The emotional whiplash caused by the coronavirus and the changes it has wrought has been severe. For some of us, the feeling of loneliness has been painfully heightened by our imposed homebound isolation. For others, we are dealing with the stress of trying to work from home with a house full of children who need their lessons in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Because of the flood of changes, many of the things we formerly took for granted are now insecure: food, finances, our jobs, our businesses, our very lives.
Speaking personally, the past two weeks have caused me to experience a new emotion: despair. I would describe despair is feeling the absence hope; it is hopelessness. Thankfully, I am not in a constant state of despair. Nevertheless, every day I find myself riding the ups and downs of the emotional roller coaster – from experiencing real gratitude and joy to walking through the valleys of desolation. As I pay attention to my emotions, I notice despair creeps into my heart at night, especially if I read the news just before bed.
Now, just so it’s clear, before I go any further I want to distinguish despair from something like sadness. Each of us in our own ways have suffered losses and the losses are just beginning. Things will get worse before they get better. Whether it is the cancellation of a trip or the loss of a job, a traumatic experience at the grocery store or the loss of a loved one, there are so many sad things. It is OK to be sad about these things. There is so much to mourn and grieve. If we have any hope of being emotionally healthy people, it is important that we do so.
Despair, however, is not healthy. This dark beast ought not be fed. Despair is an utterly un-Christian emotion. By definition, Christians are people of hope who worship the God of hope. Despair, like all other thoughts, feelings, or actions that prevent Christians from walking in a manner worthy of the gospel needs to be dealt with in a faithful way. That way is to repent and believe.
From the first step to the last, this is the constant cadence of the pilgrim’s journey: repent, believe, repent, believe, repent, believe. With every step forward along the way, the Christian never moves beyond Jesus’ call to “repent and believe.”
Repent: “Forgive me, I was wrong to despair”
The need to repent of despair is illustrated powerfully by a scene in Peter Jackson’s version of The Two Towers. This dialogue between Aragorn and Legolas only appears in the movie but it is one of the rare times when the movie strays from the book and is actually better (yes, I just said that: come @ me, LOTR purists).
The scene occurs right before the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are with Théoden and his meager army, most of whom had seen either too many winters, or too few. The good guys are vastly outnumbered by the bad and the situation seems truly hopeless. It leads Legolas to despair. Here’s the intense exchange between Aragorn and Legolas:
I love this scene. It’s so raw and real. It feels totally uncharacteristic of Legolas who is normally completely composed. But this situation unravels him. With only a few hundred people against an enemy army ten-thousand strong, the situation seems truly hopeless. And so, quite naturally, Legolas despairs. After raging out and venting his despair, he then returns to his right mind and repents: “We have trusted you this far and you have not led us astray. Forgive me, I was wrong to despair.”
This scene has played through my mind the past several days as I have felt the temptation to despair. Even when the odds are completely stacked against him, Legolas is right: it is wrong to despair. So it is for those who follow Jesus. Despair never helps anything; hope does. Despair is a disposition that needs forgiving. The way to make this right is to name it, ask for forgiveness, and then cling to hope. In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at what this looks like.
Believe: remember, hope, pray
In the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes his experience with almost unbearable suffering that led to him and his fellowship to despair. He writes this:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2Corinthians 1:8-11)
We are not sure what Paul is referring to here when he describes the affliction that made them despair of life itself. It could have been a number of things – severe persecution, violence, imprisonment, perhaps even a death sentence. Whatever it was, it was excruciating. The language of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength” is language of deep psychological turmoil. The pressure and stress they experienced nearly broke Paul. In his commentary on the epistle, NT Wright likens it to what we would call a nervous breakdown:
The load had become too heavy; all his natural human resources of energy and strength were worn down to nothing. It’s bad enough to hear a magistrate declare that you are sentenced to death; it’s far worse when a voice deep inside yourself tells you that you might as well give up and die. That is the point Paul had reached, the point where the night had become totally dark and all hope of dawn had disappeared.
Paul is less concerned about the reason for despair and more concerned about its effects on his faith. Paul and company despaired but the experience led them to rely not on themselves and their own resources but on the God who does the impossible: raises dead folk from the dead. It is this, the essence of the Christian faith itself, the hope of resurrection, that ultimately pulls Paul from the pit of despair.
If you are like me and have been dancing with despair, there is wisdom for us in this passage. Baked into Paul’s experience with despair is a recipe for us to follow. There are three steps: remember God’s faithfulness in the past, cling to God’s promises for the future, and pray.
First, Paul remembers God’s faithfulness. Like Legolas who recalls how Aragorn has faithfully led them in the past, Paul remembers God’s ultimate act of faithfulness: raising Jesus from the dead. If God was faithful to Jesus when all hope seemed lost, surely he will be faithful in our seemingly hopeless circumstances. This is the first way to resist despair: recall God’s his faithful deeds. We see this repeatedly in the psalms. Take Psalm 77, for example. In vv. 1-9, God’s people are in deep distress. The psalm hinges on vv. 10-11 when the psalmist decides to recall God’s past faithfulness: “‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High, I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” When tempted to despair, the first step is to stop and remember God’s past faithfulness.
Second, Paul sets his hope on God’s ultimate deliverance. Paul is under no illusion that he’s going to make it through this life alive. From his commissioning recounted in Acts 9:16, God told Paul how much he must suffer as an apostle. So it is with us. God may not deliver us from every deadly peril but he has promised us ultimate deliverance in the resurrection. In the Gospel of John Jesus says: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). This is the great promise to cling to. This is the Christian’s ultimate hope. This is what the Church has to offer the world.
Third, Paul exhorts the church to pray. I take great encouragement in this. We cannot battle despair by ourselves. We need to help one another through prayer. Paul acknowledges that the answer to the battle with despair is not merely about mustering up enough faith. That would be like telling a man with broken legs to walk. It is hard to remember God’s faithfulness and cling to hope when we’re in the pit of despair. We need the help of the faithful’s prayers. Paul assumes prayer does something and that it is essential. Praying for one another, for the Church, is an essential part of our life together. It lifts us like the tide rolling in. The Spirit of God works powerfully through the prayer of his people. This is why it is so important to be praying with and for one another, especially during the time of the virus.
As we continue to ride the Rona roller coaster together, my encouragement is take a break from the news for a bit. Spend more time reading Holy Scripture – meditate on God’s mighty deeds and reflect on God’s promises. Maybe write these out in a journal. Share your needs with your people and ask them to pray. And pray for your family and friends, your neighbors, the Church, and all of those tempted to despair. In so doing, we can be like Paul: afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair” (2Cor 4:8).