Our Disappointments Matter to God
Adapted from a message by Ravi Zacharias based in part upon a chapter from his most recent book, The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us Through the Events of Our Lives (Zondervan: 2007).
I want to look at the theme of God as the Grand Weaver. When I was a teenager growing up in Delhi I was really not doing very well. I was failing at everything. For those of you who have read my story in Walking from East to West, you’ll know failure was writ large on my life. My dad basically looked at me and said, “You know, you’re going to be a huge embarrassment to the family—one failure after another.” And he was right given the way I was headed. I just was looking for an escape. I wanted to get out of everything I was setting my hand to, and I lacked discipline.
During this time, India was at war with a neighboring country and the defense academy was looking for pilots to be trained. They were calling them general duties pilots—G.D. pilots. So I applied and I went to be interviewed for this. It was an overnight train journey from the city of Delhi. It was wintertime and it gets quite cold then in the northern part of the country. We were outside freezing in the cold air for about five days as we went through physical endurance tests and all kinds of other tests. There were three hundred applicants; they were going to select ten. On the last day they put their selection of names out on the board, and I was positioned number three.
I phoned my family and said, “You aren’t going to believe this. I’m going to make it. I’m number three. The only thing that’s left is the interview. The psychological testing is tomorrow, and I’ll be home.”
The next morning I began my interview with the chief commanding officer, who looked to me like Churchill sitting across the table. He asked me question after question. Then he leaned forward and said, “Son, I’m going to break your heart today.” I wondered what he was going to say. He continued, “I’m going to reject you. I’m not going to pass you in this test.” “May I ask you why, sir?” I replied. “Yes. Psychologically, you’re not wired to kill. And this job is about killing.”
You know, inside of me I felt that I was on the verge of wanting to prove him wrong right then and there. But I knew better, both for moral reasons and for his size! So I went back to my room and didn’t talk to anybody, packed my bags, got into the train, and arrived in Delhi. My parents and friends were waiting at the platform with garlands and sweets in their hands to congratulate me. No one knew. I thought to myself, “How do I even handle this? Where do I even begin?” They were celebrating, and yet for me, it was all over.
Or so I thought.
Had I been selected, I would have had to commit twenty years to the Indian armed forces. It was the very next year that my father had the opportunity to move to Canada. My brother and I moved there as the first installment, and the rest of them followed. It was there I was in business school and God redirected my paths to theological training. It was there that I met Margie; there my whole life changed. The rest is history. Had I been in the Indian Air Force, who knows what thread I’d have pulled to wreck the fabric.
Thankfully, our disappointments matter to God, and He has a way of taking even some of the bitterest moments we go through and making them into something of great significance in our life. It’s hard to understand it at the time. Not one of us wants that thread when it is being woven in. Not one of us says, “I can hardly wait to see where this is going to fit.” We all say at that moment, “This is not the pattern I want.”
After a series of miracles, Moses audaciously said to the Lord, “How will I know it is you who’s calling me here?” And the Lord, if you will, with a little grin on his face, probably said, “When you get there, you’ll find out. You will worship me on that mountain.” Moses essentially replies, “Wait a minute. I’m not asking you what I’m going to feel like when I get there because it’s too late then to say I’ve done the wrong thing. I want to know now: what is it you’re really asking me to do and why?”
Regarding our disappointments, there are two critical points I want to make before I get into the heart of my response. (Those of you who pick up the book, there’s a study guide at the end of it addressing this in detail. I hope this response will become meaningful for many of you as it was for me.) The first thing is this: when you speak of disappointment, it is impossible to think of it outside of the philosophical issue of suffering itself. That is, it is not just that you’re disappointed in a job interview. It is not just that you’re disappointed that you went on a journey and it turned out to be something other than what you thought it would be. It’s not just that you bought a car and found out it was a lemon.
Rather, it is the fact that life itself sometimes has the word “disappointment” writ large all across it. Despair, for some, is not a moment—it is a way of life. I remember reading the story of a well-known baseball umpire at the peak of his career. Everything was seemingly going well. Then his wife comes home and finds him in the garage, and he’s poisoned himself with carbon monoxide. He’s gone and there’s no note left.
Over the years I have discovered that pain, like despair, comes not in one package or one expression but in different measures and spares nobody. In the process it shapes us uniquely.
I have a very basic philosophical response, and I’ve written on this many other ways. It runs something like this: the philosophical problem is actually far more intense than the skeptic actually thinks it is. The philosophical problem, or the problem of pain, is actually more complex and complicated than the philosopher actually thinks it is when he or she raises the question. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens attempt to hit God with both fists. Their biggest problem is the problem of evil. How can God allow all of this?
In fact, Harris actually showed his true colors in an interview with The Sun magazine in September 2006. He said, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.” I shudder to think, if he has a daughter, whether he’d say that after she was raped, possibly by an irreligious man.
They raise the question of evil, and I’m telling you, it is more complex than they think it is. Why? Because one must question the questioner. If there’s such a thing as evil, you assume there’s such a thing as good. If you assume there’s such a thing as good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. If you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law, you must posit a moral law giver, but that’s whom they are trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there’s not a moral law giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil. What is their question?
Now you may question the last jump: why do you actually need a moral law giver if you have a moral law? The answer is because the questioner and the issue he or she questions always involve the essential value of a person. That is, you can never talk of morality in abstraction. Persons are implicit to the question and the object of the question. In a nutshell, positing a moral law without a moral law giver would be equivalent to raising the question of evil without a questioner. So you cannot have a moral law unless the moral law itself is intrinsically woven into personhood, which means it demands an intrinsically worthy person if the moral law itself is valued. And that person can only be God.
Second, the question is not only more complex philosophically; the question’s more complex experientially. You see, most people end in despair not from disappointment through pain but disappointment with pleasure. The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced what you thought would deliver the ultimate—and it has let you down. That’s the reality. Oscar Wilde once suggested, “There is no passion that we cannot feel, no pleasure that we may not gratify, and we can choose the time of our initiation and the time of our freedom.” He was the quintessential hedonist, yet he confessed that “desire at the end was a malady, madness, or both.” He said that he had become numb to feeling; he’d lost the capacity to feel pleasure. At the end of his life, he sent for a minister and admitted that only Christ was big enough to forgive his sin. This was the definitive man on sensuality. Thus, the question is far more complex philosophically and experientially.
So where do we find some answers? By way of introduction, let me suggest that we must put our own disappointments in balance. I have seen so much as I travel, and I think we, particularly in the West, are spoiled. That is, we take up issue with God about a cold. Now I understand that colds can be horrible, but while people are being martyred in the Middle East for the sake of the Gospel, we need to put our problems a little more in perspective. I’m not saying not to be disturbed by such troubles; I’m just saying don’t lose your faith over them.
When I was finishing writing my book, I went to the kitchen early in the morning to make myself a cup of coffee. All of a sudden I heard some crunching. My daughter was visiting us and she brought her puppy. The previous night, in front of the kids, I presented my wife, Margie, with a necklace I bought overseas of semiprecious and precious stones and zircons. The colors were so beautiful that everyone I showed it to wished I were giving it to them. Yet there was that necklace on the floor, and the puppy was having a ball. I started crying. I said, “What do I tell this dog? You’ve just ruined a beautiful necklace.” And of course, the puppy just looked at me. When Margie came down, she was horrified and said she would see if she could find a jeweler to fix it. I was thinking more of somebody that could take care of the dog!
But sometime later it dawned on me as I was mourning this loss that the previous night Margie had talked with one of her very close friends from childhood. They’d grown up together, and within eighteen months she had lost her father, her husband, and her son. She commented, “It has put all of life in perspective.” Yes, I mourned the loss of that necklace—it was something I really wanted to give. But one can always replace a necklace. So we ought to put our disappointments in balance.
The First Step
How do we do this? Every journey requires deliberate steps. I believe there are three distinct steps before the pattern becomes visible and the work of God is displayed. The first step is a commitment of the heart. Your commitment to God is first and foremost a thing of the heart. To “trust in the Lord with all your heart and to lean not on your own understanding and in all of your ways acknowledge him” (Proverbs 3: 5-6a). Nobody understood this better than the man who wrote those words, Solomon. If you look at the book of Proverbs you’ll find the word “heart” again and again. Solomon talked about the heart because he lost his heart to many women. But he reminds us, “My son, give me your heart” (Proverbs 23: 26). This is because your entire spiritual journey and the threads that God wants to pull together will be determined by who owns your heart.
Now I’m an apologist; we deal with the things of the intellect. Some of my closest friends are apologists and we work together. William Lane Craig, probably the finest Christian philosopher around today, was a classmate at graduate school. Norman Geisler was my professor and I know him well now. I remember once being at a conference with them and two other apologists. We were having lunch together when a man nearby joked, “I hope a bomb doesn’t fall in this place; apologetics is finished for a few years.” But you know what? Every one of them will tell you it gets tiresome. After some time, it gets tiresome to just give intellectual answers to people because life has to find a bridge from the mind to the heart. It was a famed archbishop of Canterbury who said that the longest journey in life is from the head to the heart. The problem with these atheists is that for many it has never gone into their hearts. It is all a cerebral thing.
However, the work of God is not displayed in abstract terms. It is concrete. Here is my point. At the end of your life, one of three things will happen to your heart: it will be hardened, broken, or made tender. These terms are not clichés; they are real. Nobody escapes. Your heart will become coarse and desensitized, be crushed under the weight of disappointment, or be made tender by that which makes the heart of God tender as well. God’s heart is a caring heart. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, He is deeply touched by our infirmities (see Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-5:3).
Writer Calvin Miller says in his book Spirit, Word, and Story,
“The sermon and the Spirit always work in combination to produce liberation. Sometimes the Spirit and sermon do supply direct answers to human need, but most often they answer indirectly…. The sermon, no matter how sincere, cannot solve these unsolvable problems. So if the sermon is not a problem solver, where shall we go for the solutions? Together with the Spirit, the sermon exists to point out that having answers is not essential to living. What is essential is the sense of God’s presence during dark seasons of questioning…. Our need for specific answers is dissolved in the greater issue of the lordship of Christ over all questions—those that have answers and those that don’t.”
It is your heart in close communion with God that helps carry you through the pain, beyond the power of mere words. We went through a very tough time as a family over the last two years, and one of my daughters said to my wife and me, “Sometimes I wonder if God’s plan is a little bit like these GPS systems in our cars. You get off route and a voice tells you you’re on the wrong road—make a U-turn or make a left—and somehow it prompts you to get you back onto the main route. You might take the long way there but your destination is the same, and like the GPS, God calculates the way back.” I think it’s a brilliant analogy.
The children of Israel wandered around for forty years. It should have taken six weeks. God said, “Wrong route—get back here. Wrong route—get back here.” Our stiff-necked belief tells us we have it all together and so we don’t hear God’s direction. But in God’s grace He leads us back. My purpose here is simply to note the appointments God makes with each of us individually in the disappointments of our lives—both the threads that He brings in and the ones that He leaves out. That is where we will find the distinctive shape and imprint of the Grand Weaver.
I was talking to the chief of intelligence of a Middle Eastern country recently who said, “I give this part of the world no more than five years. And maybe the whole world no more than five years if nothing changes.” We have all these minds working on solutions but we don’t have any answers because our hearts are not in tune with the mercy and the grace and the love of God. We want to solve it all our way. And so problems of five thousand years old, we are settling on the battlefield. One man we met who lives on his country’s border takes his ten-year-old son to the top of the hill every day and tells his boy, “Your whole goal in life should be to kill as many of them on the other side as you can.” When he’s sixteen and has these bombs strapped on him, he doesn’t know any better because that’s all that’s been pummeled into his brain. We don’t have the brains to solve everything we see.
My question to you today is who owns your heart? To whom does your heart belong? How will you know the answer to the question? It is what Solomon said: “In all your ways acknowledge him.” It is the path that you choose, the decisions that you make, the way that you live. If you do not acknowledge God, then your heart belongs to something or someone other than to Him. So the first step is a commitment of the heart.
Faith Is a Mindset
Second, it is a discipline of the mind. When you have faith in God, it is not credulity; it is not foolishness. Neither do you emerge into some kind of a cerebral individual. In fact, I have known some highly cerebral, driven individuals who spent most of their lives defending the Christian faith and then ended up with some very deep questions of the soul. Such a life is unlivable. Yes, faith is a thing of the mind. But the mind is more than the brain. What the brain is to the body, the mind is to the soul. Faith is the way you view things. If you do not believe that God is in control and has formed you for a purpose, you will flounder on the high seas of purposelessness, drowning in the currents and drifting further into nothingness.
Let me give you a simple illustration of this. One of the things I love about the Christian faith is that we have some wonderful questions that we’ll have time to interact with and see brilliantly unfold for us in eternity. Think of the ones walking on the Emmaus road with all of these questions. They look at this stranger and ask, “Are you the only one in Israel who doesn’t know what’s happened?” when the irony was Jesus was the only one in Israel who did know what had happened! And then after explaining everything, he broke a piece of bread and their eyes were opened. Then he was gone. They wanted to ask a few more questions, but instead they had to trust what they had received from him already.
Noah’s another fascinating character. Read his story again. Genesis 6 describes every detail of the ark: how high, how wide, what kind of wood, the whole blueprint. Take your family: your wife, your children, and their spouses. So Noah gets in, locks the door, and the flood is on. Notice that everything is described except for two vital details: there is no sail and no rudder. Imagine preparing to be on water for that many days with nothing to control the direction of the ship! The very two things he needed to have some control are missing. Just when you think you’ve got everything in control, you’ll find out you don’t.
It’s like the comical story I read about a very nervous elderly flier. It was her first flight and the aircraft was bouncing its way through “moderate” turbulence, which is a euphemism for the last rites and you wonder if even the pilot is still in his seat. The woman was panicking and began to scream. After they cleared the turbulence, the pilot stepped out of the cockpit and knelt beside her. He asked her, “Madam, do you see that light on the end of the right wingtip?”
“Yes,” she stammered.“Now look out of the other window at the left wingtip. Do you see the light on the left wingtip?”“Yes,” she replied.“You know what, Ma’am,” the pilot continued, “as long as we stay between those two lights you have no reason to worry.”
In other words, the lights are a guide but they a self-referencing beacon. Such self-referencing guides are supposed to make us feel better, and we think that if only we were in control everything would be fine. The sail and the rudder. We want to control it all. I know a friend who is terrified of flying because he says he cannot handle anything in which he has no control. I did not want to offend him by saying, “Welcome to life.”
God says to us, “No, I am in control.” Remember the chapter on faith in Hebrews 11? Here’s what it says at the end: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (verses 39-40). Even these great people of faith did not see the end of the story. But there was a mindset they had, and it is this: God has made it imperative in the design of life that we become willing to trust beyond ourselves. Walking by faith means to follow Someone else who knows more than we do, Someone who is also good. If you do not have the mind of faith you will be in peril repeatedly and the one who will get the blame will be God. This discipline of the mind is the necessary second step when we wrestle with our disappointments.
The third step is recognition of your ultimate purpose. You have to define what your ultimate purpose is. Pascal said in his famed Wager that you have to define life backwards and then live it forwards. He wrote, “For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal … [and] that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.” Where are you going, and what is your goal and destiny? On the basis of your answer, then, you plan the route accordingly.
I was asked to speak at the United Nations for their prayer breakfast for a second time, and they gave me a tougher subject than the first one. I was to speak on “Navigating with Absolutes in a Relativistic World”—at 6:30 in the morning! I was asked to do this in twenty-five minutes and given one other requirement: don’t talk much about religion because people from all faiths will be there. I said, “I’ll do it, but on one condition. Eighteen minutes, your talk; seven minutes, why my belief in God answers these questions.” I spoke on the search for absolutes in four areas: evil, justice, love, and forgiveness.
“We all want to define what evil is,” I said. “We have people here calling other nations evil. We all want to know what evil is. You’re a society that’s supposedly looking for justice. You’ve left your families, and you miss them because you love them. And some of you are going to blow it big time with ethics; you hope the rest of your peers are willing to forgive you, and you want to know on what basis. Evil, justice, love and forgiveness.”
They’re all nodding. I said, “I want you to think for a moment. Is there any event in history where these four converged in one place? It happened on a hill called Calvary, where evil, justice, love, and forgiveness converged.”
There was pin drop silence. With five minutes left, I spoke on the cross of Christ and how the cross shows the heart of man, how the cross came because of the justice of God, how the cross demonstrates to us the very love of God, and how we find at the end of the day that without his forgiveness we would never make it. At the end one ambassador confessed, “My country’s atheistic. I don’t even know why I came here. Today I have my answer. I came here to find God.” That is the power of the cross.
The hill of Calvary is at the very center point of the Gospel. All the suffering of the world converged there in that single act of sacrifice when the One who was without sin took the penalty of sin and accepted the ultimate in suffering—separation from his Father—so that we might be brought to Him. It was the lowest point of the incarnate Christ; he was separated from the Father while still in the center of the Father’s will. There the threads converged in a pattern that seemed so disparate from the world’s point of view, yet they were the crimson threads of our restoration to God. This was Jesus’ ultimate purpose: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Through the Eyes of Jesus
There’s an incredible story told from Scotland. My wife and I were visiting there with our colleague Stuart McAllister. Stuart is from Scotland and I often joke with him about needing an interpreter when he speaks English because he has a rich Scottish accent. I asked Stuart to take us to Glencoe. In 1692 the Campbell clan was sent there by the king to eradicate the MacDonalds completely. The Campbells came to Glencoe posing as friends and then slaughtered the MacDonalds in the middle of the night. The story is immortalized by a song titled “The Massacre of Glencoe.”
Oh cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe, and covers the graves o’Donald. Oh cruel was the foe that raped Glencoe, and murdered the house of MacDonald. They came in a blizzard, we offered them heat, a roof o’er their heads, dry shoes for their feet. We wined them and dined them, they ate of our meatand they slept in the house o’ MacDonald. They came from Fort William with murder in mind. The Campbells had orders, King William had signed.“Put all to the sword,” these words underlined ,and leave none alive called MacDonald. They came in the night while our men were asleep ,this band of Argyles, through snow soft and deep. Like murdering foxes among helpless sheep, they slaughtered the house o’ MacDonald.Some died in their beds at the hand of the foe.Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow. Some lived to accuse him who struck the first blow, but gone was the house o’ MacDonald.
What is fascinating about this historic incident is that three hundred years later it is still remembered in Scotland as if it were yesterday. As you arrive in Glencoe, a lone bagpiper slowly paces back and forth playing the haunting melody. The story is tragic and the song always leaves me heavy-hearted. But what is more, when Stuart spoke of the massacre, his Scottish accent and the mournful sounds of that distinctively Scottish instrument amid the ruins of the setting where it all occurred almost made me feel that I had been there when it happened.
It was three hundred years ago, but hear the bagpiper and the story unfolded with a Scottish voice, and the reality of the tragedy becomes even deeper for a stranger. If an accent, the location, and music can put the reality within reach even though we are separated by three centuries, how much more can we understand suffering when we see it through the eyes of the One who defines good and evil, justice and forgiveness, and who went to the cross to deal with it? Is that not the only way we can understand and cope with our own suffering? When you see the Son of God and he explains Calvary to you, you will understand it like you’ve never understood it before. You’ll hear it in his voice; you’ll see it in his body. He is the One who cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet again, at the very moment Jesus uttered that prayer, he was at the center of his Father’s will.
We must see our world of pain through the eyes of Jesus, who best understands it not merely as pain but as brokenness and separation. In the solitude of reflection, the heart and the mind come together to think of the cross. The hymnwriter said it well:
I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes and try to see,
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.
But even could I see him die,
I could but see a little part,
Of that great love,
which, like a fire,
Is always burning in his heart.
I want you to understand that we have a Shepherd who leads us through, who takes care of us, and your disappointments do matter. How many times I’ve thanked God that I was not wired to kill. But you see, He wired me differently because he had something else in mind for me. Have there been some deep, deep valleys? You bet. But have I always sensed that He’s been with me and never doubted it.
You may have heard this commentary on Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd”: that’s relationship.“I shall not want”: that’s supply.“He makes me to lie down in green pastures”: that’s rest.“He leads me beside still waters”: that’s refreshment.“He restores my soul”: that’s healing.“He guides me in the paths of righteousness”: that’s guidance.“For his name’s sake”: that’s purpose.“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”: that’s testing.“I will fear no evil”: that’s protection.“For you are with me”: that’s faithfulness.“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”: that’s discipline.“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies”: that’s hope.“You anoint my head with oil”: that’s consecration.“My cup overflows”: that’s abundance.“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life”: that’s blessing.“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord”: that’s security.
“Forever”: that’s eternity.
Your disappointments do matter because the Shepherd of your soul will put it all together for you and has an eternity for you to revel in the marvel of what God has done. Our Father holds the threads of the design, and I’m so immensely grateful that He is the Grand Weaver.