The December sky was low and gray on the morning I woke up and could not feel my hands. I wrung out my arms, hoping the sensation would return. I shook them violently to no avail. Rushing to the bathroom, I held them under hot water. Then frigid water. Neither helped.
Within days, prickly tingles crept up my arm and spread to my shoulders. The numbness turned into pain that burned, ached, and stabbed. Even my fingernails throbbed. A neurologist performed tests using electrified needles inserted into my muscles and shock pads placed on the skin. Nothing appeared abnormal.
Next came a series of scans and a litany of tests for minor problems like vitamin deficiencies, major illnesses like Lupus, and life-threatening conditions like multiple myeloma. Each brought excruciating waiting and worry. I was, after all, a writer whose livelihood depended on having control of his hands. All returned negative.
My symptom list grew with each passing month. First came nerve twitches in my legs, arms, back, and face. Then a paradox of sapping fatigue and insomnia. Severe panic attacks struck without warning, and I broke out in excruciating shingles from the overwhelming stress. The slightest stressor—a large crowd or a long line, common in New York City, where I live—left me bedridden.
The revolving door of physicians left me without a diagnosis and drowning in an ocean of medications: anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, nerve pills, pain killers, antiepileptic drugs, sleeping pills, and a healthy dose of Lexapro and Xanax to keep me from a full-on mental break. I grasped for anyone who would help, scheduling appointments with cardiologists and chiropractors, naturopaths and nutritionists, holistic doctors and Hasidic Jewish healers.
My life blurred. My ability to work was reduced to a meager three hours a day. My social life disintegrated, leaving me in depths of loneliness I’d never known before. Everything familiar looked strange. Pain tormented me at every moment. I awoke to pain, worked with pain, dined with pain, and fought for sleep despite pain’s presence.
I was helpless like Job, brought low before God out of sheer desperation. When he was faced with his own pain, he could only bow before the Divine and listen to the wind. The difference between us is that once Job submitted, God restored him. I had no such luck. I was incarcerated in the prison of my own body.
And just like that, I joined the more than 25 million Americans who struggle with chronic pain disorders, many of them idiopathic in nature. As a Christian, I believed that God was sovereign, which made my chronic pain journey also a voyage of divine disappointment.
Come on, God. You know my story. You were there when my neighbor abused me as a child. You know how awkward and alienated I felt throughout adolescence. You know how I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life. I’m starting to see sunlight, to get a little relief, and then this happens? Really?
This is the edited version, actually. I spoke words to God that the MPAA would bar from a PG-13 movie.
The Dopamine Roller Coaster
On November 9, 2016, New Yorkmagazine published an article on the science of disappointment. The article opened by stating the obvious, which is that “the feeling of being let down is actually one of life’s toughest emotional experiences.”
Of course, most people don’t need a magazine article to know that this is true, that disappointment hurts. A spouse or partner, that person who made butterflies dance inside you, cheated on you, and then hid it. Your colleague smeared you in a meeting to steal the promotion you earned. The child you prayed over since birth stormed out of the house, swearing to never return. A forgotten birthday, a withheld apology, a bucketful of lies from someone you’d die for.
Disappointment is an unavoidable part of being human, but as the New York magazine article noted, the experience is physiological, not just emotional. The feeling of disappointment is linked to your levels of dopamine: the brain’s “pleasure” chemical, released during positive life experiences. The dopamine systems in your brain don’t just react to what you experience; they attempt to predict what you want or need.
Here’s how it works: Your brain generates expectations about the future. Often these expectations are based on what you want. Something you perceive as good has happened in the past, so you begin to expect it will happen in the future. Before it even happens, your dopamine levels begin to rise in the rush of anticipation. Then, when that good thing actually occurs, you get a double shot of dopamine.
Here’s the rub: Life doesn’t always give us what we expect. People fail us. People hurt us. People lay us on the altars of their own selfishness. When you don’t get the desired result—researchers call this a “reward-prediction error”—not only do your dopamine levels fall; they plummet from the heightened level generated by your expectations.
Now, instead of receiving a double shot of dopamine, you receive none. You crash doubly hard: “Not only do you not get what you wanted,” the article states, “but you also feel the displeasure of having been wrong.” The point? “Losing hurts even worse … when it’s not what you were expecting.”
In the valley of my disappointment, I discovered a gospel story that’s a portrait of what it looks like when an entire community suffers a reward-prediction error. It’s known as the “triumphal entry,” and it is usually told on Palm Sunday in most churches.
Dust was swirling across the scorching desert as a rebel-Rabbi and his band of co-conspirators climbed up to Jerusalem. Rather than slip into the city unannounced, Jesus did something strange. He told a couple of his disciples to go to a particular place and retrieve a donkey for him to ride into the city.
Jesus turned his face toward a city that kills prophets, stones truth-tellers, and executes troublemakers. With a deep sigh, he steeled himself, mounted the humble beast, and clip-clopped toward the Kidron Valley. When the Jerusalemites saw Jesus approaching, they erupted in excitement. They began stripping off their cloaks and spreading them across the road. The crowd whacked branches off trees and laid them across Jesus’ path. As if this weren’t enough pomp and ceremony, the crowd broke into a Passover song.
All four Gospel writers include this narrative, each with their own twist. Matthew’s version says that the procession turns the whole city into “turmoil” (21:10, NRSV). The Greek word for turmoil is the root for the English word seismic. The city trembles as Jesus approaches.
The story begins with great expectations, which are easy to miss. Jesus has just been in Bethany, close to Jerusalem, where he resurrected his friend Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’s eyes have barely adjusted to the sunlight, and his story has spread throughout the region. Hearing this story, the crowds react, their brains bathed in dopamine. They begin to predict how God will act in their lives based on the way that God acted before: He will intervene again. He will work a miracle. He will expel the occupiers and resurrect God’s people in God’s city.
The palm branches signaled the crowd’s high expectations, a symbol largely lost on those of us who are separated from the culture and chronology of the story. Jewish history told of a man named Judas Maccabeus, a freedom fighter who entered Jerusalem 200 years prior to Jesus. As he approached, people waved palm branches and sang hymns. When Judas finally arrived, he defeated the Syrian king, recaptured the Temple, expelled the pagans, and reigned for a century before the Romans took back the city.
God had saved his people from an occupier once before when an uncommon man trotted into town. With a new sheriff seemingly on the horizon, their dopamine systems kicked in, and they began predicting another takeover. Their song declared, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).
This is a song that Jews sang at the beginning of Passover. It’s taken from Psalm 118, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. It tells of an enemy swarming like bees, driving the psalmist to the brink of destruction. Then God sweeps in with a mighty hand and wipes out the enemy. The word Hosanna means “Lord, save now.” They are asking Jesus to drive out the enemy army and restore order.
Even the donkey plays a role in elevating expectations, as it harkens back to an image from Zechariah 9:9, a prophetic passage that many of these Jerusalemites would have heard before. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey.”
That night, around dinner tables across Jerusalem, the Jews likely discussed the day in hushed voices. “Could this be the king we’ve been waiting for? He was riding a donkey after all.” By the time Jesus mounted that donkey and descended into town, their dopamine systems would have been in overdrive.
‘Resentments Under Construction’
The crowds that day aren’t much different from us. I’ve spent my whole life in churches—evangelical and mainline, small and mega, liturgical congregations and those with ear-splitting rock bands. I can’t think of one that hasn’t projected expectations onto God.
Maybe you picture God as a heavenly bellhop whose job is to satisfy your deepest desires. Or perhaps God is a holy matchmaker who will secure you a spouse. Maybe God is a cosmic bodyguard who protects you from harm. Or the world’s best nanny, making sure your children turn out right. Or a divine doctor, healing your every physical and mental ailment. Or a wonder-working accountant, solving all your financial problems—provided you drop off a portion in the church coffers, of course.
People tend to assume that God is the deity they want. All you have to do is snatch up a couple of verses that seem to support your preferred version. Then you spend a few years listening to a pastor reinforce them through selective storytelling. Before you know it, the cement of those assumptions dries, and you begin expecting God to work in particular ways in your life. Not unlike the people of Jerusalem.
This works pretty well, as long as God seems to do what we want him to do. But the moment he doesn’t conform to our expectations, our whole world rattles. A baby is born with a disability. A person you love abandons you for another. A friend dies before her time. The expectations you placed on God ferment into distrust, into disappointment. As author Anne Lamott says, “Expectations are resentments under construction.”
In September 2015, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote an article in the New York Times Sunday Review titled “Googling for God.” He wanted to show how Google search data can tell us a lot about the psychology of the modern age. When it comes to God, many people won’t share their struggles with their faith leaders or friends. Instead, they type them into Google, where they can ask with both impunity and anonymity.
Stephens-Davidowitz sifted through a decade worth of Google searches and found that the most Googled questions about God included these questions: Why does God allow suffering? Why does God need so much praise? Why does God hate me? Why did God make me ugly? Why did God make me gay? Why did God make me black?
A blind man can see the thread binding each of these questions together: disappointment with God.
Many of us—perhaps tens of millions—have a common experience when it comes to spirituality. We expect God to be something and then discover that he is not at all like that. Or we expect God to do something, only to realize that he seems to have his own priorities. In these moments, a tsunami of disappointment comes crashing down.
From Disappointment to Disillusionment
The Palm Sunday story displays the transition from expectation to disappointment in Technicolor. The triumph becomes a trial, and the trial becomes an execution. Jesus entered the city on a donkey, but we know he will leave in a body bag. This is not just a fun parade; Jesus is walking down death row.
Here we have a picture of what happens to a group of very religious people when they feel disappointed by God. At the start, the crowds embrace Jesus with dopamine levels soaring and shouts of “Save us now!” As soon as Jesus turns out to be something other than the savior they expect, their Hosannas morph into “Crucify him!”
Jesus is a king, but not the kind they wanted. He will serve rather than be served. He will die and not be killed. He enters unarmed, waging peace. This makes a larger point that God does not intend to meet our expectations. Instead, he meets our needs.
This type of God makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want vegetables when I’m craving candy. I want a God that satisfies my desires, whether or not those align with my needs. And so it is with all of us. We welcome God into our lives with anticipation, with expectation. We’re laying down cloaks and waving palm branches with all we’ve got. But when God turns out to be someone we don’t recognize, we scatter like smoke in the wind.
One of the most interesting features of this story is how much preparation Jesus does. He lines up everything, making sure to trigger the crowd’s expectations. It’s like Jesus has hired a PR agency, indicating that he knows exactly what he is stirring up.
But why? Is he trying to disappoint them? No. I think he is trying to disillusion them.
The word disillusion has gotten a bad rap in recent times, but it’s a gift God gives with abundance. Disillusionment is, well, the loss of an illusion. It is what happens when you take a lie—about the world, about yourself, about those you love, about God—and replace it with the truth. Disillusionment occurs when God shatters our fantasies, tears down our idols, and dismantles our cardboard cutouts. It occurs when we discover that God does not conform to our expectations but rather exists as a mystery beyond those expectations.
The definition offered by Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor in her book God in Pain may be the best I’ve seen. She describes disillusionment as the sacred experiences that cut us down to size and remind us of our smallness in this expansive universe. These experiences are often painful but never bad, because they make us shed the lies we’ve mistaken for truth: “Disillusioned,” she writes, “we find out what is not true and we are set free to seek what is—if we dare—to turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.”
Ultimately, the triumphal entry is not about donkeys and palm branches at all. It’s a reminder that placing expectations on God based on our wants is a recipe for resentment. But nurturing openness to divine mystery is a framework for faith.
I’ve learned to manage my pain disorder, but it has persisted despite my best efforts. Yet I refuse to let disappointment sever my relationship with God. And over time, I’ve begun to uncover and shed illusions. I’m dismantling mirages I’ve constructed around productivity, identity, and self-worth. No longer can I work 12-to-14-hour days. Or pretend that who I am is enhanced by how much I produce. Or ground my sense of worth in accomplishments and accolades. Or pretend that God will keep me healthy or heal my every ache and pain.
I have traded these lies for a truth: that in times of difficulty, God offers us his presence, not a parachute. This exchange has transformed my disappointment into disillusionment. And disillusion turned out to be a horrible, wonderful gift.
What we experience as disappointment is an invitation to give up holding tight to what we hope is true. To stop trying to cast God in our image. To let God be who God is, not who we wish God would be.
The choice is ours. And who knows? If we decide to step off the dopamine roller coaster, maybe we’ll find ourselves at the foot of a cross, giving up all we have for the One who gave up everything for us.
Adapted from Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Merritt. Published by Convergent Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.