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Few things are as disheartening as unfulfilled expectations. While we recognise that disappointment is a part of life, things can get ugly when expectations are met with disappointment.

The ancient philosopher Epictetus advised, “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” According to this philosophy, the key to dealing with disappointment is to adjust your expectations.

The disappointment that comes from unfulfilled expectations is as old as the human race. When Eve birthed Cain, she believed that he was the promised offspring who would overturn the curse. She expectantly declared, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1). She expected Cain to be the promised offspring. How disappointed she must have ultimately been!

If Eve’s disappointment was based on a misunderstanding of God’s promises, other disappointments arise from an absence of divine promise. This was the case for Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25). As a young married couple, they had anticipated a future in which they would build a family. As the years passed, their expectation remained unfulfilled. For decades, they longed and prayed for a child, but they remained childless well into their advanced years—and they felt disgraced because of it (v. 25). While their desire for a child was good, and while it reflected a healthy understanding that marriage is, in large part, designed for procreation (Malachi 2:15), they had no promise from God that they would have a child. God nowhere promises that he will give every married couple children. Many a marriage has experienced the devastating disappointment of childlessness. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s was one.

As I read the account again recently, I was struck by the way that they responded to their disappointment. Many a professing Christian has walked away from the church and the faith in the face of unfulfilled expectations. John Mark walked away when the missionary life proved more difficult than he expected it to be (Acts 15:36–41). Demas deserted Paul when the expectations of faithfulness to Christ did not shine as brightly as the allure of the world (2 Timothy 4:10). Zechariah and Elizabeth were different. They persevered. Their response to disappointment honoured God and has much to teach us when we face our own disappointment. Let’s consider four ways in which this godly couple responded to disappointment and seek, by God’s grace, to emulate their example.

First, Zechariah and Elizabeth met their disappointment with devotion to God. Even though God did not fulfil their expectations for a child, “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (v. 6). They may have been tempted many a time to give up on their devotion to God, but their faith was not rooted in some form of prosperity gospel. Even when God did not give them the desire of the heart, they knew that he was worthy of their devotion.

Second, Zechariah and Elizabeth met their disappointment with service to God. “Now while he was serving as priest before God” (v. 8). Far too many have abandoned any pretence of service to God when he has not fulfilled their expectations. Zechariah and Elizabeth would not allow unfulfilled expectations to interrupt their service to God. They knew that he was good even when they did not understand his ways and kept serving him faithfully.

Third, Zechariah and Elizabeth met their disappointment with prayer to God. When Gabriel assured Zechariah that “your prayer has been heard” (v. 13), the Greek construction suggests that God heard a particular prayer. In other words, God had not so much heard the prayers that they had prayed over the years but had heard a specific prayer and sent Gabriel in response to that prayer. This suggests that, even into their advanced years, they were still praying for a child. Perhaps, as devoted servants, they were familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah and therefore believed that God could give them a child even in their advanced years. While Zechariah did express doubt on the basis of age (v. 18), I wonder if his unbelief was more about the kind of son that God promised than about the fact that he promised a son. God promised a son who would be the messianic forerunner foretold by Malachi (vv. 14–17; cf. Malachi 4). They might have believed that God would give them a son, but surely not a son of that calibre. They did not have the energy in their advanced age to raise such an important person. But the tense of Gabriel’s words suggests that they at least persisted in prayer in the face of unfulfilled expectations.

Fourth, Zechariah and Elizabeth met their unfulfilled expectations with obedience to God. Even though they were advanced in years, when Zechariah’s service was finished, “he went to his home” and “his wife Elizabeth conceived” (vv. 23–24). We wonder how she must have felt when she arrived home to the sounds of Barry Manilow crooning over a candlelit dinner. Regardless, when she heard Gabriel’s promise, she was obediently intimate with her husband and thereby conceived.

In these four ways, Zechariah and Elizabeth offer a wonderful example to Christians of how to respond to disappointment. When your expectations are unfulfilled, and you are tempted to turn your back on your God and your faith, respond instead with devotion, with service, with prayer, and with obedience, trusting the wisdom and the power of God.

Stuart Chase - 27 September 2022

Dealing with Disappointment

BBC Shorts

When your expectations are unfulfilled, and you are tempted to turn your back on your God and your faith, respond instead with devotion, with service, with prayer, and with obedience, trusting the wisdom and the power of God.

From Series: "BBC Shorts"

Occasional pastoral thoughts from the elders of Brackenhurst Baptist Church.

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