In the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the character Fantine sings a sorrowful song about disappointment called “I Dreamed a Dream.” The song begins with the words, “I dreamed a dream in time gone by; when hopes were high and life worth living.”
She goes on to describe her youthful vigor, as she chased pleasures and fun, fell in love with a young man a bit older than her, and spent a summer with him. But for Fantine, an unexpected pregnancy and the departure of the father made her dreams come crashing down. As a single mom in 19th-century France, she found it difficult to survive.
She worked in a factory for a while, but then she was fired because the foreman found out about her child. She sold her hair and the fillings in her teeth to pay her rent, and finally she had nothing else to sell but herself. She ends up on the streets as a prostitute, a hollow shell of what she once was.
Eventually, Fantine dies from the sicknesses she contracts as a prostitute. The song ends with the words "I had a dream my life would be, so different from this hell I'm living; so different now from what it seemed; now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
For many of us, that is our experience. The reality is, as Scott Peck put it in The Road Less Traveled: “Life is hard.” All of life’s music is not in perfect harmony. What starts out to be a symphony becomes a cacophony, and discordant notes often dominate the score. And with Fantine, many of us could sing, “Life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
The writer of Psalm 107 could have joined in on that song. He had experienced dreams that had been shattered and hopes that had turned to great disappointments. Turn with me to Psalm 107.
This morning we conclude our series on Killing Giants. I saved this giant of disappointment until today because I figured everyone could relate. We are all disappointed that summer is coming to an end. The state fair is about over. The warm nights are getting shorter. The vacations have ended. School has begun. It is back to work. And with it comes disappointment. Author John Cheever writes that the main emotion the average American feels is disappointment. Not just at the end of summer but throughout the year.
So how do we handle this giant? How do we deal with those disappointments that are sure to come our way? I think Psalm 107 can help us out.
The psalmist is writing during the time of one of Israel’s greatest disappointments. If you remember a little of Israel’s history, you will recall that because of her infidelity to God, Israel was punished by being invaded by the Babylonians. And during her captivity, Israel had dreamed about the day that she would return to Jerusalem and the Promised Land. She had visions of re-establishing her former prominence. Rebuilding not only the city of Jerusalem but also the temple and restoring both of them back to their original splendor.
But 70 years later, after their exile when they did return, it was nothing like what they had dreamed of. Only a portion of the people came back. And the city and the temple, when they were rebuilt, were not all that impressive or full of splendor. What should have been rejoicing instead became weeping and great disappointment.
And the writer of this psalm reflects this disappointment with four vivid word pictures that come out of their history: a picture of people who are lost, people who are imprisoned, people who are sick, and people who are storm-tossed.
The Four Pictures
Look at the first picture of disappointment—the lost (vv. 4–5). Any mention of wanderings in the desert would, of course, remind the Israelites of their 40 years wandering in the desert—a time when they were hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. A time when they grumbled against Moses and longed to return to slavery in Egypt because at least that was predictable.
You can relate, can’t you? Sometimes promising opportunities are not as appealing as they looked when we first decided to step through the door. You get a new job, excited about the new possibilities, dreaming of it taking you to new places. But within a few months, the shine has rubbed off and your dream job is now just plain drudgery. Disappointment.
Then the psalmist gives us a second word picture of disappointment—the imprisoned. Look at verses 10–12. Notice the description: darkness, shadow of death, affliction, in irons, hard labor, and no one to help.
That was the experience of the Israelites when they were enslaved to the Babylonians. Because they had spurned the Word of God, they went into exile, which lasted 70 years. And although not all of the Israelites had been literally imprisoned in Babylon, some had. And for all of them, it had felt like prison.
Sometimes that is where life leads us. When we were young, we looked forward to what life would bring. But now, life has left us out of breath. And we are standing in some dark place that feels like we are trapped. Disappointment.
A third picture of disappointment starts in verse 17. It is the picture of sickness. Look at verse 17–18.
In Scripture, a fool refers to someone without morality, not someone without intelligence. Some people willfully rebel against what they know is right, yet they find that these choices bring them affliction rather than fulfillment.
It is the picture that we saw up here a couple of weeks ago when the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge Choir was here. Each of the testimonies of those who shared was a story of rebellion. Of someone looking for answers, looking for fulfillment, willfully went against what they knew was right, and it lead to affliction, abuse, and addiction.
But the addict is not the only example of our determination to rebel that leads to getting hurt. I know pastors who have made foolish choices and it cost them their ministry and their family. I know businessmen and -women who have made foolish choices, and it cost them their business, their reputation, their family. Sometimes it is not life that kills our dreams. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. We kill our own dreams.
Then the psalmist gives us a fourth picture of disappointment, a sea-tossed sailor sailing the seas seeking their dreams, seeking their fortune, only to be crushed by a terrible storm.
Their dreams come up empty. They lead to nowhere. Most of you recognize the name Charles Colson. Charles Colson was a special aide to former president Richard Nixon. As a young lawyer, Colson had high ambitions and was ruthless in his pursuit of them, no matter what the cost. When he was on Nixon’s staff, people frequently referred to him as Nixon's “hatchet man,” the one who handled all of the president's dirty work.
When the Watergate scandal came into the open in the early ’70s, Colson went to prison for seven years; he was indicted for obstruction of justice. From the top of his class at George Washington University to a federal prison cell, Colson saw his big dreams come to nothing. Sometimes that is what happens to our highest ambitions: They come to nothing.
It is interesting, I think, for us to note that in the first and fourth picture, the lost and the storm-tossed, they are in trouble through no fault of their own. Life just happened. The door they stepped through turned into a desert and as they were out on the water, the storm came out of nowhere. And their dreams are crushed.
But the second and third picture, those imprisoned and the sick, they are in those places because of their own fault. They rebelled. They sinned. And like the others, their dreams too were crushed.
In these four pictures, you have both the innocent and the guilty. The upright and the rebellious. And each of them experiences disappointment.
That’s an important lesson for us. We are all going to experience disappointment. Don’t be surprised by it. If you have had a pretty nice life so far, just wait. If you haven’t had a pretty nice life, you know about this. And just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you are immune to disappointments. Dreams are killed for both the innocent and the guilty. The righteous and the unrighteous.
The psalmist has painted for us four vivid word pictures of disappointment. So let me ask, if you were to paint a picture of disappointment, what would you paint?
You got married with great expectations, great dreams of living happily ever after, but it didn’t end up that way. Your marriage is in the toilet. It is a day-to-day struggle. Maybe you are divorced. And life has killed the dreams.
You have dreamed all your life of owning your own business, but the business didn’t go anywhere. It is dead and you are bankrupt. Life has killed your dreams.
You make the varsity team. You can’t wait to start the season. You are looking so forward to playing, but instead you sit on the bench the whole season. And it is miserable. Life has killed your dreams.
You have been dreaming of retirement, thinking of all the things you can do with your time. The time that you and your spouse will be able to spend together, traveling, doing ministry, enjoying life. But two years after you retire, you get sick and can’t travel, and you can’t do the things you had put on your bucket list. Life has killed your dreams!
When the unexplainable descends upon us, we wonder what on earth God is doing. Where is God when we are hurting? How does one deal with shattered dreams? Again, Psalm 107 helps us. Because these pictures have come out of their history, the psalmist looks back and also sees God’s faithfulness.
Notice that in the middle of each of these pictures, the turning point is the fact that the lost, the prisoner, the sick, the sea-tossed, each one of them cry out to the Lord in their trouble. Notice the repeated phrase, verse 6, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble”; verse 13, “Then they cried to the Lord”; verse 19, “Then they cried to the Lord”; verse 28, “Then they cried to the Lord.”
That word, cried, is a word of deep emotion. They are not simply asking God for something or praying a simple passionless prayer, but they are crying out as in distress.
Do you realize how often the Scripture is full of examples of God’s people crying out to him for help? Think back to when the Israelites were in slavery to Egypt. Exodus 2:23 says, “The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried for help.”
Turn over a few pages to the Book of Judges, and over and over again you will find that when the people were in distress, they cried out to the Lord, and the Lord would send a prophet or a judge. In 1 Samuel, you will read that God gives the Israelites a king, because they cried out to him.
But God’s people didn’t just cry out to him in the Old Testament. In Matthew 14, do you remember what Peter did as he was about to sink after taking a few steps on the water? He cried out to Jesus, “Lord save me.”
In college, I spent a summer in upper Wisconsin at Wheaton College’s Honey Rock Camp, and I took the Red Cross Water Safety class. To graduate from this class you had to do go into the lake fully clothed, tread water, and then take off your clothes—shirt and pants—and make them into a flotation device.
My problem came in the fact that I was wearing straight-legged blue jeans. And as the jeans became saturated with water, they became very heavy. And also very difficult to pull over my ankles.
So, when I got to my jeans. I pulled them down until they were around my ankles. Now, of course, I could not kick to keep afloat. So I went down under the water to try to pull them off. Three times. I was determined to do this on my own. The fourth time, I went under to give my jeans a tug, I realized that if they did not come off this time, I would need help. Of course, they didn’t come off. So when I came back to the surface, I said, quite politely, in Minnesota nice fashion, “I think I need help here.” But no, I was determined to do it on my own. So I went down another time. Again, the jeans would not come off. When I came back to get a breath, I heard someone ask, “Did someone say they needed help?” And I realized that was me. I was helpless and so I cried out.
When we are disappointed, when our dreams have been crushed and we are in distress, we need to let go, be a child, and cry out to Abba, Daddy, Father. Why is crying out the turning point? Because when we cry out in our distress, we are recognizing our helplessness and our dependence upon God and that is the beginning of wisdom.
That is the testimony of each of these pictures. They are a reminder of God’s faithfulness, of his rescue, when we are in trouble. When we cry out to God, he will deliver us. Dependence on the Lord leads to deliverance by the Lord. Notice what happens in each of these pictures after they cried out.
In the first picture, God takes those lost and wandering in the desert and leads them to a city where they can settle, be filled, and be satisfied. In the second, God takes the captive prisoner awaiting execution and breaks the prisoner’s chains and cuts through the bars of iron and sets him free. In the third picture, God takes the sick person who has no appetite and is on the brink of death and heals him and gives him life. And in the fourth picture, God takes the doomed sailor who is being tossed around by a catastrophic storm, and he stills the waters and then guides him to a safe harbor.
In reality, these are testimonies not unlike what we hear today over and over again. It was the testimony of those who shared in the Teen Challenge Choir. They found themselves in trouble, they cried out to God, and God is delivering them. It was the testimony of Chuck Colson. It is also the testimony of each Christ-follower here this morning, isn’t it? God has taken us who were lost and he has redeemed us and now we are found. He has taken us who were prisoners of our own sin and he has set us free. He has taken all of us who have been crippled and spiritually sick, and he has healed us. He has taken us who are sinking and he has saved us. That is what God does. He rescues.
And when he does, we will get a new grasp of who he is. There will be a deepening of wisdom and a development of heart. And we will be able to testify to God’s unfailing covenant love.
That is the message of this psalm. That is the wisdom the psalmist wants us to gain: Yes, life will crush your dreams, but God’s love is unfailing. That is how he starts this psalm, verse 1, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” And in each of the word pictures, we are reminded of this truth: “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love.” And it is how the psalm ends, verse 43, “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord.” God’s love is an anchor. It holds us despite whatever disappointments we might experience in life.
Every time Phillip Griffin, a pastor from Texas, holds a baptism service he tells this story:
During the early days of our church plant, we were baptizing lots of people so we brought in a small indoor swimming pool. There were about 30 people who were planning to be baptized. But just before the service we realized that we didn’t have a hose. … So I decided to go buy one.
As I was leaving to get the hose, a guy named John stopped me and said, “I’m glad I caught you, pastor. I need to talk to you.” I tried to have a conversation with him as I kept aiming for my car, but he said, “No, I need to talk in private.”
So when we got to my office, he said, “I want to know if you're for real.” I had been talking about how God says to each and every one of us that there is nothing we can do or say to make him not love us. He doesn't always love our behavior, but he loves us. So I told John, “Absolutely, it's for real.”
He said, “Well, I’m struggling with homosexual desires and behavior. I’m in and out of gay relationships. I understand what the Bible says, and I want to do what God wants me to do—but I’m losing this battle. Several months ago, I tried to go to another church, but when I came clean with my struggles, they told me never to come back again. So I want to know if you’re for real.”
We stayed and talked, and I connected him with a ministry that helps people battling same-sex attraction. I also connected him with one of our church’s small groups, which ended up embracing him.
Before he left my office, he said, “Now I want to tell you one more thing.” At this point I’m thinking, I’m not going to have time to get the hose. “When I pulled into the parking lot today, I wasn’t aiming my car in this direction. I was going to kill myself.”
When I asked John if he had a plan for ending his life, he said, “Yes, I did. It was already in motion. I went to the hardware store and bought a garden hose earlier today, and I bought some duct tape. My plan was to drive down this little rural road and tape the hose to my muffler and feed it into my car window.” I said, “John, for real, you bought a hose?”
Phillip Griffin continues: “I got a glimpse of redemption that day. I saw John cross the line of faith and let Christ put his feet on a different path. And I saw God take something that was intended for death—that hose—and use it to fill up something that means life—the baptismal pool.”
That is God’s unfailing love. He will take your disappointments and use it for his glory.
Listen, you may be here this morning feeling lost, imprisoned, deathly ill, or overwhelmed, but know that God’s love for you endures forever. Good things might be happening in your life or bad things might be happening. Either way, know that God’s love for you endures forever. Life maybe has killed your dreams or maybe your dreams are being fulfilled. But no matter, know that God’s love for you endures forever. This is what a wise man or woman will consider that God’s love is an anchor that holds us no matter what we go through.
Joel Sutton is the senior pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in Minneapolis, MN.