Embrace Disillusionment

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When wisely managed, disillusionment is a beneficial misery. It qualifies as what the Puritans called “a severe mercy”—a torment that purifies the soul. Since disillusionment is emotionally painful, we naturally regard it as an enemy. But to be disillusioned is to be set free from illusion, and that is never bad. Disillusionment bursts an illusion much as a pin pops a balloon. The experience is jarring; but in the case of illusions, it is equally liberating.

Illusions are, of course, not real. They are enchanted dreams, deceptive mirages. Illusions may temporarily help us cope with the challenges of life—the little boy who is a gangster’s son may profit from the illusion that his father is a brave and principled man. But illusions that persist too long damage the soul—should this boy’s illusions never be demolished, he may well follow his father into a life of crime and become nothing more than a predatory thug.

We find it particularly natural to adopt illusions in the early stages of covenantal relationships. A newly married couple entertains illusions about marriage and one another. New church members imbibe illusions about their church. But for every married couple and every church member, these illusions are eventually overwhelmed by reality. The illusion of a perfect marriage, the illusion of an ideal church, is eventually shattered.

We tend to point the finger of blame in the face of anyone perceived to be the cause of such disillusionment. It is invariably people who poke a pin in the balloon of our illusions and it’s difficult to go on liking those people. There are times when judging someone to be wrong and holding that person accountable for ill-behavior is wise. But we must withstand the temptation to respond in ways that bypass disillusionment’s spiritual benefits—that is, with retaliatory anger, social withdrawal, bitterness, donning a cynical and superior spirit, and/or yielding to despair. Disillusionment should be valued as a purifying valley we must pass all the way through in order to reap the rewards on the other side.

At times our illusions are innocent enough, yet they are always rooted in our expectations of what others must do and who they must be—and this is a danger zone. When I walk in covenantal love with others and they behave as I expect, my spirit is easily intoxicated by the heady wine of having successfully ordered my world. I nurture strong affections for my expectations—how I should be valued, how others should treat me, the way things should be done, the progress that should be made, the values and truths that should be emphasized.

And then, when God, or my mate, or my church, performs to my expectations my heart is filled with happiness and my mouth with words of praise and thanksgiving. I cast the vision. I establish laws others must keep. And I chirp with glee when they play the part I have assigned to them and perform to my expectations. I fiddle. They dance. All is well. But what I am actually doing is playing God. And the sooner this illusory bubble is burst, the better.

Once disillusionment sets in, we must learn to get on the other side of it, refusing to sacrifice its benefits to reactionary responses. When we abort the process, disillusionment devolves into excuses for bad behavior, immature responses, and cancerous attitudes. But married couples who endure the travail of disillusionment and journey together through it will inevitably come out on the other side of that dark valley with a deeper love for one another. Illusory love will dissipate, but their love will be more real and stronger. It will be of the sort that says, “You are a gift from God—just as you are—and I love you as you really are, not as you exist in my demanding dreams.”

Church members who realize their church is comprised of sinners and broken people must unite with one another to endure the onslaught of disillusionment and journey on through to the other side of it. There is a time to leave a church. Some churches are systemically corrupt and should be abandoned. But there is a difference between wisely breaking fellowship with an unfaithful assembly and breaking fellowship so as to bypass the purifying valley of disillusionment.

Once our illusions about the community of faith are crushed, we are freed, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it (and from whose well I draw), “to enter into that common life not as demanders, but as thankful recipients.” Bonhoeffer admonishes those who become alienated from a Christian community due to disillusionment to carefully examine their hearts. It may be that God himself has chosen to shatter their illusions by means of communion with other sinners. When we love our dream of what the community should be more than what the community actually is by God’s grace, we idolize an illusion and reject His gift. Disenchantment with such myths leads us to the verdant fields of genuine love for one another that is only achieved by passing through the gauntlet of disillusionment. It also leads us into closer fellowship with the God who liberates sinners by shattering their illusions with truth.

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