disappointment as an act of love

It was 2004, just a couple of weeks after my sixteenth birthday. I had been playing in a volleyball tournament out of town, and a teammate’s mom was dropping me off at home. We pulled into the driveway and saw my grandpa’s car parked to the side. Grandpa Cecil lived in a rural town a little over an hour away, and he would often stop by unplanned. He drove a couple of different vehicles, but this was the 1985 silvery-blue Ford Thunderbird that was my grandmother’s primary driver before she passed away. I walked in the front door, dropped my gear bag on the floor, and greeted my mom.

“I guess Grandpa Cecil is here?” I asked.
“Actually, he’s not,” Mom replied.
“Then why is his car parked outside?”
“Well, he dropped it off and asked if you would wash it for him.”
A look of confusion came across my face. “Uh… why?”
“He said, after you wash it, it’s your car.”

My parents were both standing there, grinning, holding out the keys to me. And, if I were a respectful, grateful daughter, I would have started jumping up and down excitedly.

But I didn’t. I tried to fake some excitement, though apparently I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment, as my parents knew the truth right away.

Just like any other teenager who is about to turn sixteen, I had daydreamed about the type of car I wanted. I researched vehicles online and daily checked the classifieds in the newspaper. I knew we didn’t have a ton of money to spend on a vehicle, and to be honest I don’t think I knew what an appropriate amount of money might be for them to spend. But I was hopeful for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Honda CR-V, or a Chevy Silverado, even if it were several years older.

So the twenty year old metallic blue granny car in the driveway was not what I expected and not what I wanted. It had over 200,000 miles on it and the A/C didn’t work. I learned how to check my oil level and transmission fluid right away, because both would often leak and need to be filled up weekly. Even if you floored the gas pedal, it took a good 10-Mississippi-seconds to get from 20mph to 40 mph.

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. Our expectations aren’t always met. And if we aren’t careful, disappointment can jade us and break us and cause us to live a life resigned to just getting by.

I’ve struggled to understand what it means to have hope in discouraging circumstances. The job that didn’t work out the way I thought, the loneliness I can’t shake, the health situation that results in more questions than answers.

One definition of hope reads: “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” I always want hope to feel like that thrill in the anticipation leading up to something big: the slow, intense moments just before a first kiss, the silence before a major announcement, the pretty presents wrapped under a Christmas tree. But when I walk through a discouraging season–the times I need hope more than ever­–resulting disappointment changes my perspective, and deciding to hope can feel like allowing someone to beat me in the shins with a baseball bat over and over. Hope can hurt.

I tend to assume I have done something wrong in the area of hope when it results in disappointment. Does disappointment mean my hope was misplaced? I know my hope should be in the Lord, which Romans 5:5 promises will never put us to shame or disappoint us. Then how do I hope that the Lord will work and answer prayer without risking that disappointment, if he chooses to act differently than I am asking him to?

I typically associate a sense of desperation with hope: I am hoping because I want something to change­­. That desperation combined with disappointment then leads to despair, an all-consuming, self-centered, miserable place to land. The fatalistic thoughts of what if this never gets better or I can’t imagine continuing to walk through life this way can distort my view of God and his sovereign hand in my life. And despair is the indicator that my hope is in actually in the gift (new job, pregnancy, friendships, healing, etc.) rather than the Giver.

Hope is hard. I want to see it as “worth it,” but in all honesty it is simpler at times to let go and not get my hopes up.

And in this thinking, my options are either devastation or apathy: I could hope for that change and risk it falling through, or I could stop hoping for things and thus stop trusting the Lord to work at all.

But I don’t want to settle for one of those options. Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And a few verses later, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” If hope describes God’s character, and if it’s something Paul prayed that the Romans would abound in, then I want it, too!

How can I abound in hope, not worrying about what happens if it falls through? How can I recognize that that even if I am disappointed, God’s love doesn’t change or fail?

Here’s what I have begun to see: perhaps accepting disappointment is the key to understanding hope.

It’s not a lack of God’s love or care for me. Rather, it’s a sign of his care for me. He allows for my disappointment in order to make way for his (better) plans.

With this realization, I am beginning to change the way I hope. I am feeling the depth of my need for God to work, but I am also recognizing the security I have in him, even if the result is disappointment. I am recognizing what it means that he is good with the whole picture in mind, not simply “good in my limited perspective” or “good in relation to my list of wants and wishes.”

While God is a God of hope, he’s not a genie, nor is he Santa Claus. He’s not telling me to hope in him so that I can have my best life now. God is able, and God is loving, but he is also omniscient. He knows what I don’t, so the things I am hoping for may not be for my big-picture good.

I want to know God’s love through disappointment, not equate disappointment with a lack of love.

When my parents gave me that Thunderbird (which I and my friends named Stella), I was disappointed, but I didn’t doubt their love for me. I knew it wasn’t a limitation of their love that kept them from giving me the car I wanted. While it was related to a limitation of finances (they paid my grandpa ten bucks for that car, simply to have an amount to put on the bill of sale), it was, in fact, a demonstration of their love that they didn’t go into debt or spend all of their savings on a vehicle for me. They were providing for the cumulative needs of our family. They had a long-term picture of how long I would drive my first car. They wanted to make me happy, but they were also practical. And, in the end, I got a job the next summer and bought my dad’s 1987 Ford Bronco, a much cooler vehicle in my opinion, and passed Stella on to my sister.

Hope does not disappoint or put us to shame when it’s in the right thing–Christ alone. When our hope is in him, we see him as the one who satisfies our desires. When our hope is in him, we also understand that not all satisfaction will be experienced this side of heaven.

It takes faith to repeatedly believe that God could do “it” (whatever that “it” may be). It takes faith to believe that God even wants to answer my prayer. But if we never allow ourselves to hope in him, we will never experience the joy of dependence on him or the security of entrusting our desires to an all-powerful and always-loving God.

And when I find myself disappointed, I want to bring the disappointment to him, recognizing that I will experience his love in greater ways as I surrender my hopes to his sovereign hand.

“You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” –Psalm 145:16

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