A failed relationship felt like a slap in the face from God, but I had a lot to learn.
I already knew what she was going to say. But that didn't make hearing it any easier.
"I don't think we are going to work out."
After nearly eight months in the relationship, I wasn't prepared for the emotional impact those words would have on me. They hurt. A lot. From talking about marriage to slamming on the brakes, I felt like I was in a fog I couldn't see past. I struggled to comprehend that the relationship was over.
And the break-up was just the beginning. She would choose to be with someone she had exchanged text messages with while we were still together — someone she would later marry and start a family with. Betrayal. It's hard to describe the haunting feeling of it.
It's OK to Grieve
I grew up in a Christian home where I heard about Jesus all the time and was taught that God was good. But one thing I didn't receive was a framework for knowing how to deal with this sinking feeling — this ache in the pit of my gut that felt as if someone had turned their back on me. I wasn't even that upset with myself or my ex-girlfriend. I felt like God had abandoned me and let me down.
Then last year I came across a tweet from John Piper that helped me put language to the ache I still felt, years after the breakup. In the tweet, Piper encouraged believers to, "occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be" and "grieve the losses." That's when I realized what I was feeling. Grief. I was grieving the life I could have had.
While I was dating my girlfriend, I had all these plans of having a wonderful wife and family, of going to church together, and doing all the fun things families do. But now at 29, I was still single. I thought life would look one way, but it didn't. I realized it was OK for me to grieve that. If I wanted to address the deeper problem, I had to allow myself to be able to articulate I was disappointed with God and had no clue what He was doing. Simply wanting to be content didn't keep the hurt away.
In his book "Disappointment with God," Philip Yancey discusses the sadness and confusion we can feel when life goes awry. He writes:
Disappointment with God does not come only in dramatic circumstances. For me, it also edges unexpectedly into the mundaneness of everyday life … I have found that petty disappointments tend to accumulate over time, undermining my faith with a lava flow of doubt. I start to wonder whether God cares about everyday details — about me. I am tempted to pray less often, having concluded in advance that it won't matter. Or will it? My emotions and my faith waver. Once those doubts seep in, I am even less prepared for times of major crisis.
This has been true in my life. The gnawing negativity caused by minor annoyances can create anxiety and frustration that, over time, become exhausting to manage. So how can we escape this cycle of disappointment and doubt? Here are a few practices that have helped me in my journey through disappointment.
Learn to Lament. I believe one of the most neglected practices in many western churches is lament. Lamenting is crying out to God from an overwhelming sense that life is not what it should be. As one writer put it, lament is "an urgent outcry of one in dire distress." This deep cry is the kind we see in Psalm 13:1-2, where the Psalmist writes, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?"
Psalm 102:1-2 provides yet another example: "Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you! Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!" The Psalms give us permission to not hold our emotions in, but to cry out to God with the full range of them.
Last year, when I went through a tough season of depression, I found myself practicing lament. I didn't know what to say and sometimes my only prayer was tears. I would ask questions such as, "God, what have I done? Is there something wrong with me? Will I always feel this lonely? God, are you listening?" Through lament, I found a breath of fresh air on days when it was hard to see clearly. And I was thankful for friends who gave me the space to verbally process my grief.
Find the root of your disappointment.
This part can be messy, and in my experience, it's best done in community. The goal is to identify the source of the disappointment. You may look back to an event or a relationship and think it started there. As you look deeper, though, could idolatry also play a role in your disappointment?
As I began to explore the lasting painful emotions I had from my failed relationship, I recognized it was my view of God that was actually off. I was disappointed in Him because, deep down, I thought He owed me something. I had been in both church and parachurch ministry. I'm a seminary student. Certainly, I thought, God owes me something. I've earned it. As I thought about this, I realized my perspective related more to Eastern religion's view of karma than it did the grace found in Jesus Christ.
I intentionally mention this step after lament. You need to grieve, but you don't want to be so paralyzed by it that you stay there.
Don't give up.
I found that on some days the easiest way out of my disappointment with God seemed to be to quit, tell God "goodbye" and start making my life look like I imagined it should. When these thoughts come, don't give in. Stay. Sometimes faith looks like walking with the lights off, having an idea of the direction to go but still stumbling along anyway.
Walking with God even when nothing about your life makes sense takes courage. When I was in my lowest valley, thinking God gave everyone good gifts except for me, I still chose to get up every day, go through my morning routine, head to work, help others and do homework. Even when life is tough and living it becomes an act of bravery, we must rise, get out of bed and walk by faith.
What Faith Can Do
Piper's tweet doesn't end on grief. After you've grieved the losses, he explains, "then wipe your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have." This is what we all must do. We can waste our energy trying to make a story happen, or force life to look a little more like we had planned. Or we can try to faithfully live the life we have been given, walking closely with God.
As author Hannah Anderson aptly puts it:
He's the kind of God who welcomes our questions, who can wrestle with us through the confusion and still bless us in the process … He is the kind of God who delights in the plea, 'Help my unbelief' and then holds on to us because we can't hold on to Him anymore. He is the kind of God who can handle all our doubt, all our fear, all our questions if we will simply commit to letting Him. And that is what faith does. Faith does not pretend that it is easy to believe what God reveals about Himself. Faith simply commits to taking the questions back to Him and believes that He will have the answers.
Moving Forward in Faith
Having faith means I don't have to fear being honest with God or not knowing all the details. I don't have to fret even when life looks vastly different than I planned. God will not abandon me. He will bind up my wounds and disappointments.
As I processed my grief over my lost relationship, lament gave me the space to miss the little things: sweet text messages, time spent with each other's families, and thoughtful gifts during the holidays. But it also allowed me to know God more deeply. Suffering even became a sort of mercy to me. It was hard and it wasn't pleasant, but I began to realize that even in His silence, God was caring for me.
I still have hard days where depression and anxiety rear their ugly heads, and loneliness can give way to sadness. Even so, I am learning to find joy in the little things, the unexpected gifts from God. In doing so, I have come to appreciate the value of friendships, the power of compassion, and the unstoppable love of God toward me, even when I'm at my darkest.
Copyright 2017 by Chris Crane. All rights reserved.