Shattered Dreams

2020 will always be remembered as the year of the global COVID-19 pandemic. During this unprecedented year, many dreams were shattered. Restaurants were closed, concerts cancelled, weddings shrunk, and holidays cancelled, just to name a few. Perhaps, you too, had a dream shattered in the last months. So how should the believer respond to a shattered dream?

I recently went back and read some of the sermons by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If there ever was a man who was known for having a dream it is Dr. King. We all remember the words he spoke almost 60 years ago at the march on Washington for jobs and freedom. The speech he gave that day was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century. I believe it was not only his skilled delivery and use of the English language that made the speech stand out but the topic of a dream, a dream for freedom that touched the hearts of millions.

In Dr. King’s sermon on shattered dreams, he shares that often our reach exceeds our grasp. What we dreamed of, may not happen in our lifetime. It may be that the next generation will pick up the torch and see it fulfilled during their life span. So how should we respond when our dreams our shattered or delayed?

Drawing from his experience as a pastor and a civil rights leader, who encountered plenty of disappointments among those he served, Dr. King gives three reactions we must avoid.

First, we must avoid having all our frustrations distilled into a core of bitterness and resentment. He describes the person who pursues this path as “likely to develop a callous attitude, a cold heart, and bitter hatred toward God, toward those with whom he lives, and toward himself. Because he cannot corner God or life, he releases his pent-up vindictiveness in hostility toward other people.” In reference to bitterness Hebrews 12:15 says, “And make sure no one lives with a root of bitterness sprouting within them which will only cause trouble and poison the hearts of many.” Here we see that resentment not only poisons our life but hurts those we love around us.

Second, when our hopes are dashed against the rocks in the storms of life, we need to be careful that we don’t withdraw into ourselves. Detachment from the world and cold indifference will only lead to loneliness and despair. As Dr. King writes, these individuals are “too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”

Thirdly, we must not adopt a fatalistic philosophy thinking that everything is foreordained and inescapable. On this matter, Dr. King states, “People who subscribe to this philosophy succumb to an absolute resignation to that which they consider to be their fate and think of themselves as being little more than helpless orphans cast into the terrifying immensities of space. Because they believe that man has no freedom, they seek neither to deliberate nor to make decisions, but rather they wait passively for external forces to decide for them.” This fatalistic attitude thinks that everything, whether good or evil, is the will of God. God is not the author of evil, God is love. Love only permits evil in order to preserve the right for mankind to choose.

So how should we respond when our dreams our shattered? One example that comes to mind of someone who experienced a shattered dream was Joseph who we read about in the book of Genesis. God had given him a dream that one day his gift of leadership would bring him to a place of great influence. Yet after sharing his dream with his brothers, he finds himself sold into slavery and then spending years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In that place, we see that Joseph did not become bitter, withdraw or fatalistic. Rather he faced the situation head on and transformed his liability into an asset.

Joseph faced the bitterness that could have taken root in his life by choosing to forgive his brothers who transgressed against him. Genesis ends in chapter fifty with Joseph seeing good come out of a negative situation and telling his brothers “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” Joseph overcame three roadblocks that prevent forgiveness:

a) Selfishness – “My rights were violated. They should be coming to me and saying ‘sorry’ before I consider forgiving them.”
b) Pride – “If I forgive them, I will appear weak.”
c) Low self-esteem – “They are better than me, stronger than me, so it’s easier to live with the pain than forgive them.”
When we read the account of Joseph struggling to receive his brothers, we observe his choice to be kind, to put aside the bitterness he could have justified. This is exactly what Paul speaks about in Eph. 4:31,32 where he writes, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behaviour.  Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”

In response to the urge to withdraw and detach himself, which he certainly could have done in prison, Joseph rises up and serves others. We find him in Genesis chapter 40 Joseph serving the baker and the butler in prison. Instead of telling them his sad story of how he was framed and thrown in prison, Joseph listens and helps others. One of the greatest weapons we have to rise above the trauma of a shattered dream is to pick ourselves up and look for someone to serve. This is the great example of our Lord Jesus who said, “Whoever wants to be first must take the last place and be the servant of everyone else.” Too many people never recover from a shattered dream because they don’t serve where they are at. If you want to see your dream come to pass, look for responsibility, not your rights and privileges. At the end of the day remember, God-given dreams are not about you, they are about you helping others be set free.

When Joseph encountered the trials of life, he did not become fatalistic and resign in passiveness to whatever will be, will be. Rather we see Joseph choose life. As we read in Deuteronomy 30:19, “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life so that you and your descendants might live!”

The dream that God had given Joseph empowered him to make the choice to flee the temptation of Potiphar’s wife and endure the trial of a cruel prison sentence. Our dreams may seem shattered or suspended as they did for Joseph, but our destiny is always secure. Destiny will help you keep your priorities with life’s fleeting temptations and your sanity when you are misunderstood. Dr. King writes, “We are both free and destined. Freedom is the act of deliberating, deciding and responding within our destined nature.”

In this life, we will face trials and shattered dreams. It is in these moments, however, that our faith in an ever-present and loving God will carry us through. We don’t have to withdraw into a bitter world of fatalism, rather we can meet disappointment with an inner strength and know that all things will work out together for good.