In 2009, I had my second brush with death.
Driving home from the gym, I looked down to put my phone in the pocket of my basketball shorts, thinking that I would be less tempted to text and be distracted while driving. As I looked down, I passed through a small intersection where there was a neighborhood street to my right. A large Toyota truck (which had been advertised as “unflippable”) turned in front of me. I not only never saw the truck, I never touched my brakes.
My puny Nissan Altima plowed the truck onto its side, pushing it off the road and onto a sidewalk. The airbag propelled my left hand into the windshield and I punched it like a boxer, leaving glass shards in my hand and fingers. Luckily, this was my worst injury. Once the dust settled, the other driver and I walked away. We were, for the most part, unharmed.
This head-on collision provoked tremendous reflection for me, both in the moment and in the years which followed. While I’m grateful it’s been seven years since I was in a car accident, I’ve had a similar experience off-the-road.
Disillusionment: When Ideals Meet Reality
I’ve been disillusioned again and again, as I’ve watched my expectations crash head-on with the brokenness of this world.
Have you been disillusioned before? Ever seen what you thought something was going to be like crash head-on into reality? Have you seen your ideals “fail to yield” to reality and been crushed in the ensuing collision?
If you study the definition of disillusionment, one dictionary defines it as “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” Another defines disillusionment this way – “to free from or deprive of illusion, belief, idealism, etc.”
We all have places in our lives where we thought life was going to be one thing, yet it turns out to be another.
Disillusioned By Faith
I have a friend who became a follower of Jesus later on in life and he found following Jesus to be a lot tougher than he realized. This friend came to faith in his early 40s and he didn’t anticipate what he was going to have to reconsider in light of his newfound faith. As he read the Scriptures, he realized that surrendering his life to Jesus meant putting more on the table than he ever expected.
One night, he came to his church struggling with this transition. A pastor on the church’s staff gave a talk centered around the question, “What did you expect following Jesus to be like?” And it was as if the pastor was speaking directly to my friend. The pastor asked, “Did you come to be entertained or did you come to be changed?” My friend realized following Jesus wasn’t going to merely inform a compartment of his life; it was going to be a total transformation. Years later, this question is still forming my friend as he deals with the difficulty of change.
Disillusioned By Adversity
I have another friend who has been on the receiving end of adversity his whole life. His family is a mess. He’s lost countless friends in tragic, senseless killings. His career has been a combination of success immediately followed by setbacks. And at times, the adversity feels overwhelming. It’s one thing to overcome adversity; it’s another thing for adversity to be like a fungus that just won’t die.
He felt like he could endure a season of struggle. But now it hasn’t been simply a “season” of struggle. It’s been season after season lining up one after another. And in his words, “it doesn’t feel like a season; it feels like my story.” This realization has caused him to ask why. In many ways, his life has been blessed, but in others, it feels like one unending struggle. And this isn’t just playing out over years; it’s stretching into decades.
Disillusioned by Prison
I have a third friend who felt God calling him to be a pastor. He gave himself to a season of preparation at a university. Three times, important people in his life spoke of how God uses people, even when it involves sending them to prison. He wondered if God was trying to send him a message.
A few months later, my friend followed a ministry opportunity into another country where he was wrongfully accused, arrested and imprisoned. He was forced to care for the man who was going to be his ministry partner, yet turned out to be a wanted criminal. (By associating with this man – not knowing of his criminal actions – my friend was assumed to be an accomplice). In prison, my friend bathed and cleaned the man who tricked him, as the man clung to life while his body was destroyed by dysentery and diarrhea. The guards not only questioned why my friend would serve the man in this way, but it only further convinced them that he was an accomplice. This went for on years and the full story feels like an incredible film..
Dealing with the Gap
For each of these three men, they had an idea of how something was going to go in their life. And they encountered a gap between their expectations and their experience, between their ideals and reality.
Most of us know this story from personal experience. We drew a map, outlining our career path. We had a sense of how our lives would develop romantically. Our financial dreams would produce abundant opportunities. Most of us expected to have a community of people around us to celebrate the achievements. And yet, we are walking around today frustrated, disappointed, and disillusioned because of this gap.
If you’re someone who believes in God, this can often feel like a “bait and switch.” I meet many people who feel betrayed by God, like God didn’t show up for them the way they once thought would happen. When God doesn’t operate by your rules or follow your expectations, it can not only disillusion you.
It can threaten your faith entirely.
My Time of Disillusionment in the Church
While I didn’t know it at the time, this was my experience too. I grew up in an imperfect church with an imperfect pastor who happened to also be my dad. When people I looked up to spread lies about my parents, I lost my innocence. When I watched selfish agendas get in the way of loving people, I was deprived of my idealism. I didn’t expect the church to be perfect, but I did expect leaders to lead. Even when that meant admitting he was wrong and asking for someone’s forgiveness, I watched my dad step up and lead courageously, .
When I began attending another church, it wasn’t that I expected this church to be perfect either. I just expected problems to be addressed and leaders to lead. I was about to become disillusioned. Instead of a healthy culture where honesty was encouraged and tough conversations happened, passive-aggressive interactions were normalized. We had so many elephants in the room we constantly bumped into them. We felt stuck in the worst way.
I lost the dreams and ideals I once had, replacing them with what I call the ABC’s (anger, bitterness, and cynicism). While I maintained a public face, internally I was in a deep battle to not lose hope. I never lost my faith in God, but I did lose a lot of faith in people.
Helping Each Other Move Forward
I explore this story and the lessons I learned in the book I’ve been developing for the last three years, so this isn’t the space to play out the entire narrative. But I do think disillusionment is something we all either have faced, are facing or will face in the future.
Most of us (like me) won’t respond well. Looking back, we will see ways we could have responded differently, maybe even more constructively. If that’s the case, what is the most constructive way to respond to disillusionment? How do we respond when we are disabused of the way we see (a corner of) the world?
Here’s some things I’ve learned from my own experience and from friends I’ve walked with on their own journey back from discouragement and disillusionment.
1. Allow yourself to grieve.
Losing an ideal, dream, or belief is not that different from losing someone you loved. It’s similar to losing a job you enjoyed, watching your house burn to the ground and leaving a church. It’s all grief. And as many of you know, the grieving process includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each phase has its own emotions.
The worst word you can use while grieving is “should.” Some of us will say things like “well, shouldn’t I be over this by now?” or “Should I be making this big of a deal out of what happened?” When we say “should,” we’re comparing ourselves to some external standard. But when it comes to grief, there is no external standard. There is only our process for grieving that particular loss.
No one grieves the same way, at the same pace, with the same emotions. We even grieve similar losses in different ways at different points in our lives. Allowing ourselves to grieve means embracing our feelings without filtering or editing them. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad.
While I know all my readers are not followers of Jesus, I want to encourage you to be radically honest with God. Some of us grew up in corners of Christianity which didn’t empower this kind of prayer. Yet, we have strong Biblical precedent for pouring our hearts out to God. In the book of Psalms, 73 of the 150 psalms are laments. In a lament, the writer shares a range of emotions (many dark) and lets God have it. Some of these include demands for violence and revenge. Others include a kind of raw authenticity. So, with a lot of support, I encourage you to cry you to God. Scream at God, if you must. God can take it.
2. Beware the temptation to numb.
When we’re going through loss, the temptation is to numb out because we’re so overwhelmed. We want to turn off the pain and sorrow. At this point in the process, we often develop unhealthy coping mechanisms which numb our hurt. Examples include abusing alcohol/drugs, pornography, shopping, gambling, excessive eating or self-injury.
The problem with our efforts to numb is the unintended consequences. While we’re trying to numb the pain, we end up numbing everything. The human heart and our emotions cannot be selectively numbed. If we try to numb the pain, we limit access to joy, meaning, purpose, connection, and love.
In his book, The Sacred Journey, award-winning author Frederick Buechner, wrote,
“To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed also secures your life against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.“
While it might feel like a win to numb out, any short-term benefits are canceled out by the long-term consequences.
3. Enlist some help.
Beyond the temptation to numb, we’re also tempted to isolate ourselves. Especially if our disillusionment came with a trusted friend, we’re not super excited about trusting somebody else in a way which makes us vulnerable.
However, healing rarely comes in isolation. We need help. I quoted Buechner earlier but I left out the final section of that quote. After talking about the danger of steeling yourself against reality, Buechner writes, “You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”
We need a community to walk with us, step by step on the long road of healing. Maybe this looks like a support group in your city or a community group in your church. Maybe this means setting up a weekly appointment for coffee or a meal with a friend. It could even look like a daily time of prayer with someone who commits to walk with you for a season.
Whatever the form, we need to invite someone into the process with us. Someone who won’t give us a long list of “shoulds.” Someone who isn’t looking to fix us or force us to process disillusionment exactly the way he or she did. Look for someone who listens well. Look for someone who asks more questions than they give answers.
The most important thing to look for in this person is a limp. You want to enlist someone who can honestly say “me too.”
4. Choose to forgive.
Stop. Before you write me off, just hear me out. This may sound crazy, but forgiveness is not about the person who hurt you; it’s about you.
Think about it. When we choose to not forgive and stay bitter, the person who hurt us doesn’t feel the greatest burn. Sometimes, we no longer talk to or interact with them after the incident(s) where they hurt us. So, how can forgiveness be about them when they’ve moved on and maybe even forgotten about us?!
No, forgiveness is about each of us choosing to set a prisoner free and discovering we are the prisoner. Forgiveness doesn’t condone what happened, nor make it right. Forgiveness doesn’t guarantee reconciliation, nor does it mean we can turn back time to before the moment the illusion came crashing down. When we forgive, we stop seeking revenge and we trust God to bring justice.
5. Get to work on building something new.
I mentioned a definition of disillusionment earlier which I really love. To disillusion is “to free from or deprive of illusion, belief, idealism, etc.” When we are freed or deprived from these things, an empty space is left behind. Like an empty lot in a shopping center or in a neighborhood, an opportunity emerges to construct something new.
One of the greatest temptations during disillusionment is cynicism. Instead of going to work on building something new, cynicism turns our focus to criticizing and tearing others down. Comedian George Carlin famously said, “Scratch any cynic and inside you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” Cynicism is a bullet-proof vest for our heart. It not only protects us, but it empowers us to hurt other people. Because, like (true) cliche says, hurt people tend to hurt people.
Jennie Allen, founder of the massive IF:Gathering (a movement of hundreds of thousands of women across America), was asked how she fights cynicism. She said, “Start building things. Then there’s no energy to tear down.” When we focus on building something new (a new belief, idea, or dream), we remove all the energy and fuel to tear down someone else’s.
Enter into Freedom
My favorite word in the definition we’ve been using for disillusionment is “free.” Disillusionment frees us from an illusion. We didn’t actually see a person, situation or thing accurately. We were living a lie. And as long as we fail to see the truth, we cannot be free.
In a discussion with his disciples, Jesus told them about people who were unable to understand his parables. He said, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” Jesus was saying if they could see, hear or understand, they would turn and be healed.
As hard as this may be to believe, disillusionment may be our first step to freedom. When we no longer operate under illusions, we can be free to discover the truth. Jesus famously said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Illusions hold us captive; truth frees us.
Encountering truth is often painful and rarely easy. Truth disorients us before it reorients us. And the world can feel like its spinning, with nothing we used to rely on now capable of supporting us. But on the other side of the pain, loss, and grief is a freedom we were meant to enter into and live within.
It is for freedom that we are set free. While it may be painful now, don’t give up. Disillusionment isn’t the end of our story; it is merely the end of the beginning.