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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.