by Alexa Hess
My husband and I had been counting down the days to our vacation. We purchased our favorite snacks from the store, packed our new hiking shoes, and prepared to spend a week driving down the California coast. When the day finally arrived, we set off with excitement and anticipation over our vacation plans. But soon, the joy faded as we found ourselves with disappointments along the way.
Someone we knew tested positive for COVID, so we had to find three testing centers throughout the week to make sure we were healthy.
The only beach day we had was cloudy, breezy, and cold.
The lake we planned to hike to in Yosemite turned out to be dried out, being more of a puddle than a lake.
At this point, I was trying so hard to remain positive. But when we got to the spot where Half Dome was supposed to be beautifully reflected in the waters, and all we saw was sand, every ounce of positivity vanished.
As we walked back to the car, I found myself repeating to myself, My joy is not rooted in my experiences. My joy is not rooted in my experiences.
Have you ever had your hopes up for something only to have those hopes crushed? When something you were expecting and desiring didn’t happen?
Maybe you had hopes that the person you were dating would be the one, only to have that person break up with you. Maybe you had hopes that you would have a child, only to be met with one line on the pregnancy test. Or maybe you had hopes of going to your dream school or having your dream job, only to receive a polite decline.
Most of us have experienced what it’s like to have unmet expectations, and we will likely continue to have unmet expectations. Yet, when plans fail and experiences disappoint, we don’t have to despair in those moments. As followers of Christ, we can have contentment and joy even when things don’t go the way we hoped or planned.
In Philippians 4:11-12, Paul writes, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself…in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content.” This is coming from the same man who was repeatedly whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, famished, and robbed (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). How could Paul have contentment in any and all circumstances when some of those circumstances were horrible? Paul gives us the answer in Philippians 4:13, “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.”
The secret of being content is that contentment is found in Christ. Paul’s contentment was rooted in Christ, so even when danger and disaster struck, his joy remained secure. This doesn’t mean that Paul was emotionless and painless during times of hardship. He felt the pain of being whipped, the hunger of being famished, and the anxiety of being shipwrecked. In the same way, seeking contentment in Christ does not mean we aren’t to react to our disappointments. It is good and right to grieve a failed relationship, a barren womb, and a declined admission or job opportunity. We live in a fallen world, and many of our unmet expectations will be due to the brokenness of this world. Yet when our contentment is in Christ, our disappointment won’t lead us to despair. Our joy is not rooted in our circumstances and experiences—our joy is rooted in Christ.
When our joy is rooted in Christ, we will be reminded of what we possess even when plans crumble and hope falls. Because we belong to Christ, we will forever have His peace, His strength, and His presence. Our unity with Christ means that the gift of our salvation and the hope of eternity with Jesus remains secure. No matter our experiences, our circumstances cannot rob us of the presence or promises of God.
Instead of allowing unmet expectations to ruin my vacation, I decided to allow my unmet expectations to direct me to Jesus. Looking to Him reminded me that some of my feelings of discontent lay in needing a perfect vacation or Instagram picture to be happy. Looking to Him reminded me of the gift of grace it was to have time off from work, the ability to gaze at God’s creation, and the opportunity to spend extended time with my husband. And most of all, looking to Him reminded me that having Christ is far greater than what any experience can provide.
So in the moments your expectations aren’t met, take a breath, and look to Christ. Remind yourself that your joy is not rooted in your changing circumstances but in your unchangeable God. And then move forward, trusting that God’s presence and strength will be with you no matter what you experience.