Last week my family and I celebrated the Fourth of July at a cookout with my wife’s parents. We had already spent a couple lazy hours at our local pool with our three kiddos, and next up on the agenda was hanging out at Grandpa and Grandma’s place before heading downtown to watch fireworks later on.
All in all, it was shaping up to be a pretty good day. At least, it was until my son, Henry, got some unexpected bad news.
We had told Henry that his cousins, Zack and Katie, whom he loves dearly and loves to be with, weren’t going to be able to celebrate with us this year. Unfortunately, Henry, who’s almost 7, hadn’t heard the “not” part of that equation — and he was very much looking forward to seeing them and playing with them.
When he finally understood that his cousins weren’t coming, he burst into tears and ran into the bedroom. After letting him cry for a few minutes, I followed him in to see how he was doing. Crestfallen, with his tender little heart broken just a little bit, Henry was still very upset.
I sat down next to him and put an arm around him and let him cry some more. After a while, we talked. I think (or, I should say, I’d like to think) that my presence was a comfort to him. I didn’t try to talk Henry out of his feelings or tell him he should just get over it. Instead, we talked about why he was so disappointed.
“I just really wanted to see them,” he kept saying. Suddenly, a good day, an expectation-filled day, had turned hard in a way none of us had foreseen: Henry was smack in the middle of disappointment.
Sitting there with him, I had two parallel insights — both about disappointment and about God.
First, I realized that when our expectations aren’t met, whether in big ways or small, there’s no way around that agonizing sense of what could have been not coming to pass. There’s no shortcut through the ensuing disappointment. We simply have to tread through it, one moment, one hard feeling at a time.
Certainly, some disappointments are bigger and have bigger consequences than others. As I look back on my own life, some of my most devastating heartbreaks had to do with romantic relationships not working out. It took time (sometimes months or years) to traverse that emotional territory, time to heal and time to get perspective on the disappointment that had taken place.
In those seasons, I often cried out to God for help and understanding. And, frankly, I cried out for comfort. One of my cornerstone promises from Scripture during those times of disappointment was Isaiah 51:12: “I, even I, am he who comforts you.” Those words gave me hope. They reminded me that we serve and love a God who, just as I tried to do with Henry, promises to be present with us in our hardest, most disappointing moments.
That said, the other thing I realized while trying to comfort Henry was that, ultimately, he had to work through that disappointment on his own. I couldn’t do it for him, and I couldn’t take the pain away — as much as I really wanted to do so. I could offer him some comfort, but even that couldn’t completely take away the sting of not being able to enjoy something he had been so looking forward to.
Likewise, I believe that God enters into our disappointment — that He’s present and longs for us to turn to Him. And I believe He offers real comfort. But sometimes even God’s comfort can be hard to grasp firmly. I think Henry was glad to talk about his feelings with me, but he still had to work through them nonetheless. Likewise, talking about our hurts and disappointments with God helps us know what to do with them, but it doesn’t magically make difficult emotions disappear. There’s still a process to be worked through in faith and over the course of time.
Thankfully, our heavenly Father is so much more patient and tender than I, as a human father, am even in my very best moments. He’s always willing to listen to us, to offer comfort and to walk with us through disappointment. “Trust in him at all times, O people,” David counsels in Psalm 62:8, “pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”
And so I keep pouring out my heart … and trying to teach my son to know that he can do the same, no matter how disappointed he may be.