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Praying through disappointment


A decade before the Revolutionary War in the American colonies, English explorers were aggressively sailing the Pacific Ocean to claim islands, search for better trade routes, and map the uncharted waters. During one of those voyages after a month at sea, finding no land and seeing only “empty, blue horizon,” Admiral Byron of HMS Dolphin finally spotted a beautiful island with groves of coconut trees and white beaches. Unfortunately, the jagged coral surrounding the island and the spear-brandishing islanders running along the beach threatening the sailors meant the ship had to keep sailing. But the captain did “map” the little, undiscovered island chain. 

After 250 years, those small, Pacific islands are still known by the name the British explorer gave them – The  Islands of Disappointment (A journey to the Disappointment Islands – BBC Travel). Sometimes, even if we never board a ship, we feel as if we’re sailing beside some island of disappointment. 

When we occasionally sail past the Island of Disappointment, as if we’ve been temporarily blown off course, we can be threatened by the jagged, uninviting coastline of unrealized expectations, shattered dreams, or somebody’s broken promises. 

No one enjoys the voyage into disappointment. Maybe that’s why Alexander Pope cynically observed, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” For a moment we may be tempted to drift into the self-indulgence of a life that “expects nothing.” But no one should ever surrender to a colorless existence with subdued hope, living in fear of being marooned on an island of disappointment. That’s certainly no way to live as a follower of Christ who believes in prayer. You can always choose to pray through your disappointment!  

King David, for example, was a celebrity in his time. Young women wrote songs about his legendary heroics on the battlefield (1 Samuel 18:7). He lived with superstar status, rarely hearing the word “no” from life.  So, in a combination of hubris and spiritual zeal, he planned to build a Temple for God. Even his religious advisor was caught up in “David-mania” and told him to do whatever his heart desired (2 Samuel 7:1-3). But God had other plans. God said, “No” (2 Samuel 7:4-17).

How do we pray when God says no to our dreams, or someone close to us lets us down, or the door slams shut on our expectations? We can take a page from David’s prayer book. 

“Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18)

David was an activist ready to run face-first toward well-armed giants while protected only by a slingshot, a shout of praise, and a bag of rocks. He hadn’t subdued his enemies, been crowned King, or become the subject of national folk songs – all by his early 30s -through inactivity. But when God said “no” to his dreams, David sat down in the presence of God. When disappointment interrupts our plans, we can, like David, seek the presence of God. 

Sitting in the presence of God is counterintuitive in a 24-hour-news-cycle culture of constant activity. We want to “do” something, because we’ve forgotten that praying is doing something. In a skeptical society where, for some, “thoughts and prayers” sound like hollow promises, we might be tempted to forget that “Prayer,” in the words of Charles Spurgeon, “is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence.” Or, as Alfred Lord Tennyson famously reminded us, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Sitting in the presence of God is also a lesson in priority realignment. Our disappointment may not stem from some real injustice but from the failure of our own self-aggrandizing agenda. That can’t last. As Greg Laurie said in his book on prayer, “If His Kingdom is going to come, my kingdom has got to go!” JoHannah Reardon, a pastor’s wife and writer, said it like this: “If you are alone in God’s presence, you are making yourself available to hear anything he wants to say to you. You are coming to him open for a change of direction, conviction of sin, a gentle nudging, or an all-out life revision” (Silence and Solitude | Christian Bible Studies). The presence of God can jolt us out of disappointment when we rediscover the joy of an appointment with God.

Seeking the presence of God also reminds us of the sheer pleasure of being with Him. Whatever “thing” disappointed us is secondary to God’s manifest presence. Whatever situation interrupted our plans can never compare to sitting uninterrupted in the presence of God. 

By the time the late Jesse Hendley had reached his mid-eighties, still living alone in Atlanta, he grew increasingly indifferent about returning calls or, at times, even answering his phone. But, on one occasion his office became concerned after a few days of unanswered calls placed to the old evangelist. So, one of his unofficial caretakers, a south Atlanta pastor, drove to Jesse’s apartment, calling repeatedly and fearing the worst. Once there, the pastor knocked at the door and called Jesse’s name with no success. Finally, jamming his spare key in the big bolt lock, he heard Jesse’s voice from inside say, “Just a minute!”

 When the door opened, there stood the old preacher looking fine except for being unshaven, with what little hair he had left sticking unkempt in all directions. The pastor naturally asked, “Jesse, what are you doing?” The preacher didn’t hesitate to say, “I’ve been with the Lord.” But when the pastor gently chided the elderly evangelist for not answering the phone or the door, the old man said he didn’t answer the phone or come to the door when he was with the Lord. Remembering how long Jesse has been unreachable, the pastor sheepishly asked, “Jesse, how long have you been with the Lord?” Squinting against the Georgia sun, the old preacher rubbed his face and innocently asked, “What day is it?” 

Most of us don’t need a calendar to time our prayers, but any time spent in the presence of the Lord forces lesser concerns – including disappointments – to fade into insignificance by comparison. 

So, when the crashing waves of unpredictability splash us up onto the islands of disappointment, our rescue boat can be found in some solitary place. We can overcome disappointment in the presence of the Lord. 

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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