to God, in daily abiding in Jesus and His love for me. The most precious gifts of God to me at Christmastime have all begun with disappointment. What used to be coal under the tree is now a door of opportunity, an invitation to trust God and pray for bigger things. May it be the same for you.