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Disappointed by God

In those days between Good Friday and Easter morning, I find myself tracing over the bruises that the crucifixion left—not just on the slain body of Jesus, but on the devastated souls of His disciples.

You and I come into Holy Week knowing the all spoilers, so it’s easy to miss the living trauma of the middle of that story. We have trouble imagining the silence and the disappointment of those chaotic inner days when Christ’s followers were so shocked and so hurt, they weren’t sure what to do with themselves.

Technically, they shouldn’t have been surprised; before His death Jesus was clear about what was about to go down.  He said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

There it is. Step by step. But James and John seem to miss all that. They don’t even say, “Oh, Jesus, that’s kind of bad for you; You’re going to be betrayed, and then you are going to die.” They’re too busy calling shotgun in the coming kingdom for the news to even register.

Christ’s followers were so into what they thought He was about to do for them that they got obsessive. They put aside aside careers, relationships, and reputations, hoping to get in on this next big thing before it hit. (Think Apple stock in 1981.) Then they watched their one big hope humiliated and killed.

If you’re watching election coverage this year, you’ve seen fear-driven masses, drunk on promises candidates are making to save America. Imagine if one of those political saviors suddenly crashed and burned. Let’s say he’s convicted of a crime and thrown into prison for life. The whole world is suddenly laughing at the man who was once your strongest source of earthly confidence. Not only is your leader gone, but your entire cause also becomes garbage.

But Jesus wasn’t just promising national safety. He was more than a President. He was a sage, a counselor, a physician, a king. He was everything you’ve always wanted—and then He seemed to just break down overnight. Imagine that you’ve seen Him beaten to the point of being unrecognizable. You’ve seen Him hanging naked on a cross. He doesn’t even fight back. He’s passive.

Then what? What do you do in those days when it looks like Jesus has lost? Do you wonder if He is some sort of fraud? Do you assume that He is just the last loser in a lifetime of disappointments?

There have been times when I’ve felt like God has disappointed me. Sometimes that’s happened through a church leader who has used His name to promote something cruel or deceptive. Other times a friendship has gone sour, or a hero has talked about values that he wasn’t willing to live out. Sometimes time has just passed while I waited for God to step in and rescue me. I mean, I’ve been standing there with the Egyptians at my back, with my arms up in the air like Charlton Heston, waiting for the Red Sea to split open—and finally I have had to just wade in and start doggie paddling. When that has happened, the sound of the Egyptians laughing at my faith has burned almost as much as my middle-aged muscles.

But there’s a worse disappointment still that’s come when I have seen my own worst faults exposed. What do you do when you come face-to-face with your own religious hypocrisy? How do you move forward out of that?

Such weird emotions have risen up in the aftermath of these situations. I’ve embraced bitterness, and cynicism, and anger. I’ve sat in my parked van, crying, pounding the steering wheel, and yelling, “I would NEVER treat a daughter of mine like this. Don’t I matter to You at all? Why do You keep dropping me? Why don’t You love me?” I’ve wondered if He even existed.

I’ve also grown so angry with Him that I’ve decided to justify sins that helped medicate disappointment. I’ve tried to use pleasure to fix the pain His silence has left—at least until that sin turned sour and made things worse.

Or, I’ve let a lukewarm, postmodern, pseudo-Christianity take the place of real belief. I’ve embraced a loose cut spirituality that lets me stay in control. I’ve worshiped a “Jesus-lite” who would never actually let me be thrown into a lion’s den, or want me to survive several years of a broken marriage, or let me feel lonely, or let me feel abandoned, or let me get sawed in half for the gospel by watching one of my children live in danger. Chasing your bliss has popped on a plastic Jesus mask in certain corners of evangelicalism, and when you’re hurting, that’s a tempting god to chase.

But no matter how I’ve tried to patch up disappointment, my jimmy-rigged solutions have never worked for very long. After I’ve run into a concrete wall hard enough, I’ve finally come to the point of having to just admit the honest truth—that sometimes it’s just the Saturday after Good Friday, and my hope is lying in a tomb waiting for Resurrection morning.

The book of Job states, “When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; and when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” In other words, I can’t see what He’s even doing here! He’s invisible!

That sort of reliance comes hard. We tend to have an allergic reaction to mystery, to patience, to submission, and to pain. It’s easy enough to wave our palm branches, and shout, and ask to sit in the important chair next to the King. But when we talk about having an actual authority, well, a real Sovereign can pinch. Tim Keller has said that “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself,” which means following a real God is going to get bumpy some days.

A litany that our church used last Sunday begins like this:

Today we have cheered you on as our champion and hailed you as our hero. Forgive us tomorrow when our enthusiasm wanes. Today we have entrusted you to rescue us from hurting circumstances. Forgive us Tuesday when we think we can take care of ourselves. Today we have made you the centerpiece of our very existence. Forgive us Wednesday when we forget to remember who you are. Today we have called out to you loudly by name. Forgive us Thursday when we pretend that we’ve never met you. Today we have stared at you with the star struck eyes of fans and groupies. Forgive us Friday when we avert our eyes because it’s too painful to see you on the cross. Today we have expressed our unsuppressed hopefulness in the future you have in store for us. Forgive us Saturday when we believe all is lost.

It was good for me to read those words, because no matter how fervently I welcome Jesus, when challenges come, I usually stumble.

Sure, I believe that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it can’t do much good, but still I wonder if every caterpillar somehow believes that it is spinning a coffin instead of a womb.

Even St. Paul the mighty and wise once admitted that his own troubles had shaken him to the core. He wrote:

“I think you ought to know, dear brothers, about the hard time we went through in Asia. We were really crushed and overwhelmed, and feared we would never live through it. We felt we were doomed to die and saw how powerless we were to help ourselves; but that was good, for then we put everything into the hands of God, who alone could save us, for he can even raise the dead.”

What do you think of that angle? He feared. He was overwhelmed. He thought he would die it got so bad.

The older I get, the more I see the grace of God as a spectrum. There are patches of darker shades and patches of lighter tones. There are long years of death interspersed with moments of life. We get disappointed. We get worn out with delay. We wonder what in the heck is going on.

And like major and minor tones working together, God is working a hymn in all of that, because “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.” (II Corinthians 4:17-18)

George MacDonald’s Lilith is one of my favorite books, because it shows a man walking in two worlds simultaneously. A music room in this dimension might be a bed of roses in the next, and this one dude kind of exists in both places at once somehow.

I think something similar is true of us. But what we have trouble believing is that in the realm of the unseen, we are engraved on God’s palms. No matter how desperate things feel in visible land, no matter how abandoned and rejected I start to believe I am, He cannot forget about me. He’s taken on flesh and let it get run clean through with the love of me.

He cannot forget about you, either. You were written on His palms way back in the time of Isaiah, hundreds of years before Jesus said His purchase of you was finished on Good Friday. For so long He had planned on those nail pocks, on being scarred permanently with His passion for you. You’ve been in His mind from the beginning of the beginning. He’s always loved you. He always will.

The litany our church used on Sunday finished like this:

Today we have been so certain of the ways you will set us free. Restore us Sunday when we are startled and awed by your rising.

Restore us when we are startled and awed that the story is true.

Remember being a kid on Christmas morning, and how you kids would all shout, “Santa came!” I mean, you knew he would. He came every year. But still, there the extravagance was before you! Piles of goodness in plain sight! You could get your fingers on it all at last.

Easter is a nod to when we can finally get our fingers on the resurrection. We have the Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide us meanwhile, and yet we groan with all creation for more of the good we have already. We live through light and momentary troubles (which feel everything but light or momentary sometimes), fixing our eyes on what is unseen. We wrestle with disappointment. We wrestle with patience. We fail, and quit believing, then find ourselves believing again.

I often find my spirit crying out in this season of middle earth with prayers that go something like this: “Oh, Hidden God. Alight, Thou, in me. In this spectrum of earthly life that moves from disorientation to bliss, in these bruised indigos of doubt, and in the giddy oranges of spiritual revelry, deep calls to Deep. I am fragile. I am frail. My every single death calls for Your life. Alight, Thou, in me. Burn bright, Thou, within.”

“Alight Thou in Me” Music by Ron Block and Jeff Taylor Words by Rebecca Reynolds Ellie Holcomb – lead vocal Jeff Taylor – piano, accordion, bass accordion Ron Block – guitars, banjos, lead vocal on choruses Stuart Duncan – fiddle Barry Bales – bass John Mock – bodhran

Soft bends the morn, Slight and grey, Bruised by the span of the night.

Fragile and frail, Dust to dust. Deep calls to Deep (calls to Deep) (To Deep.)

Alight Thou in me, Thy spectrum a hymn, Vision indwelling, Burn bright, Thou, within.

Blown evensong, Poor and dim, Worn to a sigh in the loss.

Flutter and fall, Hush to stone. Death calls to life (calls to Life) (To Life.)

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