You’d think that people of faith would know how to deal with basic disappointments. We have been trained to think in the long-term and welcome ordinary hardships that provide character-building opportunities. But, alas, most of us aren’t skilled at remaining calm and positive when we don’t get what we want.
Those of us in first-world situations have bought into the culture of consumerism and instant gratification. We expect fast Internet service, medications that will make every symptom go away, professionals who are correct and efficient, machines that won’t break down, and just the right food and drink at precisely the time and place we want them. We even want friendships that work into our schedules conveniently.
The desire for instant gratification has seeped into religious attitudes too. Often we feel that God owes us a happy and stress-free life: “I’m faithful and a good person; therefore, God should be blessing me.”
Other issues come into play when we don’t get what we want. For instance, many of us have resources to cushion the knocks of hard times. Many years ago, in my first U.S. teaching job, I had to strategize to buy food through the end of the month. Even then, I didn’t go hungry; I simply didn’t eat the way I wanted to eat. Other times, I have fallen into the credit trap; rather than going without something I wanted, I borrowed to have it. Thus, I protected myself from being denied, although the way I did it brought more trouble down the line.
Peer pressure prevails. If we attend a church, work for an organization, or otherwise belong to a group in which many people are rather comfortable financially, we will put ourselves at economic risk rather than stick out as the ones who can’t afford a nicer car or spend money on concert tickets. I remember a friend commenting, when both our husbands were unemployed, that not having money changed a person’s social life; we simply couldn’t participate in many activities because of the cost. This feels horrible and depressing, and we do our mightiest to avoid this feeling.
Jesus proclaimed—in stories, sermons, conversations, and actions—that we should not worry about stuff and not put our hopes in wealth. The early Church certainly understood this. Across the world, a lot of Christians understand and live it. But it’s so tempting to tune out the Jesus story and scramble back to anxiety, greed, and competition.
Then, there’s the fact we’ve forgotten about kairos time. I don’t have what I want today. But “today” is a limitation that a person of faith can live without. In God’s eternity, and in my ongoing formation as God’s creation, time is presence, and it is quality. If I must wait for something, what is that? Do I not encounter all riches in this moment with the Divine? We’re not well-practiced in this way of thinking about and experiencing daily life. But this is crucial to the life of faith.
Of course, there are bigger and more consequential wants that plague us.
We want the bullies to stop bothering our child; we want our marriage to heal; we want some bit of success after years of working and trying. We want God to fix this mess. When that doesn’t happen, it’s just a short jump to disappointment, and then one more jump to despair. We are so accustomed to equating God’s love with a happy life. We can find Bible verses that seem to promise this. And everywhere we turn, people talk about how blessed they are when something goes well. Blessing is from God, isn’t it? That person is blessed because her house didn’t get carried away by the tornado. So it seems that all those folks whose homes are wreckage must not be blessed.
Our use of terms such as “blessed” deserves an article all its own; perhaps I’ll write that one before the year is out.
Does God pick and choose whom God loves and takes care of? Does God rush to the aid of this person but make that person wait for decades, or seem not to arrive at all? These questions, really, are at the heart of our restlessness when we don’t get what we want. We understand that every day won’t be rosy, but we also know that sometimes the suffering and the waiting go on and on. This is the fear that causes all our spiritual twitching and pacing. Will it be me this time—the one who must endure disappointment for years? We can find Scripture for that, too: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12, NIV).
I think the Ignatian principle of spiritual freedom is useful here. In the case of not getting what we want, can we be free to unclench our fist? If I cling to the hope of what I want, can I recognize what I have already? Can I be free of demanding certain conditions before I am content? Can I give God permission to love me as God chooses and not as I imagine? Can I refrain from schooling God on what I need and what should be done about it?
This kind of freedom touches me at the core of personal will. There’s a place in my soul in which I make foundational decisions, such as will I forgive this person or not? Will I choose to be grateful and stop complaining? Will I let go of hurt and take hold of the next good thing? Will I believe Jesus’ life and Scripture’s sacred stories and the Holy Spirit’s communication to my deeper mind and heart? These are huge, life-changing, and deeply interior choices that only I can make.
When I’m still wavering on those foundational decisions, of course I will fret when I don’t get what I want. And I can make the right choices today but go back on any of them tomorrow, or even by dinnertime tonight. So, constantly, my life circumstances are testing my deeper state of soul—which means that, when I’m agitated because I can’t have what I want, that might be a clue that my foundation needs attention.
This was a tough post to write. And it goes to the heart of my own struggles. So forgive me if it’s not entirely clear or helpful. But let me know your thoughts, whatever the case.