November 3, 2018

A Fresh Look at Setbacks

How the Great Disappointment became the beginning of a worldwide movement.

Chigemezi Nnadozie Wogu

I think the basic core of the Christian message is a message or theology of disappointment. This does not advocate seeing the Christian message and our authentic Adventist message to the world as disappointing. No! Rather, it’s a call to rethink our understanding of disappointment because the history of Christianity (and Adventism) has involved various disappointing events that turned out to be key events of salvation history. Those who experienced such events decided to look at them with a positive outlook. Let’s unpack this idea by looking at three distinct examples.

In the Beginning

Genesis records the account of God creating the first couple in perfect holiness and giving them the freedom of choice. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve disappointed God, their Maker, Friend, and Father, by misusing their freedom. This resulted in disobedience and death.

In spite of the dire consequences that their choice would bring future generations, God did something that would change the way we look at this particular event involving disappointment. He pronounced Scripture’s first prophecy, the good news of salvation, about the redemption of humanity from sin (see Gen. 3:15). He went ahead to demonstrate this in the first sacrifice in Genesis 3:21,1 typifying the coming sacrifice of the “seed of the woman.”

So, instead of a day of disappointment, the day of Jesus’ death became the day that changed the world.

What did this do for Adam and Eve and the generations that followed? They looked beyond their disappointing behavior and focused on the promise of a future Redeemer. Their longing resulted in optimism and hope. This becomes obvious in the naming of Cain, “a man from the Lord” (Gen. 4:1, NKJV), and Seth, thought to be “another seed” (see verse 26). Hebrews 11 shows us how this hope was kept alive by the patriarchs.

Jesus Enters the Scene

When the Messiah finally came, He disappointed His followers and those who believed He had come to set up an earthly kingdom.

What happened? Their Master died a horrific, terrible, and shameful death: the death of a thief, hanging naked on a crude wooden cross! Nevertheless, that was not the end of the story! Jesus, resurrected from the dead, ascended to heaven and sat at the right hand of God to mediate between God and humanity as Redeemer and High Priest of the human race. Through Him we can approach the throne of grace with boldness, as the author of Hebrews 4:16 affirms so powerfully.

So instead of a day of disappointment, the day of Jesus’ death became the day that changed the world.

What is more, Jesus’ death on the cross was the defining moment for the history of the universe. It was the day of salvation for the human race. In that death on the cross was all the pain, suffering, regret, “and all the rejection that evil has caused the human race.”3 Thinking about that day changes the way we look at our lives as we come to acknowledge our rebellion and the need to submit to God for change.

Moreover, that day altered the way we value ourselves through the blood of Jesus. Jesus’ death also transforms the way we look at suffering because we come to understand that since Jesus suffered that much, He understands what we are going through.4 It is not our positive prowess that makes us think this way. Rather, it is the power of God in reversing the cross event into a day of appointment. Through death, God brought life and victory. Through shame, humiliation, and rejection, God brought glory.5

Consequently the message of death, gloom, and disappointment that followed those two dark moments in earth’s history was changed into good news on the third day. This good news spurred women and men to move toward God. Those who accepted this good news carried it to the then-known world, as the book of Acts testifies. Their message confirms the popular expression “Every disappointment is a blessing in disguise.” This was no little blessing in disguise; it was a wondrous, public glory: blessing indeed!

Another Case Study

On the eve of October 22, 1844, Millerites all around North America and beyond were ready to receive their Savior. They waited eagerly, believing the message they had preached that Jesus would come and end all sorrow, pain, and evil. However, they were heartbroken and disappointed. Jesus did not come. They “wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”6 How could this have happened? As a result, some focused on the Disappointment and were disillusioned, turning into severe critics of Christianity and those who had waited for the return of Jesus.

Others, the group that would later emerge to be the Seventh-day Adventist Church, would look at this event differently. They came to understand the reason Jesus did not return, and focused on the positive aspect of this event, the beginning of the investigative judgment as an assurance of the Parousia, the return of Jesus Christ. Hence a day of disappointment became a day of appointment: the beginning of Jesus’ final work of atonement.

A day of disappointment became a day of appointment.

As this group came to believe that Jesus took on a different role on that very day, a missionary movement was born concerned with preaching the three angels’ messages. This movement, one of the fastest growing Protestant denominations, has even been referred to as a world religion.7

Without that disappointing event, the Seventh-day Adventist Church would probably not have arisen. An African proverb says: “Smooth seas do not make a skillful sailor.” Thus the difficulties of life can make us stronger. This disappointment made the group that emerged from the crises a strong army of missionaries.

It is said that “every stumbling block is a stepping-stone.” If early Adventists had seen the Great Disappointment only as a stumbling block, the movement would be extinct. Instead they saw this as a stepping-stone toward telling the world about Jesus and sharing their unique sanctuary message.

The Big Question

Today we Adventists can talk of our collective DNA not as a group of disappointed people, but as a hopeful people waiting for our Savior. If we had focused on that frustrating event, it would have been difficult to share Jesus. It was the move to look beyond the eve of October 22, 1844, that gave us the temerity to continue to share Jesus’ soon return, His heavenly ministry, and the specific mission He has entrusted to us.

In turn, God has done miracle after miracle as we reflect on the exponential growth of this movement. The moral of these three examples is clear. Setbacks will always come. We will, one way or the other, experience the downside of life. The issue is not if such situations come or not. Rather, the issue is how we will handle our disappointments.

  1. This was the sacrifice that resulted in Adam and Eve’s receiving coats of skin from their Creator.
  2. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Jon Paulien, The Day That Changed the World: Seeking God After September 11 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002), p. 127.
  4. Ibid., pp. 133-138.
  5. Ibid., p. 141.
  6. Hiram Edson, manuscript fragment on his “Life and Experience” (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Ellen G. White Research Center, James White Library, Andrews University, n.d.), pp. 4, 5.
  7. This was suggested by Jon L. Dybdahl, “Doing Theology in Mission: Part 2,” Ministry,January 2006, p. 21. With more than 20 million members and a record of planting a new church every 3.5 hours, this is no overstatement.

Chigemezi Nnadozie Wogu, a Ph.D. student at Free University Amsterdam, is a research assistant at Friedensau Adventist University in Germany.