What I have been reading lately has been filling my head and heart with big, looming words. Words like despair, disappointment, and injury.
Which is just super fun, you know what I mean? Pondering despair is all the rage these days.
But seriously, in taking a good look at these words, I have been so pushed to the arms of Christ, so encouraged to take heart with wide-open eyes. My heart has been charged with a fierce excitement to be strategic in my hopes, in my goals, and in my perspective.
I just want to share these thoughts with you, because when you find out that getting in the mud is really good for your skin, you tell a friend. Thinking about despair is the mud and your soul is the skin. (It’s a great analogy- except that getting muddy can be super fun and despair usually isn’t… but just roll with it.)
Let’s start with C.S. Lewis. He wrote this in the Screwtape Letters:
“Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury.”
… Shoot. He had it right. The precision with which this hits my soul almost makes me wish he hadn’t been quite so right.
Sad things can happen, and I can be sad about those things. There are things that I should be sad about. For certain things, however, there is a deeper issue at hand when I get wrapped up in the heartbreak. It’s more than just feeling sad, feeling disappointed: it’s a multi-layered disappointment regarding where my biggest hopes lie.
Dissapointment: the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.
Earlier this summer, I thought it would be fun to read some Kierkegaard, so I got his book titled A Sickness Unto Death. Let me tell you, reading Kierkegaard for “fun” is the most dramatic oxymoron. He is dense, tremendously abstract at times, and sometimes I straight up don’t know what he’s saying
While mildly off topic, let me share a paragraph from A Sickness Unto Death, just to illustrate the intensity of what it means to read this man’s work:
“In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self. Such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself of have been established by another. If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation.”
So yeah. Light reading, really fun, essentially brain candy.
But he does have some really interesting insights on how humans think. For instance, what happens when we face disappointment:
“For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar… In a deeper sense, it is not his failure to become Caesar that is intolerable, but it is this self that did not become Caesar that is intolerable.”
Translation: there will be times when we lose something, we are denied something, or we face sadness in our lives. But sometimes, on a level underneath the general sadness, there is an undercurrent of disappointment with our very selves for not being the type of person to get that promotion, or being the type of person that so-and-so wants to date, or being the type of person that wins the prize.
It is a disappointment with a situation that is also a disappointment with ourselves.
It is misfortune conceived as injury.
When our circumstances threaten how we see ourselves, our contentment with who God has made us or how thoroughly we believe in the trustworthiness of God’s character and promise, we are experiencing a misfortune through the eyes of someone injured.
For instance, let’s say a boy wants to date a girl, and it doesn’t work out. He was really into her, really hoping this could be an awesome something, and how it’s nothing.
Reaction #1: He is crushed, he is heartbroken, and he is angry at the world and at Jesus because he was doing everything right and should have been given this and there is no apparent reason for being denied this. It is a misfortune, but he is also injured- the loss is directed toward his very personhood, his very identity. He is in despair because he is not the boy that gets this particular girl; he is not funny enough or good looking enough or smart enough for it to work out. He feels betrayed by Jesus for feeling this pain, for undergoing this disappointment. He becomes bitter and finds it hard to trust Jesus in other areas of his life, and is frustrated that he feels this way.
Reaction #2: He is sad, maybe cries about it, but knows that he is still loved and cared for by Jesus and that ultimately, it will be okay. He knows that he is wanted by God and proclaimed worthy by God and that God isn’t finished with him. He is honest with Jesus about his pain, but learns to trust that Jesus wasn’t punishing him with the failed relationship and is in fact working it out for his good. He identifies lies that come his way, and barricades himself in truth.
Hear me, Christian: you can and will feel both reactions.
Reaction #2 would be really nice to have as a default mode. But, being human, we usually fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two; there is some injury, because of our entitlement and our pride and our reluctance to admit that we can’t earn anything before God, but the Spirit in us sparks a battle for trust and an awareness of our need to cling to the identity that Jesus imparts to us through his blood.
The trick is to have our great hope in Christ, so that all other hopes are lesser than Him.
When I am disappointed that I didn’t get X and the acquisition of X was more important to me than the acquisition of Christ, then the disappointment over X will crush me.
When I am disappointed that I didn’t get Y, but I hope more for Jesus and I know that this hope is never going to disappoint me because of Jesus’ perfect character and faithfulness and promises to me, then not getting Y stinks. It can really be painful. But I am not defined by it, not threatened by it in the same way.
So have your great hope in Jesus, and all the other little hopes can come and go without destroying you. If your big-H Hope is in Christ, you will never face disappointment that you can’t weather, because hope in him is hope eternally sure. Misfortune may come, but you are not injured by it. We may miss out on “getting to be Caesar”, but we will never find ourselves in despair over not being someone good enough to be Caesar.
I never expected to get so excited about what Jesus would teach me about despair. But I’m exceedingly glad.
Challenged, to examine where my hopes are.
Comforted, by knowing that hope in Jesus is certain.
On top of it all, I’m becoming glad for my disappointments- they remind me to put more and more of my hope in Jesus, who is infallible, and less and less of my hope in people and circumstances and things and myself, which are bound to fail and disappoint. And having my hope in Jesus is not just the secure route, but also the route that teems with abounding joy.
Watchman Nee writes in The Normal Christian Life:
“His finger will touch, point by point, everything that is not of Him, and He will say ‘This must go’. Are you willing?”
So, maybe I can learn more to see each disappointment as His finger, pointing at the things that are bound to pass away eventually, asking me to relinquish them now so I can know freedom. And Jesus, help me be willing.