We often say God is good, especially when, after threatening to go dangerously off track, life resumes its regular course. But what is left to say when all that remains of our dearest dreams is a handful of shards that can no longer be glued together?

At times, we come to believe that we know God’s exact plan for our life. Things head a certain way, the pattern they followed in the past seems pretty easy to figure out, and we hope that we won’t meet any major detours along the way. Other times, a touch of pride creeps into our gratitude for the way in which our life has unfolded. God has been good to us, yes, but we have also studied dutifully to be able to get a well-paid job and to be able to offer our good children a fine education. Clearly seeing cause and effect, we gain courage for the future and our as-yet unaccomplished dreams, believing that, each time we do our part, God will do His.

If life takes a bad turn, crushing our future plans and hopes, we no longer understand the logic of things. We are convinced that our good choices deserve a reward. Or, on the contrary, we are crushed by the guilt of not having done everything in our might to reach our dreamed-of destination.

Is there something wrong with the fact that we wish for health over sickness, peace over strife, prosperity over poverty, and that we struggle not just to get the best in life, but support this preoccupation with arguments from the Scriptures?

Two different worlds, each with its own set of values

“How can we make them believe?”, lamented the third-century’s John Chrysostom, pointing out that like unbelievers, Christians were attracted to wealth, sought fame and power equally, and proved to have the same mortal fear of suffering and death.

Commenting on the tendency Christians have to adopt the values of the non-Christian world, writer Philip Yancey underlines the need to remember and realign with the advice the apostle Paul gives: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). Living in the visible world, we will not be able to escape its challenges and the snare of the gifts it offers. However, our attention and affection must focus on the eternal.

The spiritual world operates with reverse hierarchies. It is when we find ourselves at a crossroads that we are able to distinguish more clearly the beauty of eternal values.
In the physical world, social and financial status, competition, beauty, entertainment, and youth are cardinal values.

What they have in common is their impermanence, says the writer, observing that, at a funeral, no one gives praise to the deceased’s physical condition or the size of their bank account. What one rather mentions is the generosity, kindness, or love they had. This is a sign that we do recognize the values that outlast the grave. In a world where our senses are constantly besieged by offers with an expiration date, focusing on the “things above” broadens our perspective and helps us to be rooted in the principles of eternal life.

broken dreams

More than a source of blessings

Constantly lured by the calls of the visible world, we start turning God into a means of getting things that we start to see as good in and of themselves. This is our true problem, says Christian writer Larry Crabb, who is concerned by this constant effort Christians make to get the best life possible, clinging to it with everything they have. No one despises the idea of a better life, but if this becomes our goal, then we will use everything, including our obedience (and the merits we think it brings) to get what we so obstinately desire.

In our religious life, the temptation of “paste jewellery” is very big says author Brennan Manning, analysing the shape of a very familiar sin—that of doing good things for the wrong reasons.

“He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only,” said C.S. Lewis.

Many Christians would reply with an enthusiastic “Amen” to this message, without admitting or realizing that they do not long after God with the eagerness they long for the gifts He might offer.

What we must admit, regardless of how difficult it might be to do so, is that the temptation to love anything else more than God is hidden within our human nature, says writer Larry Crabb . The thing a Christian desires most is not bad in and of itself. On the contrary, what can overshadow our longing for God is the desire to have a happy family, to recover from a serious disease, or the desire for financial stability. God Himself urges us to come to Him with all our burdens, guaranteeing that in Him we shall find rest (and not a mechanism to fix all our problems or the recipe for the prayer that always gets the desired answer).

Placing blessings at the centre of our preoccupations distorts our image of God, says Crabb, up to the point where we come to treat Him as a Saviour who delivers us from suffering, rather than sin. Only in times of intense closeness to God does our longing for Him become more alive than our longing for His blessings, the author says. He points out that one of the lessons of broken dreams is precisely this: to make us thirst after Him more than all the bricks that we would use to build a comfortable life.

Disappointed by God or by our own expectations?

It’s not hard to become confused or simply disappointed by the direction in which God’s plans go. It happened even to John the Baptist, of whose faithfulness Jesus Himself spoke.

It’s not hard to become confused or simply disappointed by the direction in which God’s plans go. It happened even to John the Baptist, of whose faithfulness Jesus Himself spoke.

Unjustly imprisoned by Herod, forced to be inactive after a life of service and preaching, seemingly abandoned by Jesus, John begins to doubt the message he himself had preached. He was the first to herald the coming of the Kingdom of God. He knew the biblical prophecies that testified that Jesus was the Messiah, and had witnessed, at Christ’s baptism, the undisputed evidence of His divinity. The disappointment John felt was the result of misunderstanding Jesus’ mission and the nature of His Kingdom. Like the disciples, he was waiting for the Messiah to claim the Davidic throne and to use his royal authority to eradicate the suffering and oppression experienced by the people. However, this kind of expectation was focused on a Messiah that had not been promised. In the end, John was able to overcome his doubts and disappointment, understanding, after the report brought by His disciples, that the most convincing argument of Jesus’ divinity was the compassionate way in which He served humanity.

Perhaps we cannot identify with the courage, devotion, and faith John practiced during his lifetime, but it’s so easy to see our reflection in the weakness of a disturbing change of perspective (from the triumphant “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” to the bitter question “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”).

When we think that God has let us down, the real source of our disappointment, most likely, is the expectations we had regarding Him, Christian author Wayne Stiles says. If we analyse Jesus’ ministry, we see that He loved His followers enough to allow them to go through disappointments, to confront their expectations with His better promises, and to know authentic joy, born out of a relationship rather than a continuous pouring out of blessings, Stiles says. Precisely because we often do not see the big picture, the fact that we do not understand what God is doing at a certain point should lead us not to doubt, but to worship, they author says.

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The breaking always has its lessons

“On a scale of human suffering, it does not seem to me that my sufferings have been too great,” writes Elisabeth Elliot, whose life’s evidence could easily contradict this statement. She waited five years to get married to the man she loved. They both waited for confirmation that this marriage was part of God’s plan; Jim’s life would be a harsh one, he would be away, on missions, far away from America and the comfort and safety of home life. When they finally managed to get married, their life together ended after only 2 years and three months of marriage, after a bloody attack from the Auca Indian tribe on Jim and his four colleagues. A young widow and mother to a baby, Elisabeth chose to remain for a while with the Quichua Indians and continue her husband’s work, often feeling overwhelmed by loneliness and the responsibilities she had to face. She remarried 13 years later, after she met the theology professor, Addison Leitch. Their marriage lasted four years, until Leitch lost the battle with an aggressive form of cancer.

Whatever might happen to us, we remain under the same auspices, says Elliot, confessing that the losses she suffered helped her internalize a lesson she had learned in college: to find her joy in Christ more than in any other loved one or happy circumstance.

The cross shows us that “safety does not exclude suffering”, says the writer, pointing out that for Christians, suffering is under the control of the One who drained the cup to the dregs. If God never loses, and if all He has is also ours, in reality, any loss we suffer can be turned into gain by Him.

We have a misconception about the way in which our spiritual journeys must unfold, and our crushed dreams correct this misunderstanding, Larry Crabb says. If everything always goes well (which is impossible in a world wrought by sin), we would think that the distinctive trait of the Christian life is discovering God’s glory and goodness in our material, relational or emotional wellbeing. Not only would we not experience the maturity that comes from abandoning ourselves to the arms of our Father, but we would limit divinity’s role to that of constantly improving the quality of our lives here on earth.

Losses are opportunities to experiment with God’s goodness at another level. Luther wrote that God’s goodness is so great “that it cannot be understood without great difficulties and trials.”

This is not an easily digestible perspective, neither for us nor for the hundreds of thousands of Christians who risk their lives, family, and property for His sake. From an old missionary report, the many details of which I have forgotten, I kept the memory of a statement on the way Christians in North Korea pray. They pray not to be spared the suffering they have to endure once they are discovered, but to be prepared to endure any kind of suffering, even death, on the day their religious identity can no longer be concealed.

Wherever they might live and regardless of the circumstances of their lives, every Christian will be faced with the question: Is Jesus Christ enough, when He is all you have left? More frequently than we would like to believe, the bridge that rises over the ruins of shattered dreams to make room for better ones is the same structure that bridges the gap between this question, and our answer.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.