I had a chance to go back to this book recently thanks to my own season of struggles, and wow, oh wow, it has not lost any of its potency or its timeliness. Because of that, and because this is a somewhat lesser-known Yancey book, I wanted to review it here.
Yancey frames this book with the story of “Richard,” a young man whom he initially meets when he promises to look at, shape, and write the foreword for his book on Job. Unfortunately, Richard – beset with life circumstances that have caused him to struggle – becomes disheartened with God’s apparent silence and hiddenness, and ultimately rejects both God and the faith. Yancey’s desire to explore Richard’s questions about God, and his disappointment with God, structure the book itself: an exploration of why God permits sorrow, loss, and confusion, why He sometimes seems to be hiding, silent, or not present, and how Christians should comprehend and deal with divine disappointment.
The book comes in two parts, which is what part of what makes it so intriguing. In the first part of the book, Yancey decides to examine the nature of God: what is it that God wants from man? What does God’s love look like? In the relationship between God and humans, what are events like from God’s perspective? To find the answers, Yancey spends a lot of time in the prophetic books and in the Old Testament, as well as with Jesus in the New.
This part of the book, theological in nature and deeply thoughtful, is striking even if you’re only after an adequate description or understanding of God Himself: not as an impotent, disinterested, deity, but as a raging, passionate, lovesick, irritated, hopeful, frustrated Creator. No book I have ever read has done as fine a job of revealing some of the depths of God’s character, of offering up an understanding of His feelings and desires or of His love. And Yancey does not shy away from hard truths about disappointment here, pointing out that both in times of plentiful miracle and blatantly manifest presence, disappoint with God is still a regular occurrence. In fact, disappointment with God seems to be the way of things – even as God has a far deeper struggle with, and a more justifiable basis for, disappointment with us.
Following the Bible all the way through, Yancey paints a picture of a God who has concerns and priorities that differ wildly from our own, and of humans who are bent on being disappointed with God no matter what He does or in what form He appears. In this regard, Yancey points out, being disappointed with God is part and parcel of the human experience, built into the fabric of being a person on earth: so how does this experience fit into what we know of God, and what He desires for us?
In the second part of the book, meant less to theologically grasp the nature of disappointment than to address the hurts of those disappointed, Yancey addresses this question by analyzing Job in what is one of my all-time favorite discussions of the book. Is it typical to be disappointed in God? (The answer is yes.) Is feeling God’s silence or hiddenness evidence that God is far away? (Not by half.) Is there a purpose to our disappointment? (Yes.) And why does God continue to act in ways that are incomprehensible to us?
Yancey is not interested in offering easy answers. Indeed, if you’re looking for a “avoiding spiritual disappointment” guide, you’ve come to the wrong place. Yancey peppers his account with heartbreaking stories of suffering believers and those who have believed God even when it seems God is silent. Encountering their stories, he reveals that a) disappointment is a natural, if not inevitable, experience for the believer, b) God is present even in times when we don’t sense Him or hear from Him, and c) there is a purpose for us and something of value to God in our response to times of disappointment, and in our faith during them. As for the question of why God permits disappointment or suffering in His children? Yancey has a few guesses, but largely stresses that we can’t know, embracing the inherent leap of faith that the believer must necessarily make without cheapening it or making it sound simple.
If, like me, you start out the book hoping that Richard will be redeemed, you will not get a satisfactory answer. Indeed, by book’s end he remains defiant about turning away from the faith, though Yancey senses dissatisfaction and longing in that defiance. for Richard’s story, there is no easy answer. And that’s an appropriate ending for a book that reminds us sometimes there are no easy answers: only the choice of whether we will commit to remain faithful, or not, in the hope of what comes after everything is said and done, and in the knowledge that God gains finds deeply valuable from that faith of ours.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound comforting – and yet, it is. Disappointment with God is a book that distills the sometimes-uncomfortable core of faith, and presents it as it is with no dissembling or false promises. Reading it may not lessen the pain of a trial, but it will encourage you to endure for the duration of it – to stand, and to keep standing, strong.