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Disappointment, and How to Handle it - a Lesson from the Book of Ruth

Julian Spriggs M.A.

What do we do when everything seems to be falling apart around us? What do we do when all our hopes, dreams and vision seem to come to nothing? How do we respond if a promise we believe came from God never seems to come to pass? In that situation, we often ask, “Why has God allowed this to happen?”, and wonder whether there is any hope for the future? Otherwise, we may ask ourselves whether there is really any point in having faith in God if this sort of thing happens?

No one is immune from disappointment

While we live in this world, we cannot avoid being disappointed. In the Bible, there are a number of examples of disappointed people:

One example is Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth (Ruth chapter 1). To summarise the story: Naomi with her husband and two sons travelled from Bethlehem to Moab to escape a famine. Once there, her husband died, and her two sons marry Moabite women. Even their marriages could have been a source of disappointment to her, because they married non-Israelites. Later her two sons also died, leaving Naomi with widowed two daughters-in-law. When the famine ended, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem. Before she left, she encouraged her two daughters-in-law to remain in Moab and find new husbands. Orpah decided to stay, but Ruth remained committed to Naomi and to her God, and returned home with her. She came home as a widow, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law.

In the story of Ruth the names of most of the characters have significant meanings in Hebrew. This is inevitably lost in translation to English, although most Bibles give the meanings in footnotes.

This is what Naomi says to the women when she returns to Bethlehem: “Call me no longer Naomi (“pleasant”), call me Mara (“bitter”), for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty, why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:19-22). Noami’s loss and disappointment is clear to see. She has lost everything, and has very little hope for the future.

However, the rest of the story of Ruth shows how events turn out rather differently, with the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, and a happy ending for Naomi. We should notice that it is Naomi who takes the initiative by suggesting that Ruth pursues a relationship with Boaz (3:1). The end of the story shows Boaz and Ruth having a son, who is described as, "a son for Naomi" (4:17), and who becomes the great grandfather of king David, the greatest king in Israel. Thus Naomi finds herself becoming part of the Messianic line leading down to Jesus himself (Mt 1:5).

Other disappointed people in the Scriptures would include the two disciples walking on the Road to Emmaus, who had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, but who had their hopes dashed by the crucifixion (Lk 24:21). Jesus himself must have been disappointed with his disciples many times, including when they fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:37). Paul also experienced disappointment many times during his ministry, as with the Galatian church so quickly turning away from the gospel (Gal 3:11,20).

Why do we experience disappointment?

Sometimes we get the impression that if we follow God, nothing will ever go wrong. We have the idea that if we come to Jesus, all our problems will be solved. However, this is not reality, and God never promised that this would be true. The truth is that God promises never to leave us. He will always be with us in the difficulties and disappointments of life, helping us through them, rather than taking us away from them. We live in a fallen world, and are often personally affected by the sins and failings of other people.

As Christians, we are called to be dedicated to following God, and fulfilling his calling on our lives, we should be people who give ourselves totally to him. This makes us far more vulnerable to disappointment. Our expectation of God is greater, we take greater risks for him, with greater potential for everything to fall apart. As part of our Christian walk, we need to learn how to handle disappointment in a mature manner.

Disappointment is painful and confusing

The reality is that disappointment shakes our faith, causing us to ask all sorts of impossible questions. We question God’s faithfulness, and whether we were being truly obedient to him. Disappointment also causes us great emotional pain, which can turn into physical symptoms. Again, we need to learn how to handle the pain of disappointment. Sometimes we can try to be very spiritual about it, and try and persuade ourselves it doesn't matter, and deny the pain. This just causes problems later, because unhealed hurts don't go away. We need to be honest with God about it and seek his healing.

We have a choice

When faced with disappointment there are two ways we can respond: negatively or positively. Either we turn away from God, or we turn towards God.

The negative response - turning away from God

We will face huge temptations to respond negatively. The enemy loves disappointing us, and will use this to try and knock us down. In a place of disappointment we enter into a major spiritual battle. The temptation is to respond in bitterness, blaming other people, especially Christian leadership, and blaming God for allowing it to happen. Otherwise, we can become cynical, thinking that there is no point in obeying God if this happens to us.

Disappointment kills faith and vision. It is all too easy to lose our sense of vision and purpose, and walk out of God's calling on our lives. Many missionaries return home early because of disappointment, so the Kingdom of God suffers. In the worst case, Christians end up backsliding and forsaking their faith completely.

Disappointment can cause us to become bitter against God, and against the people who caused it. In today’s world, people always look for someone to blame for things going wrong. Each individual person needs to take their responsibility when bad things happen, but it is important that we do not become bitter against them, allowing hatred to rise in our heart. Bitterness in your heart will not destroy them, but it will gradually destroy you!

Once we have been disappointed once, it is very difficult to trust God, or people, again. Our expectations can be lowered, and we easily settle for the mediocre. Disappointment can cause us to lower our expectations of God in the future. We find it more difficult to trust him again, to step out in faith again. As a consequence, we can become critical, sitting on the side as an outside observer. This causes isolation, and withdrawal from fellowship.

This so easily leads us into a negative spiral: disappointment causes hurt, which leads to bitterness, leading to isolation; then more disappointment leads to more hurt, which confirms our bitterness, ending in greater isolation - and so it goes on.

The positive response - turning to God

We need to be honest with God about our feelings, and tell him about the pain we feel so strongly. He knows anyway, but wants us to confess it to him. This will begin the healing process. We must not hold on to the pain, which will lead to bitterness. Then we can be in a position to receive his healing. It is God who binds up the brokenhearted, he wipes away every tear from our eyes (Rev 7:17). However, this can take a long time. We can feel emotionally raw for several months, or even years.

It is essential that we forgive the people who caused the disappointment. Forgiveness is powerful, and will also bring the healing. As we release the people, we allow God in. Forgiveness is a choice not to hold resentment against that person. We must let go, and allow God to deal with them.

We need to hold on to the truth of God's character. It is important to keep ourselves immersed in the Word of God, reading about the character of God, and to trust in God's promises. Jesus promised never to leave us, calling us to, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). God will never disappoint or fail us. We may have disappointing circumstances, but his promises to us still stand.

In the midst of disappointment, we need to maintain an eternal perspective. On this earth, we will face disappointment, hardships and persecution, but this life is not everything. We are only here for a little while, only seventy or so years, then if we have personally responded to the grace of the Gospel, we look forward to eternity with God in glory. We have an eternal hope of glory, where there will be no more pain (Rev 21:3-4).

We also need to allow God to use the disappointment to refine us, and to train us in Christian character and discipleship. We need to recognise that God is sovereign, and he has allowed this bad thing to happen to us. He could have stopped it, but did not. God can and will bring good out of it, if we respond in the positive way, that is towards him. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28), this promise includes this particular disappointment. In the story of Naomi, her new family eventually became part of the Messianic line, making the significance of her life even greater than before. We must allow God to teach us through disappointment, teaching us to trust him more, in spite of the circumstances. This is true faith, believing the invisible on the basis of God’s word (Heb 11:1).

We also need to trust that God can bring life out of death. Naomi lost her husband and sons, her hope for descendants, but God restored her future, so she saw life come out of death. God is a God of resurrection, so he can bring new life when everything appears to be dying around us.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.