We all have disappointments in life – things our hearts were set on that just didn’t pan out. God does promise to give us the desires of our hearts if we’re following Him (Ps 37:4), but He doesn’t promise to give them to us on our time table, or through the avenues we choose.  His way is always best in the end, but that doesn’t make the immediate disappointments hurt any less.

Then there are those times when bad things happen to us that God had no part of.  These are the things that God specifically lists as a curse in the Old Testament – things like disease, death, destruction, destitution, and the like (Deuteronomy 28:15-38). They are listed as part of the curse of the law – but Jesus has redeemed us from the curse of the law, so God doesn’t do these things.  When these things happen now, it is because there is an enemy who “prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8-9), or because the world itself is fallen and waiting for redemption (Rom 8:20-22), or because of the free will of sinful people (Ps 37) – either our own or that of others who hurt us.

There are usually only a few ways that most people handle disappointments and sorrow: 1) they lie to themselves and pretend they never wanted (that thing) very much in the first place; 2) they run away, keeping themselves otherwise occupied so that they never feel the loss (and this includes addictions of all forms); 3) they get really mad, either at God or fate or whatever they blame; or 4) they grieve.

The last one is the only path to true healing.

Lying to Yourself (Denial)

This is the “sour grapes” approach… “Well, fine, I never wanted it that much anyway!” It seems to work on the surface for awhile… the problem with this is simply that, well, it’s a lie.  Pretending you feel one way when in fact you feel another way entirely is suppression.  And the thing suppressed doesn’t go away… it gets buried deeper.  It’s like getting a splinter in your foot, and instead of having it removed, you shove it down inside the flesh so you can’t see it anymore, and just learn to walk with a limp.

This is often where emotional handicaps (such as depression) come from.  We are injured and isolated, and we don’t see that there’s anything we can do except learn to live with it – the “stiff upper lip” approach.  We move beyond blaming our needs to a denial of our needs.  There’s something we’re not admitting to ourselves, and the depression is a symptom of it. It’s trying to remind us that we need to enter the healing process.

The solution, of course, is to submit to having your foot cut open so that the splinter can be extracted and the cut can heal.  Jesus says in Mark 8, If you try to preserve the things you want in life (by pretending everything is okay when it isn’t) then you will lose them.  But if you willingly lay them down for the sake of the Kingdom, then they’ll be given to you.  As long as the splinter is still there, coping and “getting by” is the best you can ever do.  But that isn’t God’s best for you.

In “The Law of Happiness,” Dr Henry Cloud writes, “…grief allows you to let go of what you cannot have in order to make room in your heart for what you can have.  Those who don’t feel safe enough to grieve find themselves holding on to lost hopes and relationships.  Then it’s difficult for them to seek out new attachments, since the ghosts of the past still occupy their emotional life”.

Jesus promises that when we let go, the exchange he offers is beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:3).

Running Away (and Addictions)

An addiction is anything that we run to in order to escape from unpleasant thoughts or emotions.  (That’s usually how all the physiologic addictions start, too.)  The obvious ones are substances, food, sex, gambling, shopping, and work (or busyness in general).  We can also be addicted to a person (that’s called codependence).  We can compulsively fill our lives with noise so that silence never has the opportunity to ask its uncomfortable questions.  We can park ourselves in front of the TV every night after work to escape from all the problems we don’t know how to solve.  Distraction techniques are very popular.

These approaches all have one thing in common: they help us to avoid our pain, but they don’t heal it.  Because of that, they all enslave us sooner or later.

But when Jesus first announced his ministry, he said it like this: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa 61:1-2).  He came to heal, not just to offer a band-aid.  He came to set the captives free.

Once a hurt has been grieved and released, there’s no longer any need to run from it, and the necessity for addictive distractions goes away.

Anger at God

I tried this one.  My dad died when I was fifteen. I didn’t stop believing in God (I’d studied too much apologetics to do that, so I knew He was there,) but instead I decided that He was like an army general who made sacrifices for the greater good… and sometimes, guess what?  It’s your turn to get sacrificed.

Because this was my basic philosophy, I therefore assumed that if I wanted any happiness, anything good to happen in my life, I had to take matters into my own hands.  I became a control freak.

Only problem was, I wasn’t in control of anything that truly mattered to me.

The moment I got set free was the moment I admitted this, to myself and to God.  And that was when He showed me who He really is.  He doesn’t do bad things to us; death and disease are a result of one of those three things listed above (Satan, a fallen world, free will, or some combination of the above).  But because He’s amazing, He can take all things (even the bad) and work them together for His purposes (Prov 16).  Once I turned to Him instead of away from Him, He was there to comfort me (Psalm 34).  One of my favorite verses to cling to even now is Deut 33:12: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields them all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”

I found out that “The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knows them that trust in him” (Nahum 1:7).  I found out that if I seek Him, He will grant me the desires of my heat (Ps 37:4), but I probably can’t grant them to myself, no matter how hard I try.  Giving up and letting go was freedom.

Grief

Grief happens when we admit that what happened to us hurt, and we allow ourselves to feel sad about it.  God set up grief as a method for allowing us to accept those things we can’t do anything about.  Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that grief is what allows you to be comforted (Matt 5).  If you’re too busy denying and suppressing your pain, though, comfort can’t get in.

I see this one all the time.  Patients come in with physical problems that started around the same time that someone they loved passed away, or they went through a divorce, lost a job, or had some other major life event happen to them.  They subsequently developed insomnia, depression, digestive disorders, crippling fatigue, or a full-blown autoimmune disease.  Then I ask what they did to grieve the loss, and they tell me they just do their best to keep going, because they can’t change the situation — “so I just have to live with it, don’t I?”

It’s really no secret that “the body weeps tears that the eyes cannot shed.”  Grief is an important season, and without it, we will never quite function as well as we did before.  But (again quoting Henry Cloud and John Townsend in “How People Grow”): “We basically need two things for grieving.  First, we need love, support, and comfort… Second, we need structure.  We need time and space for grieving.  We need structured activities.  This is why good support groups that meet at a regular time and do regular tasks are effective in getting people through grief”.

Grief isn’t something we can do alone.  We need the love and support of others to allow us to intentionally face pain.  Although no other human can ever fully understand how you feel (Prov 14:10), God called us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).  Grief involves letting ourselves fall apart, and in order to do that in safety, we need God and others to hold us up.

  • Ps 55:22: “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall.”
  • 1 Pet 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
  • Ps 62:8: Trust in God at all times and pour your heart out to Him, because He is your refuge.

When we let ourselves feel sad for our losses in the context of relationship with God and others, true healing becomes possible.  God says that sorrow lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning, and mourning will turn to dancing (Ps 30).  Isaiah 61:3 says that He will “comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, A garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).