Life is often disappointing. And therefore disappointment can so easily be a feeling that comes to dominate our lives. That’s why I think it’s brilliant that pastor John Hindley has reflected on this issue, and how the Bible addresses it, and written a new book called Dealing with Disappointment – How to know joy when life doesn’t feel great. John has kindly taken some time out to answer a few questions on the blog about the issues covered by the book.
First-off John, some people might recognise your name as being the author of Serving without Sinking, which is arguably the best book written on how to play underwater tennis – sorry, lame joke. But tell us a bit about yourself, for those who haven’t got to know you.
I like the joke! It’s often referred to as Sinking without Serving, which is a whole different issue. As for me, I am a Yorkshireman originally but you wouldn’t know it from my accent. I grew up in a Christian home, moving around the country with my dad’s work as a bank manager. I would always have believed the facts of the gospel, but had no real faith in Christ growing up because I saw myself as good without him. I was a judgmental and hypocritical young man, quite like the older brother in Jesus’ parable in Luke chapter 15.
The Lord changed that while I was in my third year at university. I was in church, and the pastor preached a sermon on the death of Christ on the cross. The Spirit convicted me that I was a sinner, and for the first time I saw and felt the wonder of Christ dying in my place, carrying my sin, enduring the judgment that I finally saw I richly deserved to free me for himself. He saved me, twenty years ago now.
I am married to Flick, a delightful godly woman and a generous gift from my Father. We have three lovely girls, Daisy, Eliza and Sylvia who give me much laughter (and frustration!). I also get to serve as a pastor, which is a satisfying, exhausting and wonderful calling. Our church is called Broadgrace (www.broadgrace.org.uk), planted in 2010, and we meet in Coltishall in the Norfolk Broads. Being part of this church is also a blessing and gift to us.
On one level, Dealing with Disappointment sounds like a title born out of experience! Do you mind sharing a bit about what led you to put pen to paper with this particular book?
It is, but not that much of it is mine! My life has been remarkably easy and satisfying so far, although I think this helped me to understand the disappointment that often comes when we feel we have gained much of what the world can offer. Disappointment can come from a lack of something we desire (a promotion at work, for example) but it can also be the result of the emptiness when we find that the promotion didn’t give the satisfaction we hoped (and neither did buying our house, getting a new car, being married or having children).
The experience that led me to write the book was simply the levels of disappointment I saw around me. With people I know locally, in the church and outside, and friends and family more widely, I saw huge disappointment. It is probably a symptom of getting older (I turned 40 as I was writing the book) but I saw a growing sense of despair among lots of people. Not an acute suffering, but the cynicism and bitterness that comes when there is no hope.
Before Norfolk, we lived in Manchester and served in a church with lots of young people, students and young workers. For many there were good things to look ahead to, like marriage, work, getting a house, going on a foreign holiday. The world held out a lot of hope. But now I know a lot of people in their thirties and forties as well as older and younger. Among them I see little hope. These dreams have either failed to materialise or, worse, they have been achieved, but not given the peace they promised.
In the book you talk about being ‘rightly disappointed’, which might seem a strange phrase. What do you mean by that and why is it important?
This is important because we need to understand disappointment if we are to see beyond it. When I began writing, I assumed that disappointment might simply be a form of idolatry. I thought it would be along the lines of, ‘I am disappointed because I am not married, and marriage is where joy and satisfaction lie’. The problem with this simple analysis is that the Lord is disappointed, and he is not an idolater! In Matthew 23v37, Jesus laments, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing’.
Jesus feels disappointment as Jerusalem fails to submit to his kind desire to gather and care for her. Disappointment is a right response to life in a world that the Lord has subjected to frustration as a result of the sin of Adam (Romans 8v20; Genesis 3v18). This world is disappointing, and we should feel it as such. There is wrong disappointment, and over disappointment with right things. The importance of seeing that we should be disappointed (perhaps moreso than we are!) is that it helps us see how we should see disappointment in the wider picture of Christ’s kingdom, how we stop disappointment becoming overwhelming.
We do that by looking to the future, to the day Christ returns and ushers in the resurrection age, the new heavens and the new earth. Then there will be no disappointment, and the disappointments we have carried will be redeemed and will become part of the heights of joy that we feel as we see Jesus and feast with him. There is more to it than hope, but hope is the first step on the path away from bitter disappointment. However great, however real, even however right our disappointments, they will not be the end of the story. Christ will. He will come for us, he will raise us from the dead, he will wipe away our tears and he will never disappoint us. He has bought this for us on the cross, and he has bought us for himself. He cannot fail us. He cannot disappoint us.
By talking about disappointment, I think you put your finger on a live issue for many of us, and yet it’s not one we perhaps freely acknowledge. How do you think as Christians and churches we can change that?
It is hard to talk about disappointment. You can ask your small group to pray that you would get a job, but it feels selfish to ask them to pray that you would get promoted to a senior position. It feels churlish to say you find your work dull if you know there are others with harder jobs. Even more tricky is that most of our disappointments are with people. We are disappointed at times with our husband or wife, children or parents, friends or family, church or colleagues. How do we share these things?
It is a hard question, but we must answer it. We must strive to have church families where we can talk about these hard things, where we can be honest. It doesn’t mean airing every disappointment with everyone, but we must be truly known by all and fully known by some. As far as we know ourselves anyway! This is part of the gift of the church, and also a terrifying challenge. To be known is liberating, and terrifying!
Imagine a church where there was no bitterness, no cynicism. Imagine a love so great that it could bear being disappointed and still love those who let you down. Imagine a love so great that it could disappoint someone terribly and believe the forgiveness they offer. This is the church, and it is no figment of the imagination but ours to grasp and be, by the grace of Christ.
Obviously, it’s one thing for Christians to acknowledge disappointment. Has writing this book changed whether you see disappointment as a way to engage unbelievers and share the gospel with them?
It has been hugely important in my personal witness. Talking about disappointment has shown me how prevalent it is, just below the surface of so many lives. I now enter into conversations assuming friends and family are disappointed, and with confidence that Christ offers real hope in the face of it.
I was talking to a very honest man a couple of weeks ago, who thought that God simply wanted us to do our best, and that those who tried would go to a good place when they died. He was honest because he agreed with me when I said my problem was that I often didn’t try my best. When I then talked about the possibility of forgiveness and life with Christ eternally he simply said that forgiveness would be an incredible thing to have. He was disappointed with himself. He had done nothing unusually wicked but, like me, he knew he was not the man he ought to be or wanted to be. What hope it is to know that Christ has forgiven me the meanness that makes me enjoy seeing my wife hurt just because I think I’m right or want to exasperate my children so that I can feel righteous as I discipline them just because I have had a frustrating day.
I think that for sharing the gospel with my contemporaries, and probably with most people, assuming disappointment and leading with hope may well be a way of serving them by showing them just what Christ has done for us on the cross and given us in his resurrection.
John, thank you – this has been really thought-provoking stuff, so we really appreciate your time. Just to finish, you mention in the book that you’ve just turned 40, and obviously as a culture we often talk about mid-life crisis, or even quarter-life crises. What would you say to your 21-year old self in light of this issue?
I relied heavily on Solomon’s work in Ecclesiastes in writing the book, and I would encourage you to read it, as I am sure one of the reasons the Spirit wrote it was to help us understand disappointment and put our hope in Christ. My advice to my 21-year old self would be from chapter 12, verse 1:
‘Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”’
We cannot avoid disappointment. Indeed, we should not seek to avoid it, as it is a right response to a broken world. The way to avoid it making us bitter or cynical, though, is to remember our creator. The heart of all Christianity is Christ. To live, to grow, to know peace, joy and hope is to know Christ. The more we see him, know him, follow him and delight in him, the more we will live in hope rather than bitterness of heart.
Remember your creator in the days of your youth, in the days of middle age, in the days of old age and in the day of death whenever it might come. For he has remembered you. He remembered you when you were dead in your trespasses and sins, he remembered you as he died your death and bore your sin. he remembered you when he called you out of darkness into the kingdom of light. He remembers you now and intercedes for you at the right hand of his Father. He remembers you, and he is coming back for you. He will not disappoint you, he will remember you, so remember him.