The Great Disappointment

I don’t know much about what happened on October 22nd, 1844, but I can tell you one thing that did not happen: Christ did not return and fulfill the words of Daniel 8:14. This might not strike you as important. You might respond that he didn’t return on October 23rd either, for what it’s worth. Yet for the thousands of followers of a simple Baptist named William Miller, the results of that day were a devastating blow. Miller had come to the conviction that Christ would return sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. When March passed by, some clever Bible reading added another seven months to the scheme. But, alas, the day came and went. Miller’s influence with the crowds vanished. Many were disillusioned. I can’t imagine the pain that this unfortunate experience caused for many who so deeply believed that Christ was on his way.

But not everyone gave up so easily. James and Ellen White decided that on October 22nd Christ did not come to earth but he instead entered the heavenly sanctuary to make atonement there. Moreover, there was a clear reason that he did not return to earth: the church had failed to keep the sabbath of the seventh day. What optimism! The Whites turned the disappointment of October 22nd into the beginning of a movement that would become a global denomination – the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. This may be one of the greatest examples in history of people who turned metaphorical lemons into lemonade.

October 22nd, 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. It is that phrase that has been bubbling around in my mind this week. I did not calculate that the Lord would return on Monday, but I did intend for my family to pile into our van and set off for a vacation in Florida. Yet, that did not materialize. Instead, we were treated with a family round of COVID. As I write these words, I feel an unpleasant tightness in my face and a burning in my throat. I had hoped to be eating a Chick-Fil-A sandwich and getting ready to board the Millenium Falcon. I wouldn’t dream of comparing my suffering to the suffering of the old Millerites. But I am disappointed. Maybe most of all, I am disappointed for my kids. At this moment, I can’t really muster the optimism of the Whites. There is no speculation that my family has spiritually entered the heavenly Florida while our actual bodies are resting right here in Michigan. I am sure that we will reschedule. I know that we have much to be thankful for. But, I am, nonetheless, sad.

I don’t know much about what happened to you today. Or last week. Or five years ago. But I can tell you one thing that has happened: you have been disappointed. You have been hurt. Your expectations have been shattered. The plans fell through. The relationship ended. The test results came back and knocked you off your feet. I don’t pretend to have easy answers for you. Nor would I counsel you to come up with strange rationalizations like the Whites did after the Great Disappointment. There are, however, two truths that stabilize me right now and, I pray, would help you as well. The first truth is this: “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Psalm 115:3). God’s sovereignty is sweet news to the weary and the disappointed. What do you get if you reject the clear meaning of this verse? You don’t get relief from the suffering. You don’t get joy. Instead, you lose the thought that even your disappointments have purpose and your wrong turns still bring you home in the end. I would rather suffer with the firm conviction that God is not surprised nor set back. I would rather be disappointed knowing that this too can serve God’s glory and my good. The second truth is this: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). I have been disappointed. But I can receive comfort from God at this moment. Then, I can give the comfort that I have received to someone else as they process their own hurts. What a beautiful arrangement! It is through the ugliest event that ever happened – the crucifixion of Jesus – that the salvation and mercy of God have been proclaimed and offered to the nations. Your tribulations are also little schools getting you ready to bless and comfort others.

I am disappointed that we did not go on vacation. But I am comforted to know that God has his purposes for this week. One of those purposes is to increase my capacity for empathy and compassion toward others who share in disappointment. As we await the second advent of Jesus, we are each commissioned to minister to those around us and to speak comfort to the hurting. To join in this work is not disappointing in the least.

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