Tag Archives: disappointment with God

When the Spirit Doesn’t Come

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I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

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The Road from Broken

attachment“He didn’t show up.”

I listened to the hum of my friend’s tires through the crackle of our phone connection, speechless in response to his overwhelming grief. The crack in his voice tore at my heart.

“My back was to the wall. I kept crying out for God to rescue me. I kept waiting to see what He would do, trusting that He would intervene.

“But He didn’t.”

Images flashed through my mind, memories of the times my spirit has broken under the crushing blow of God’s unresponsiveness. The unborn children that I had pled with Him to save. The violent attacks that I had begged Him to rescue me from. And more recently, the tiny niece whom I had persistently called on Him to heal.

But He didn’t.

When God lets our worst nightmare come true, how can we ever rest in His arms again?

When God allows our worst nightmare to unfold in front of our eyes, what can we say? What comfort is possible after He brings the darkest night of our soul? The sun may still rise, new mornings may come, but how can we raise our eyes to their hope-filled rays without remembering the dashed expectations of this night?

As I prayed through Psalm 89 this morning, God once again walked me through the arduous path from the valley of the shadow back into the land of the living. Ethan’s psalm is one of those conversations which suddenly takes an unexpected left turn, the sort of song that begins with pitch-perfect worship and ends with dissonant lament. But reading the beginning in light of the end shows me the way forward through the valley of despair.

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
Psalm 89:1-2

At the moments when I have felt most let down by God, the hardest thing to do is to look Him in the eye. In an effort to preserve my sanity and my faith, I am tempted to look away, to settle for “Well, He is God and I am not. Who am I to expect any better than this?” But on the other side of disappointment, the psalmist undertakes the daring venture of repeating what he had based his world on before it fell apart. God’s unfailing love. His firm faithfulness.

…You are mighty, O LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies. The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it. …Your arm is endued with power; your hand is strong, your right hand exalted.
Psalm 89:8-13

And having driven his stake firmly back into that rock, the psalmist faces head on the one excuse that might explain away a loving God who lets nightmares come true. Could it be that God just wasn’t big enough to handle this situation? Was His arm bound or this situation somehow beyond His reach? That would be convenient to believe. It would certainly let God off the hook. But the psalmist refuses to settle for a smaller deity, an emasculated, toned-down version of God. Instead he boldly reiterates God’s history of overcoming much greater forces than the one He just seemingly gave in to.

So God is loving and God is strong. Then why did He stand back and let this happen? How can I reconcile what I have heard Him say about Himself with what I have just seen with my eyes? The evidence seems to mount against Him.

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,’I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’
“No enemy will subject him to tribute; no wicked man will oppress him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down his adversaries. My faithful love will be with him, and through my name his horn will be exalted.

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have turned back the edge of his sword and have not supported him in battle. You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:3, 22-24 38-39, 42-45

At this point my courage falters. I am tempted to escape the conflict by switching into dissociative worship, gazing on God’s heavenly goodness while blocking out my earthly pain. But the psalmist takes the risky step of bringing the two together in the same room, laying side by side the specific promises God has made and the contradicting realities he has experienced. He refuses to deny, downplay, or excuse either of them until they have somehow been reconciled.

The tension builds until it is almost unbearable. The unspoken question hangs in the air: “Why have you let me down?” But the psalmist won’t say it. He doesn’t want to pass judgment on God prematurely.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life…
Psalm 89:46-47

And that’s when the element of time finally enters the room, allowing us all space to breathe again. The story isn’t over. The worst may have already happened, but God isn’t finished.

The worst may have already happened,
but the story isn’t over.

The babies may have died. The brutal act may have been completed. The contract may have been terminated. The relationship may be over. But that isn’t the end.

In God’s story, death ends in resurrection. Sorrow ends in comfort. Shame ends in glory. Brokenness ends in renewal. And suffering ends in redemption.

And so as I stand in the midst of the valley with my friend, my backward-looking questions of “why” give way to forward-reaching cries of “how long?” Like the “Are we there yet?” conversations that inevitably occur in the backseat of a seemingly eternal road trip, I switch from disappointment to anticipation. God’s “No” compels me to cry out in faith: “Then how much longer?”

He didn’t show up. But He will.

It is only a matter of time.

When God Says No

What happens if I pray for a miracle but God doesn’t show up and do it?

I recently received an email from a woman struggling with how to pray expectantly for a healthy baby while facing genetic odds to the contrary. Her fearful questions reminded me of a time years ago when I faced similar circumstances, stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

Sometimes we feel stuck between the rock of unbelief and the hard place of disappointment.

God had been teaching me much about faith, calling me to higher levels of prayer and expectation. I had been reticent to claim things of Him that He had not clearly promised, but at the same time His Spirit was convicting me to ask more of Him. As I slowly began to do so, I was amazed to see Him show up and do things that I never would have expected. Miraculous healings. Sudden changes of heart. My faith was growing in leaps and bounds, and I wanted that to continue.

So when I found out that I was expecting a child, I recognized another opportunity for my faith to grow. My joy over this new gift of life was mixed with fear that, like the three who had gone before her, she would die in utero. Each doctor’s appointment confirmed my fear as her development began to fall off the charts. I was tempted to resign myself to the inevitable, to protect myself from the crushing weight of disappointment by not holding out hope that God would work a miracle. At the same time, I wanted to live by faith, not fear. So I kept wrestling in prayer, begging my Heavenly Father to spare her life. I clung to the truth that He loved me and that nothing was impossible for Him.

God said no to His only Son.

When I lost the baby, I almost lost my faith. God had told me to ask, so I asked. Then He said no. I felt betrayed. My faith in His goodness was shattered. Where could I go from here?

Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
John 11:41-44

I was not alone in this experience. Jesus had walked this path ahead of me. He had approached God in faith, asking Him to do the impossible and watching Him answer with incredible miracles. He had related to God with the boldness of a child, confident in God’s fatherly love that would hear and respond to His requests.

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba”, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Mark 14:35-36

But when Jesus begged God to spare His life, God said no. Jesus had put His faith on the line, wrestling with God in prayer in the garden, refusing to resign Himself to the inevitable. He clung to the truth that God loved Him and that nothing was impossible for Him.

“He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “”Eloi, Eloi,” “lama” “sabachthani?””–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 27:43, 46

And yet at the end of the day, Jesus found Himself strung out on a cross, fighting a losing battle for breath, and crying out His feeling of abandonment by God. He had trusted His Father. Through prayer and supplication He had made His request known to God, but God hadn’t granted it. Where could He go from here?

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

In an ultimate act of faith, Jesus went right back to God. He laid His Spirit in His Father’s hands, trusting in His unfailing love despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And His Father didn’t fail Him. He let Him down as far as the grave, but He held His body intact through the agonizing wait for the third day’s dawn. Then He said yes.

God’s love is powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold us through a “no.”

As I teetered on the brink of losing my faith, I, too, reached out to God in a final act of desperation. I placed the last shredded remains of my faith into His hands, begging Him to hold onto it for me because I had no strength left to hold into it myself. And God didn’t fail me, either. He held my faith intact through the death of another dream and the long wait for hope’s resurrection.

On the other side of healings and deaths, high hopes and devastating disappointment, the confidence that I can claim as I boldly ask God for a miracle is His Fatherly love: powerful enough to accomplish a “yes,” strong enough to hold me through a “no.”

Expecting the Unexpected

“I’m nervous about this, Lord. How can I be sure that You will show up and heal her? What if I have misinterpreted You? I’m afraid to put Your name on the line, to expect something of You that You may not plan to do.”

Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it also kept my faith from growing.

Miracles were as foreign an idea to me as giants and dragons. I believed that they happened, but were more likely to occur long ago in a far away land. Why? Because, in my experience, that wasn’t the way God usually worked. Because the cost of discipleship had oriented my expectations towards suffering and struggle, not healing and deliverance. And, if I were perfectly honest, because I was too afraid to expect more of God and then be disappointed.

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
John 14:11-13

But Jesus’ words raised my expectations. They called my bluff, pulling aside my cover-up of piety and surrender and revealing my wimpy faith. Why didn’t I ask Him for more? Was it because I believed that asking for miracles would be inappropriate for a mature believer in His sovereignty, or was it simply because underneath my theological excuses, I was compensating for a lack of faith that God would actually do what I asked?

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

As I studied Jesus’ final interaction with His disciples before His death, I heard my own weak faith reflected in their responses to Him. Resignation. Fear. Doubt. And I heard Him nudging me to ask for more from Him, to extend beyond the safety zone of my expectations and risk disappointment with Him. Not asking for a miracle might keep my faith in place, but it would also keep my faith from growing.

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
Psalm 2:7-8

God the Father had invited His Son to ask. Jesus in turn invited His disciples to ask. Now it was my turn to ask, taking Him at His word that both His glory and my joy would be increased through my doing so.

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
John 16:24
Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful… Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”
Acts 3:2-6

And so I asked Him to heal my Hindu friend, whose rheumatoid arthritis had kept her crippled and in pain all the years I had known her. I went to her home and laid my hands on her knees, asking Him out loud to restore her ability to walk. And I returned to my own home, relieved to have dispatched my duty and wondering what would come of it. Would God show up and do what I had asked? Had I just raised my unbelieving friend’s expectations of a God who might not rise to meet them? My action had either set her up to encounter God in a powerful, personal way or to turn away from Him in disappointment and disbelief. Petrified, I could only watch and wait to see what He would do.

Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.
Acts 3:7-8

A few days later I went by her house. Much to my astonishment and my joy, I found her walking around without support, something I had never seen her do. My jaw hit the floor. It had worked. God had done what I asked!

When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
Acts 3:12, 16

As it was for the disciples, my friend’s healing afforded me the opportunity to once again call her and her husband to faith in Jesus. But her healing also called me to greater faith through Him. Learning to trust our Father meant learning to ask Him for the impossible. I could not claim what He would or would not do with my request, but I could rest in the assurance that He would hold my faith in His goodness regardless of the outcome. Just as He had taught me to accept the undesirable, He now taught me to expect the unexpected.