When life disappoints us and nothing is turning out the way we’d planned, our faith has a chance to grow up.
For the first time in my life I was up against a situation over which I had no control. No amount of effort could change the outcome. No seminar or book could help. Even the doctors, those white-coated wonders, just shook their heads and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Rinehart, these things just take their own course. There’s not much we can do.”
Perhaps my feeling of uncertainty was magnified by the days I lay in bed, waiting to see if I could keep this small life growing inside of me. Maybe I just had too much time to think. But when I eventually miscarried, I felt as if I had lost more than a baby. The awareness that my life was turning out much differently than I’d ever imagined thrust me outside the protective bubble I’d been living in for years.
That small death was the first of a series of stinging losses in my mid-thirties. Within a few months my parents’ marriage dissolved, we found that our son had significant learning disabilities, and the book I was writing bit the dust. Like so many people in their thirties, I had discovered that I was not the one directing the traffic of my life. I was not in control. That clear-eyed awakening was frightening.
Do you remember how you felt as a child when someone would take you by the arms and swing you round and round until you begged them to stop? Afterward, you’d lie on the ground gasping for breath, then stagger forth too dizzy to see straight. That’s the way I felt—shaken, off-balance, trying desperately to regain my footing—when I was blindsided by unexpected circumstances.
Almost nothing in my life seemed sure and certain anymore. Inside I was a bundle of questions and doubts. I, who had begun this spiritual journey on the trumpet call, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” began to edge toward skepticism. “Really?” I wanted to say. How was it that the abundant life that promised so much more—more intimacy, more impact, more satisfaction—was mysteriously turning out to be less? How, I wondered, had this wonderful plan come to include marriages beyond repair or saying goodbye to a gaunt little boy born with his eyes sealed shut?
Somewhere during this time I picked up Gail Sheehy’s book Passages, which explores the stages of adult development. I found myself intrigued with the idea that being an adult wasn’t a matter of climbing some steep hill and then sitting on the top waiting passively for the end. Each “passage” of adulthood is marked by particular crises or turning points that hold the potential for new growth. Could it be, I wondered, that growing up spiritually is patterned in passages or phases, too? Maybe I had come to a critical juncture and I didn’t know it. Maybe real spiritual growth was more like a story of a pilgrim on his way toward home. If so, periods of doubt and disappointment were part of that process.
I began to see the lives of New Testament men and women in a new light. For the first time they seemed like real people. In their stories lay the outline of a basic cycle of spiritual passages that moved in ever-deepening spirals from illusion to disappointment to real hope. Here were people a lot like myself—incomplete, not yet-fixed, with their own set of questions and doubts. What bumbling failures they were at times, yet they continued to follow Jesus.
As I found my story among their stories, I dared to wonder if my own disillusionment would dissolve into a different and deeper trust than I had ever known. But first I needed to look back at the beginning of my faith-journey.
A Faith That Insists
If you asked me for a word to describe the most rudimentary form of faith, I would choose predictability. Early faith hopes against hope that God will move in our lives in predictable ways. We seem to think God’s promises are connected by an invisible string to the dreams and expectations in our own minds. “If I do this then God will . . .”
Faith, at this point, is a manageable belief system where our faithfulness or obedience obligates God to bring about our desires. At its heart, it’s a faith that insists.
The disciples started out with this kind of faith. Jesus told them over and over that He must suffer and die, and if they followed Him they would encounter their own measure of the same. But Christ’s words fell outside the boundaries of the disciples’ expectations and understanding. When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were stunned—unprepared to have life turned on its head.
I believe this demand for certainty, for predictability, is where faith starts for all of us. I’ve spent the bulk of my life as a Christian in this passage of “predictable faith.” Some part of me has longed to believe that faith is like a vending machine—you put your coins in at the top and the drink rolls out below. I was afraid to entertain the reality of trusting a God who was beyond my control, because it left me feeling too unsure, unsafe.
Although faith of this sort may suffice for a time, it cannot bear the full weight of life. It is a subtle form of trying to conform God to our own image of Him.
One of my husband’s seminary professors used to begin his fall semester freshman class with this question: “Students, I have one question for you. What is God like?” His students would get out their pencils, hem and haw, and wait for the professor to dispense the prescribed answer. But he outwaited them. In desperation, one student after another would attempt to fill the awkward pause. “God is love, God is just, God is like this, God is like that.” The professor would just sit there, unimpressed.
Finally, after they had exhausted everything they knew or had ever heard about what God was like, He would lean over and say, “Men and women, let me tell you something. God is not like anything. He is His own standard. And the tragedy is that you are going to build your little theological boxes around what you think God is like. Someday when you really need Him, you’re going to race to your box and open the lid, and He won’t be in there.”
God does not allow us to continue to reduce Him to a size and shape we can manage. He moves in our lives in ways that burst our categories and overwhelm our finiteness. When we realize He’s bigger than anything we can get our minds around, we can begin to relax and trust Him.
Ironically, the crisis of disillusionment is what shakes our preconceived notions and beckons us to deeper faith.
The disappointment that leads to this second passage of faith is usually quite unexpected. To think that faith would turn to disappointment appears contradictory, as though God were defeating His own purposes. Yet, we rarely see the extent of our expectations until, for one reason or another, they are not fulfilled.
At this point, many reactions are possible. Confusion and doubt are two of the most common ones. As John the Baptist sat in prison toward the end of his life—his disciples disbanded and his future uncertain—he felt the need to send a friend to question Jesus. “Are you truly the Christ, the One we’ve been waiting for?” Christ assured him that He was. And He did not rebuke him for needing that reassurance.
When the rest of the disciples watched their dreams die with Jesus’ death, they began to fade into the surrounding landscape. No doubt they were filled with a sense of failure and defeat. Peter and John must have returned to fishing. You can almost hear them asking each other, “What now? Where do we go from here?”
For some, disillusionment leads to cynicism and apathy, a kind of dead-in-the road state, as though someone has let the air out of your tires. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What feels like the end of faith actually holds the potential for its true beginning. When we let go of our determination to make God conform in safe, predictable ways, it is possible to receive something better in its place.
One of disappointment’s hidden benefits is that it moves you out of your head— your cognitive understanding—into some of the messy, broken places in your heart.
I remember one summer when I felt defeated. The Bible became like a dead book to me. I went for weeks with almost no thought of prayer. And then one morning I woke up and the first thought that came to my mind was, “Paula, you’re an angry woman.”
You would have to grow up in the South to understand how repugnant such an idea was to me. It was the opposite of the “good girl” image I had of myself. Anger? Nice girls don’t get angry.
Yet the moment I admitted the truth, a strange thing happened. I sensed God almost asking my permission, as it were, to be invited into the muck and mire of my struggle. Would I let Him lead me into some of the sealed-off compartments of my heart? Not the polished, presentable places, but the rooms where unacknowledged grief and fear and bitterness had been incubating for years. There were parts of me, He seemed to insist, that had yet to hear the gospel.
This was my first gut-level identification with those words of David I had memorized years before: “If I make my bed in the depths, you are there . . . even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:3, Ps. 139:10). I was amazed to think that God would not turn away from me when I didn’t even want to be with myself—when I was so inclined to turn my back on Him. I had not realized, on a deeper, more emotional level, that He cared that much.
Disillusionment showed me how thin my loyalties were. I was not the “good girl who God was lucky to have on His team. And God was much different from I had thought. I found He was both more exacting and more merciful than I could imagine. It’s precisely because God transcends my understanding—and my control—that I can dare to trust Him.
A True Hope
Recently, a friend asked me, “How is faith that comes on the far side of disappointment better than faith that precedes it?” She was saying, “Tell me how loss adds up to gain and how your relationship with God is different.”
Hmmm . . . I thought. How can I put this into words that make sense? In my early Christian life, answers came quickly for me. I saw faith as a set of propositions to be defended, a body of knowledge to learn and pass on, a storehouse of sure answers.
But the faith that emerges out of broken dreams is different and harder to describe. There is room for mystery—for not knowing all the answers. The passage of faith that follows disillusionment begins when there is no experiential reason to believe. It is born in the fearlessness that comes when you’ve already lost a good portion of what you were so afraid of losing in the first place.
Somehow, you know God is there in the midst of this passage—in ways you didn’t expect. He makes His presence known by the pain of His seeming absence. He doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances; He gives you the courage to face and move through them.
In one of his later plays, T.S. Eliot describes faith on the far side of disappointment as a “kind of faith that issues from despair. The destination cannot be described; you will know very little until you get there; you will journey blind. But the way leads toward possession of what you have sought for in the wrong place.” Journeying blind is perhaps another way of reminding us that we really do walk by faith, not by sight.
I am convinced that Peter’s courage in the book of Acts is the fruit of having waded through a heaping measure of failure and disappointment. There wasn’t much some angry synagogue official could tell him about himself that he didn’t already know. Without Jesus he was just another visionary, a common coward. And Christ who, by all rights, should have left him fishing by the sea of Galilee not only welcomed his return, He entrusted him with the care of His people.
Faith that withstands its own demise is free of the need to control life. It moves beyond the safe confines of predictability to a place where we begin to enjoy a relationship with a Person—a relationship that is often elliptical, full of ebb and flow, desert and garden.
In his book on prayer, Richard Foster says that one of the greatest things he learned in his own spiritual journey was “the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, ‘Jump!’ Neither by theological acumen nor technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.” The focus of our faith shifts from discovering ways to get a fix on God to experiencing the reality that He is the One who has hold of us.
That inner shift of surrender must happen over and over throughout our lives, in ever-deepening ways.
The process of letting go of learning to trust—is never a small or inconsequential thing. As Henri Nonwen once said, “[This] is the great conversion in our life: to recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for his return.”
Somehow it helps me to realize—when my life takes unforeseen turns—that it’s all part of the process. There are many passages to a deepening faith, and I’m just smack in the middle of another one. In the meantime, I catch glimpses of God. But one day I will see Him with unhindered gaze and completed understanding. According to the Apostle John, in that Day “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
Some days I can hardly wait.