Grace Baptist Church Decatur, IL


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How to Deal With Disappointment in the Ministry

Exodus 15:22-27


We all will have wilderness experiences as a Christian, and know how to deal with disappointment.  The fact is:  every leader must learn how to deal with the tension between the ideal and the real.  No matter how good your church is in your mind it’s never where you want it to be. 

The very nature of ministry makes us more vulnerable to disappointment because of our close contact with imperfect people.  If you’re going to last in the ministry, you’re got to learn how to deal with disappointment.  It will come.


In this story, we see the great disappointment of Moses in the people and we see three truths that we need to deal with. 


1.  Great successes in the ministry are often followed by failure


They are on the mountaintop after passing thru the sea, and they look back at their enemies washing ashore, dead.  They sing a song of praise...and then they turn around and what do they see but the wilderness waiting for them.  A valley!  They are quick to bottom out and start complaining.


Moses is an authority on how to deal with disappointment.  No man put up with more complaining or lack of appreciation.  I think it was the favorite pastime of the Israelites.  They loved to complain.  They loved to criticize.  The Bible says that is the reason it took them forty years to get into the Promised Land.  God gave them chance after chance to go in, but they were of unbelief.  They would complain, criticize, gripe.  God would say, “OK, one more lap around the desert.”

[Take another lap around Mt. Sinai, ‘til you learn your lesson.  Till you quit your whinin’ and you stop your rebellin’, ‘til you learn to stand in the day of testin’, by trustin’ and obeyin’ in the Lord!]

They did forty years in the desert and died in the desert because they were complainers.  They were very quick to criticize their leader – Moses.  If you study the book of Exodus, they questioned his motives, they doubted his decisions, and they challenged his leadership.  In this story they say, “You just brought us out here to die.”  Moses as the typical leader says, “Is this the thanks that I get?  I’ve led you out of Egypt.  I’m leading you into the Promised Land and all you can do is criticize, judge me, be upset, and be critical.”


In this particular incident, we have another story of their being upset.  There was a water problem.  In fact, three water problems. 

        The first water problem, in the previous verses, was that there was too much water when they were coming through the Red Sea.

        Then the second when they were coming through the desert there was no water.  They went from too much to not enough.

[like Baptists:  too warm or too cold!]

        Finally, they got water, but it was bitter. 

So they’ve got three water problems.  From this incident and Moses’ reaction, we learn how to deal with these three facts about disappointment. 


Moses teaches us that great successes in ministry are often followed by failure.   V. 22 says that Moses led the people from the Red Sea.  They went into the desert of Shur and for three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.  When they came to Marah they could not drink its water because it was bitter.  “Marah” means “bitter”.  Here’s this distasteful experience; it’s no small problem.  He’s got two or three million thirsty people, one million thirsty animals.  He’s got a major problem.  Why do I say, “Great successes are often followed by failure”?   It says here that it was only three days earlier that they had the Red Sea victory.  In the very first part of this chapter, they’re singing a song of praise and everybody’s jumping up and down and thanking God and their victory celebration is enormous.  They’re having a great time.  Great success!


But great successes are often followed by failure.  They had the victory at the Red Sea and three days later they’ve got a problem. 


Each new day brings new problems in ministry.  You can find that all through Scripture.  The story of Elijah and how at Mt. Carmel he had the god contest between him and the four hundred prophets of Ba’al.  God came down and licked up the water and burned up the sacrifice and they killed all the prophets of Ba’al.  It was a spiritual victory.  Great success.  The very next scene you see Elijah running across the desert, hiding in a cave, full of depression, scared of one woman and saying, “God, I’m so tired and discouraged and burned out.  Kill me.”  He was one of the three men of the Bible who asked God to kill him.


That often happens.  Great successes in ministry are often followed by failures.  The Red Sea experiences are often followed by the Marah experiences.  Later on, entering into Canaan, they had the tremendous victory at Jericho, where they went out and marched around the walls seven times for seven days and the walls came tumbling down.  Here’s a major city and they had victory.  The very next week, Joshua sends out a small band to go conquer the little town of Ai, which was nothing.  He chose to just send out a small battalion.  But they got beat at Ai.  Joshua comes back, he lies down on the ground and is weeping before God and says, “Did You bring us out here just to embarrass us?”  God says, “Joshua, there’s a time to pray and a time to act.  Get up and get sin out of the camp.” 


The point is, after the big Jericho’s come the Ai’s.  After every major success in our ministry, we need to be aware that often after that comes a failure.  After every mountaintop comes a valley.  It’s at that time we start to get discouraged.  If you’re having a big success in your ministry – you’ve just had a big attendance day – watch out.  You’re often being set up for a Marah.


What is the Marah in your life / ministry?  It is anything that is distasteful, that is bitter, uncomfortable, disappointing to you, upsetting to you.  Typically, as I’ve talked to pastors, there are three sources of disappointment that we find in the ministry:

1)  Disappointment with things.  There are very few things in life that are as great as they appear to be on television.  Once you get them from the advertisement they’re not as significant.  I remember, as a kid, I’d see these prizes on the cereal box and thought it would be so great to get that.  You buy the box of cereal and open it and the prize was way at the bottom one-tenth of the size!  It was very disappointing.  No way it looked like it had been presented in the advertisement.  Things disappoint us.

2)  Events disappoint us.  Things turn out wrong.  Experiences aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.  I love NM.  The Land of Enchantment!

But if you want to make somebody a Republican, have him drive the I-10 from East Texas through New Mexico. Then point out that if the Democrats had retained control of Congress in 1994, the national speed limit of 65 MPH would still be under effect.

On a southern route in New Mexico they have signs for “The Thing.”  – 500 miles, Don’t miss The Thing! … 100 yards ahead.  Don’t miss The Thing!  On a tennis trip we decided to stop and see it.  We had to pay money!  I’m not going to tell you what it was, because I’m not going to spoil the fun, but let me say that “The Thing” was a major disappointment.  Events let us down.  Movies, a football game, an election, maybe a special banquet you’ve planned, some kind of event in your church lets you down. 


3)  But by far the greatest source of disappointment is people.  People let us down.  They cop out, betray us, criticize.  They’re disloyal.  They don’t fulfill a promise.  It’s the most common type of disappointment.  When you’ve tried hard to help somebody and they’re ungrateful, that’s the most difficult kind of disappointment.  They say, “What have you done for me today?”  What’s worse is when they criticize you for the effort you made. 

        Moses was a pro for knowing how to deal with this.  He understood that great successes in life are often followed by failure.  You’re going to have Marahs in your ministry. 


Why does God lead us to Marah?

v. 25

God allows Marahs in our lives in order to test us.  God had just brought them through the great experience of the Red Sea and immediately, three days later, they’re without water and they’re in a bitter experience.  God allowed the Marah experience to check their reaction:  “Do they really trust Me?”


Notice it says that God allowed the Marah experience to test [prove] them.  It doesn’t say that at all about the Red Sea experience but about the Marah experience.  Our character is not tested in the great spectacular successes.  Our character is tested in the daily irritations.  The difference between the Red Sea and Marah is that God’s character was revealed at the Red Sea, but man’s character was revealed at Marah.  Disappointment says a lot about us.  It tells us what’s inside of us, what our reactions are, what our motivations are.  Israel’s response was to complain, gripe, grumble, and criticize their leader.  They were incredibly immature.  Disappointments always reveal more about us than they do about the circumstance. 


One of my favorite verses is:

Psalm 34:18

    The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.


That’s the verse that I hung onto in a disappointing ministry in GA 10 yrs. ago.  I didn’t want to stay but hung on thinking it was the right thing to do…and just at the darkest hour God stepped in and moved!  I got fired!!  It was a great feeling…God was in this move, and within 4 weeks we were at the greatest experience of our lives!


The first thing we need to be prepared for is that great successes in the ministry are often followed by failure.  They come on the heels of the Red Seas…and vice versa, some skip out in low moments just before their greatest success was to arrive!




v. 24

It’s always amazing to me how short a memory Israel had.  It’s just three days after the Red Sea miracle and at the very first sign of trouble they’re already doubting and criticizing.  They have a very short memory.  “What have you done for me lately, Moses?”  At the very first sign of trouble they’re complaining, criticizing, griping, grumbling, murmuring.  Their motto was “When in doubt, grumble against Moses.”  That was one of the reasons that kept them out of the Promised Land.  One minute Moses is a hero, the next minute he’s a zero

That’s true in ministry.  The greatest successes are often followed by failure.  The greatest services are often followed by forgetfulness. 


It’s amazing how quickly people forget what you’ve done for them, how you’ve given for them, how you’ve served them, how you’ve helped them.  It’s human nature that we tend to think what matters is “What have you done for me lately?”  Children forget what their parents have done for them.  Bosses forget what their employees have done for them.  Spouses take each other for granted.  Church members take their pastors for granted.  It’s a fact of life.  I read one time that at Northwest University they did a study that the average homemaker in a lifetime will prepare 35,000 meals and make 40,000 beds.  I wonder how many times they’ll be thanked for those things.  We take it for granted.  It’s a fact of life that great service in ministry is often followed by forgetfulness.


Who have I taken for granted?  My spouse, my friends, my staff, key leaders in the church, nursery workers, people like that that I need not take for granted.  Service is often followed by forgetfulness.


What do you do when you’re being forgotten?  What do you do when you’ve given all you’ve got yet people take you for granted?  Moses gives us an example of three things not to do and two things to do. 


What not to do when you’re disappointed:


1.  Don’t curse it. 

Don’t retaliate.  Don’t get revenge.  When people don’t appreciate you, when they’ve disappointed you, let you down, don’t strike back.  The typical reaction of most of us (or for Moses) would be “You guys can forget it!  I led you through the Red Sea, I led you free, you’re out of Egypt.  If that’s the way you’re going to treat me, forget it! Good luck finding your way back to Egypt.  I’m going on to the Promised Land.  I’m going on.” 


This is a question we need to ask ourselves, “What do you do when you’re offended?”  Do you sit around and invent cute little ways to “get back”?  I’d have to admit that some of my most creative moments are when I think of spiritual ways to get back at people who’ve hurt me. The fact is, when you retaliate against other people, then God stops acting on your behalf.  You have to leave it in God’s hands.  Do not curse it.  Let God settle the score.  When you retaliate, God says, “Go ahead!”  But when you let God settle the score, then you are well represented.  Romans 12:14 says “Bless them which persecute you.  Bless and curse not.”  The opposite of blessing is cursing.  That means speak positively to those who are speaking negatively about you.  Build up those who are tearing you down.  Encourage those who are discouraging you.


Moses did not curse them.  He could have.  He could have said “forget it.”  God offered to start over with Moses, but he didn’t curse them. 


        2.  Don’t rehearse it.

Resentment is one of the great killers of effectiveness in ministry.  When you’ve got resentment, you’re focusing on the past, not on the present or the future.  And you can’t minister effectively. 

Eph. 4:31

    Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:

        Don’t rehearse it.


Every time you review a hurt when somebody hurts you, it gets bigger.  If somebody offers a word of criticism, that hurts.  But if you keep thinking about it pretty soon you think the whole world’s against you.  It’s blown all out of proportion.  It gets magnified every time you rehearse a hurt. 


Resenting and rehearsing things is an extremely dangerous habit to have in the ministry because pretty soon you’re addicted to it.  I’ve met some very bitter pastors that have allowed experiences of their past to color their perception until soon they’re thinking everybody’s against them.  You can’t tell them about any problem in your church because they’ll say, yep, it’s just another example of Marah Baptist where I used to pastor!


Along with this is “comparing”…because if I’m rehearsing things in my mind, I get resentful.  I’m comparing how God is blessing someone else and I get resentful or I get bitter about that and I become even less effective in where I am.  The Bible says that it’s dumb to compare.  Over and over again the Bible says in Corinthians “It’s unwise to compare ourselves to other people.”  We all have different gifts, different talents, and different temperaments.  God wants to use us, each in our own way.  If you don’t be you, who’s going to be you?  You’re one in 7 billion.  There’s nobody like you. 


        3.  Don’t nurse it.

Don’t take it personally.  Don’t have a pity party.  Don’t allow it to make you negative.  Moses could have done this, but he didn’t. 

Eph. 4:26-27

    Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: [27] Neither give place to the devil.


It’s ok to be angry.  Anger is a legitimate response to hurt.  But the Bible says that when we hold on to anger it becomes sin because anger held on to becomes bitterness.  Anger stored up becomes resentment.  That is always wrong.  Don’t allow it to make you negative. 

Job 18:4

    He teareth himself in his anger: shall the earth be forsaken for thee? and shall the rock be removed out of his place?


Anytime I’m angry at somebody in the church who’s disappointed me, the Bible says I’m only hurting myself.  It doesn’t change the situation.  It can’t reverse the past.  It can’t make any difference.  It just makes me upset. 


It is human nature to draw into a hard protective shell when we’re hurt.  The Bible says we cannot do that.  I remember reading the life of Paul one time and noticing how many disappointments he had in people.  He was disappointed, time and time again.  But you never see him giving up.  Why?  Because Paul was a leader.  If you are a leader you must expect to be misunderstood.  It’s a fact of life, you will be misunderstood.        


Can you imagine Jesus Christ returning to heaven ahead of schedule and the angels ask “Jesus, You’re back home ahead of schedule.”  And Jesus saying, “I’m sorry.  I had a bad experience down there on earth.  They didn’t appreciate Me.  They didn’t give me the strokes I needed.  |they were very ungrateful for the things I was doing.  I just decided to pack up my bags and come home.”  Jesus didn’t do that. 


You cannot please everybody.  In fact, trying to please everybody you’re guaranteeing you’re going to be hurt.  Even God can’t please everybody.  Just about the time you get Crowd A pleased, Crowd B gets upset.  Just about the time Crowd B gets satisfied, Crowd A gets upset.  Even God can’t please everybody.  One person is praying for rain today.  Someone else is saying they want it to be sunny.  You get two people on opposite sides of the ballgame both praying for their team to win.  Even God can’t  please everybody.  Only a fool would try to accomplish what even God can’t do. 


If you take disappointment personally, you’re going to become cynical.  You cannot curse it, you cannot rehearse it.  You cannot nurse it.  Otherwise you become cynical and ineffective in the ministry. 


What do you do?  What do you do when you’re disappointed?


        1.  You disperse it.

v. 24-25

Moses didn’t cry out at the people.  He didn’t take out his frustration on the people.  He took his frustration to the Lord.  Don’t take it out on people, talk it out with the Lord.  That’s the key to disappointment.  You don’t take it out on people, you talk it out with the Lord. 


Notice it says, “Lord, I’m crying out to You.”  Disperse your hurt.  Give it to God.  Let it go.  You don’t hang on to it.  Instead of Moses holding a pity party, instead of gossiping to Aaron about it, lining up people on his side, he prayed about it.  He told God about it. 

1 Peter 5:7

    Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.


Disperse it.  Dump it on the Lord’s shoulders!


        2.  Let God reverse it.

Let God handle it.  He can take it and turn it around.  God is the master of reversing hurts.  A good example in the Old Testament is Joseph where his brothers sold him into slavery.  Then in Genesis 50, twenty years later he said,

Genesis 50:20

    But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.


If anybody had a reason to be bitter it was Joseph.  His own family had sold him out.  They said, “We don’t care about you.”  At the last minute they changed their plans and sold him into slavery.  He had every reason in the world to be resentful and to be disappointed in other people but he wasn’t.  He said, “God meant it for good, you meant it for bad.” 


Disappointments are really His-appointments.  The Bible says in Romans 8:28 and in other scriptures that nothing comes into the life of a child of God without the Heavenly Father’s permission.  Nothing, no experience in life can come in that is not Father-filtered.  God has allowed these situations in my life.  The delays are there because God has allowed that delay.  The difficulties are there because God has allowed that difficulty.  The disappointment is there because God has allowed that disappointment.  The discouraging situations are there because God has allowed it.  Disappointment really becomes His-appointment and becomes an issue of “Am I really going to trust God?  Am I going to grumble?  Am I going to complain like the Israelites and die in the desert?  Or am I going to trust God?” 


Because Moses responded correctly, look at what God did.  Because he didn’t curse it, he didn’t rehearse it, he didn’t nurse it.  But instead he gave it to God.  He dispersed it.  Then God reversed the problem.  In v. 25, it says God showed him a piece of wood.  He threw it into the water and then the water became sweet.  God had provided the solution.  It was there all the time.  But it didn’t happen until Moses committed it to God. God had the solution that would turn a bitter situation into sweetness.  He had a piece of wood that would turn that which was distasteful into something that was pleasant and enjoyable.  Notice it doesn’t say that God created a piece of wood.  It was already there.  God showed him a piece of wood.  The tree had been there all along.  [a picture of the cross cast over our sea of sinfulness!]


The problem that many of us have with disappointments is we get so caught up in the disappointments that we don’t see that the solution is right there before our eyes…and we take the first way out that will help us feel better!  You will never see God’s solution as long as you’re wallowing in self-pity.  You’ve got to pray.  You’ve got to let God show you.  “God, what is the solution to this disappointment” and God can show it to you – a thing that will turn bitterness into sweetness.




v. 27        After the bad experience!

Now they’re at Palm Springs!  They are in Sinai, in the middle of the desert and here’s a paradise, an oasis, all the water they could want.  Elim – twelve springs, seventy palm trees.  It’s a place of great refreshment right in the middle of a dried out experience.


I have two questions about this:

        1)  “How far is Elim from Marah?”


Not very far – just around the corner with a surplus of water.  Yet they’re complaining and ready to give up.  It reminds me of the story a few years ago about the airplane crash in the Andes where people began to eat each other as they died when just over the mountain, was a major ski resort.  Just around the corner.  But they didn’t think they could find it so they stayed there in the plane and ended up dying.  The lesson I think here is too often we stop too soon.  We get disappointed, we get discouraged, we throw in the towel, when Elim is just five miles away – just around the corner.  I think the point is don’t quit.  The game is often won in the last two or three seconds.  Elim is just right down the road.  Don’t give up.


2) The second question I have to ask is…

“How do you get from Marah to Elim?” 

How do you get from the place of disappointment to the place of delight?  There’s only one answer.  To get there you just keep on going...  Keep moving ahead.  Keep trusting God.  Notice it doesn’t say that God brought Elim to them.  He didn’t.  Elim was there just five miles away, but they had to reach it by keeping on going in spite of their feelings, in spite of their heartaches, in spite of their disappointment and discouragement.  The only way you get from Marah to Elim is keep on going.  The only way you get from disappointment and discouragement to delight is to keep on going.  Keep moving ahead. 


Every once in a while somebody will say, “I don’t feel like praying.  I don’t feel like trusting.  I don’t feel like giving.  I don’t feel like serving.  I don’t feel like worshiping.  What should I do?” I always tell them, “You keep on praying, you keep on trusting, you keep on serving, you keep on giving.  You just keep on doing.  Don’t give up and die in the desert.”  Keep on keeping on.  People say, “My heart isn’t in it any more.  I’ve lost my heart for ministry.  What do you do?”  You just keep going.


We lose heart a lot of times.  The Bible says not to lose heart.  Keep on keeping on.  Can you imagine somebody in the church calling up their boss at work saying, “I’m not coming in today.  My heart just isn’t in it.  And I knew you wouldn’t want me to be a hypocrite.  I’m just going to stay home and watch TV today because my heart really isn’t in it.”  The boss would say, “I don’t care if your heart’s in it or not, get on in and get to work!”  Only immature people live by their feelings.  Mature people live by their commitments rather than their feelings.  They serve in the ministry, not because it always feels good.  They serve in the ministry because it’s the right thing to do.  You keep on going.


Romans 8:28

    And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.


Notice it doesn’t say everything is good.  Because all things aren’t good.  Everything that happens to you in the ministry is not good.  You’ll have a lot of bad things happen to you in the ministry.  But it all fits into a pattern for good.  So even those people who are disappointing you, discouraging you, criticizing you, God has a plan greater than that.  The thing I’ve learned so far in ministry is that God’s purpose for my life is much greater than the problems and the people in my life.  No matter what problem you face, God’s purpose is greater than the problem.  The last chapter of your life is not written when you die.  If you build up people--the effects of that will be felt even a hundred years later. 

It’s interesting to me that they’ve never built a statue to a critic.  They build statues to people who are criticized their entire life.  Many of the great saints of God – the Wesley’s, the Luther’s, the Calvin’s, the Finney’s, the Moody’s, the Jim Elliott’s, who were criticized and misunderstood in their ministry but the effects of their lives have produced good for hundreds and hundreds of years. 

     It may be that you’re feeling like you’re living at Marah and you’re facing a difficult or bitter or distasteful time in your life.  It’s a difficult situation to swallow.  It’s like bitter water – no fun.  It may be spiritually or emotionally or physically or financially…you’re drained.  You did not miss God’s will.  Marah is on the map.  God knows exactly where you are.  God is leading you through this experience, just as definitely as He led the Israelis to Marah and through it. 


I encourage you to think of that tree planted on Mt. Calvary where Jesus hung on it to die for our sins.  Remember Calvary and let Jesus Christ heal the hurt and resentment and bitterness that you’ve experienced at your personal Marah, and you’ll find new power for ministry.  If you’ve felt like you’re ready to throw in the towel, I’d again encourage you:  Elim is just a few miles away.