This week I’m exploring disappointment with God. Thanks for the vulnerable and encouraging feedback on my recent essays exploring burnout and grief. I’m grateful to journey with you.
My sister Abby sat with me this week and listened to me talk about the inner ocean of tears I described in “Grief.” Her loving presence and patient listening freed me to open my heart.
I found myself telling Abby about the suffering of children I have befriended – poverty, injury, abuse, abandonment, humiliation, disease, death. My tears welled up, and my voice was choked with sorrow.
I then confessed something that felt foreign and frightening and yet familiar in my life: “I think I’m wrestling with disappointment with God.”
Why would a loving Father allow his vulnerable children to suffer such terrible pain and evil? I told Abby that I sometimes want to say, “God, you’re such a screwup!”
Those tearful words came out of my mouth like a shard of glass that had cut into my soul. I could no longer bury it and needed to explore it.
Perhaps disappointment with God is a normal component of grief for a believer. We certainly find it in the Bible. For example, Job accused God of “uprooting my hope like a tree” (Job 19:6-12). But I hadn’t allowed myself to verbalize it until Abby’s listening helped me name it and begin facing it.
The next morning, I remembered reading a passage from Søren Kierkegaard in college. Kierkegaard talked about how many people wish they could return to the time of Jesus and witness his ministry firsthand. They assume that if they could just see him with their own eyes, then their faith would be whole and their doubts dissolved.
But Kierkegaard thought this assumption was an illusion. If we witnessed Jesus’s ministry firsthand, our faith would be even more mysterious and fragile. We would be confronted by Jesus’s raw humanity and the uncertainty of whether he was really God’s promised Messiah, especially in light of his terrible death.
According to the Gospels, the majority of the people who knew Jesus – or thought they knew Jesus – were ultimately disappointed with him. They wanted him to forcefully intervene in their suffering, free them from their oppressors, and launch a new era of health, wealth, and winning without end.
But Jesus didn’t do that. He radically disappointed his people’s expectations for the Messiah. Luke captures this very emotionally in his account of Jesus’s death.
We’re told that Jesus was “in anguish” and “overwhelmed with sorrow” in his final hours of freedom (Luke 22:44-45). Then Jesus gets arrested, badly tortured, and condemned to die. At last, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross with excruciating pain as yet another victim of imperial domination. Jesus is literally nailed to his society’s ugliest icon of failure, defeat, and disappointment.
Luke reports that the people watching Jesus die assaulted him with insults. The religious leaders sneer, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (23:35). Then the Roman soldiers mock him: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (23:37). Finally, the criminal dying next to Jesus desperately shouts, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39).
These three parties were enemies to one another. And yet they held the same assumption about “the Chosen One,” “the King,” “the Christ”: he doesn’t suffer. The real Messiah miraculously puts an end to suffering, or he’s a fraud. Suffering and death were not an option.
But Jesus disappoints. He hangs there and dies with his arms outstretched in naked suffering. The only thing Jesus does is cry out for God to forgive the very people who were condemning him. He asks for this hideous place of injustice and agony to become a place of freedom and healing (23:34). After that, Jesus simply commits his spirit to God and dies (23:46).
Like Kierkegaard, I try to imagine if I were standing there watching Jesus die and hearing these people shower him with ridicule. Could I really believe that this suffering victim was God’s personal answer to the world’s problems? Or would I also be overwhelmed with disappointment and condemn Jesus as a failure?
The early Christian movement claimed that Jesus’s suffering was exactly God’s personal response to the world’s problems. But they thought it required a theological paradigm-shift that I am still wrestling to accept: God saves us by suffering with us, until resurrection surprises us. Rather than taking us out, God enters in and binds himself to us in our darkest place.
With Jesus on the cross, God experiences atrocious injustice, physical agony, psychological anguish, and spiritual despair, and whispers, “I’m here too. You are not alone. Nothing can separate us. Healing is available even where it seems totally impossible. Trust me.”
Paul – a religious terrorist turned ambassador of love after me met Jesus – articulated this vision of Jesus’s death in his letter to Rome. Paul declares that if God was willing to enter into such radical suffering with us, “how will he not also, along with [Jesus], graciously give us all things?” For Paul, the love embodied in Christ’s suffering was so total that it proves there is no limit to God’s commitment to “us all.” Paul asks, then, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:32-35).
Paul’s faith is absolute: “[nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). The most painful experiences that are seemingly God-forsaken are already God-embraced “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The One who was named God-with-Us at his birth is also God-with-us in his death and resurrection.
I’m still working through the confession I made to Abby. Is God a screwup in the face of suffering children?
Our answer to this ultimate question depends on our expectation for God.
If we insist that God be an untouchable Fixer, who magically stops all of our suffering right now, then Jesus will clearly disappoint us and we will crucify him with the words, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But if we embrace the God who suffers with us and raises the dead in his own time, Jesus promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God. (I find it striking that the resurrected Jesus doesn’t promise to prevent our suffering; he simply promises to be “with [us] to the very end” (Matthew 28:20).)
Disappointment with God takes on a new meaning if we embrace Christ’s cross. Our disappointment is truly with God – shared and embraced by God in Jesus. Our suffering is also God’s suffering, and God promises to heal it at last (Colossians 1:24; Revelation 21:4). In every humiliating rejection, every excruciating pain, every atrocious injustice, every heart-wringing anguish, the crucified Jesus whispers, “I am with you there too. You are not alone. I will hold you until resurrection comes. Trust me.”
This is Jesus’s promise to the suffering children I have met and to each of us children who grieve in our cruciform world. If you are wrestling with disappointment with God today, I invite you to join me in a simple prayer:
God you are here too and promise healing. Nothing can separate us from your love. I trust you.