Thoughts on Despair

There is a distinction between sadness and despair: Sadness can co-exist with joy; it doesn’t cancel out assurance. Despair is devoid of joy, of any incentive to keep going

I explained to my children that this is where the devil wants us to end up after going through intense suffering. He wants to beat us up so badly that we are left believing that everything is bad, including God. He wants to fill us with despair—the state of being where one no longer has any hope, any belief that anything good could ever happen again. It’s easy to see why many people do fall into this sort of despair. Life is hard.

 

I was recently sharing with my children the story about the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’ final book in The Chronicles of Narnia. The dwarfs huddle in fear inside a stable, and the children ask Aslan, the Great Lion, if there’s anything he can do to soothe the frightened dwarfs. Aslan proceeds to speak comfort to them, but all they can hear is growling. He magically creates a delightful feast of food and puts it right in front of them, but all they can taste is what they’d expect to find inside a stable—straw and hay.

Aslan then explains to the children that he can help the dwarfs no further because they are so untrusting, so unwilling to conceive of anything being good, that they cannot perceive any good thing he might do for them as actually good. They are imprisoned, only in their minds, Aslan said, but it is nevertheless a very real imprisonment.

My daughter asked why the dwarfs had become this way, and I explained that a lot of really mean people had come and taken over Narnia and done a lot of terrible things (for more info, check out Book 7, The Last Battle). Things had gotten so bad that the dwarfs started to believe that everyone in the whole world was mean and bad—they got to where they ceased to believe anything could be good.

I explained to my children that this is where the devil wants us to end up after going through intense suffering. He wants to beat us up so badly that we are left believing that everything is bad, including God. He wants to fill us with despair—the state of being where one no longer has any hope, any belief that anything good could ever happen again. It’s easy to see why many people do fall into this sort of despair. Life is hard.

Jesus himself, we are led to believe in the gospels, was tempted to give into despair. On the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To be forsaken by God—to be cut off from the source of all life, all goodness, all beauty—is the worst thing that could ever happen, and this is what Jesus seems to have feared at Calvary. Jesus wasn’t enveloped by this despair though. His last recorded words on the cross, after all, were, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” He may have been tempted to think he’d been forsaken, but in his final breath, he still addressed God as “Father”, knowing that God was still his Abba.

There is a sharp distinction between sadness and despair. Sadness is common to people who follow Christ, as well as those who don’t, to believers and unbelievers alike. Scripture tells us that it is through much tribulation and suffering that we enter the kingdom of God, so the Christian life is characterized by much sadness. But it’s a sadness that can co-exist with joy. It’s a sadness that, however agonizing at the moment, doesn’t cancel out that deep-seated assurance in the soul that, when it’s all said and done, everything is going to be OK. Despair, on the other hand, is void of joy, void of hope, void of any incentive to keep going at all. Despair is what prompts people to end their own lives. For someone who ends his or her life, all of reality seems bleak and broken.

Practically all of the Psalms could be used as a good model of the proper balance between sadness and hope. However intensely the psalmist expresses his sadness over what he is experiencing, he almost always ends on an “up” note, emphasizing God’s goodness and his trust that God’s goodness will make right what is wrong. There’s plenty of sadness in the psalms, but not despair.

Popular radio personality and seminary professor Steve Brown once told a story of a young woman who had recently lost her mother to illness. When he asked her how she was, she, in an upbeat tone, spoke of how she was living victoriously through Christ. There was no apparent sadness in her. Rather than applauding her for her apparent piety, he expressed concern, telling her that anyone who could’ve just lost her mother and be that happy “must not be playing with a full deck.” At that, the woman let herself express the sadness she’d been bottling up and the tears finally flowed. It seems this woman had been wrongly led to think there was some sort of shame attached to admitting being actually sad. This is not a biblical idea. Far from it.

Paul said Christians are not to grieve like unbelievers who have no hope; he did not say we are simply not to grieve (I Thes. 4:13). Let us grieve appropriately when we suffer and experience loss. Let us not try to be Stoic, as if there’s some inherent virtue in keeping a “stiff upper lip” and remaining “unphased” by life’s circumstances. Let us allow ourselves to be human. Let us emulate Jesus who himself cried on occasion.

All that said, let us never give into despair. In a state of despair, we put ourselves in a situation where, to speak in very human terms, God can’t help us. Whatever goodness he may offer us, we will misperceive as something bad (just as the dwarfs mistook Aslan’s feast for mouthfuls of hay). If we put ourselves past the point of God helping us, where does that leave us?

Sadness prompts us to, rightly, shout to God to fix whatever is wrong. Despair, though, prompts us to believe that literally nothing can fix what we’re going through. Sadness prompts us to mourn Good Friday, just as Jesus’ followers did at Calvary. Despair prompts us to be skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection. Sadness leads to repentance (think of Peter and his sorrow over having denied Jesus). Despair leads to believing no forgiveness is possible (think of Judas hanging himself instead of repenting).

The safest thing we can do with our sadness is to show it to God. He already knows about it and isn’t “threatened” by it. The most dangerous thing we can do is cave into despair. When we do that, we end up like the dwarfs, mistaking the comfort God is offering us for piles of straw.

Daniel Townsend is a contributor to Mississippi Matters, a news blog of cooperative writers, videographers and podcasters published by The Well Writers Guild.

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