by Steven Norris
“Who have you disappointed lately?” That was the first question I received from my new spiritual director. I fully expected him to start with something like, “Tell me a little about yourself or your church.” Instead, he chose to rip the bandaid off in one fell swoop.
He would later explain his guiding assumption: if you have not disappointed someone recently, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile either. In the fifteen years since that meeting, I have often reflected on the reality that my job involves disappointing people regularly. It is not like I want to do it (or try to do it), but it happens anyway.
When it comes to issues of faith, people have many expectations formed from countless experiences ranging from a beloved youth pastor to the hospice chaplain that stood by their grandparents’ bedside to the smarmy televangelist promising miracles for a minimum donation. Some of these expectations are stated up front while others are not even conscious. Just showing up in some situations puts me in the crosshairs.
Though my skin has thickened over time, criticism still hurts and wounds. To be human is to know the pain of personal disappointment as well as the aching guilt of having let others down. No matter how hard I might try to avoid it, I cannot.
Neither could Jesus. I suppose that I find some solace in the gospel stories that reflect the ways he disappointed others. For example, in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life,” likening himself to the manna that God sent the Israelites in the desert.
John records the response of the people: “Many of his disciples said, ‘This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” Then, John gives us this editorial comment: “At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” In other words, Jesus did not live up to their expectations. Disappointed, they determined that he was not the one that they were looking to follow and decided to go a different way.
It seems to me that Jesus was able to press on through the disappointment because he knew three important truths: (1) He was working for an audience of one. His only stated goal in life was to bring glory to his heavenly Father, not the people around him. (2) He stayed true to his primary calling and did not allow temporary distractions to take him off course. (3) His focus was on the long-game and he did not allow himself to get bogged down in the temporary or short-lived gains of the moment.
If you find that you have disappointed someone close to you, my advice is to confront it head on. Don’t make excuses or try to side-step the issue. Apologize if appropriate, but don’t make it about you. At the same time, don’t let yourself be abused. You are a valuable child of God and are worthy of respect. Finally, try to show yourself the kind of grace and forgiveness you would extend to others.
Following Jesus means that disappointment will be a part of our journey. When it shows up, just remember that you have good company and keep moving forward.