Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why We Despair

This last week I fell, yet again, into an emotional slump; I felt disillusioned and discouraged; in short, I despaired.

And it's really disgusting when you think about it.  By what reason do I have to despair?  Compared to literally billions of people, I live in the lap of luxury, ease, and some might even say, decadence.  I surely hope they are wrong about the latter assessment.  I don't live decadently, but the rest of the point is well taken: I clearly have no reason to despair.

Unfortunately, all too often, I do despair.  I'm a petulant human being, and I think a bit of a problem child of God.  I can hear the Lord, "Bruce, Bruce, worry about so many things."  He'd be right.  And worry is nothing more than a symptom of despair.

I should say at this point in my defense, I am not despairing over the things I do or don't have, rather I despair out of a fear I am not using all I have been given--the collective assets of wealth, materials, knowledge, and opportunity--to make a positive difference in this world.  I despair I am merely a consumer instead of a producer.

Okay, after you get done gagging, you might suggest if I must despair over something, then that's a good thing to despair about.  Thanks, but despair is wrong because at the heart of despair is a lack of trust, or more correctly, a lack of proper trust.

Despite all the airtime I've consumed with this blog extolling the necessity of trusting God, I do a rather poor job of practicing what I preach.  The problem is not that God has failed to prove Himself trustworthy.  God has all through history proven His faithfulness, the crowning proof, of course, being the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His son, Jesus the Christ.  And although I seem to quickly forget, God has also countless times proven His loyal love in my personal life.

Certainly, the problem is not with God's faithfulness but with my own lack of faithfulness, which blooms from an improper trust, and quickly wrecks me in the ditch of despair.  We can easily see the trust/lack of faithfulness connection, by considering three main manifestations of infidelity: 1) not doing what God wants all of us to do (i.e., blatant disobedience); 2) not doing what God specifically demands of me to do because I'm too busy trying to do what He would have the other guy do; and 3) doing what God asks our own way rather than His way.  In each case I trust in myself because of self-interest, with the outcome of being unfaithful to God.  And the ensuing failure breeds despair.

At the root of all the above examples of infidelity is an improper trust; that is, we trust in ourselves instead of God.  We insist we know better than God what we and the world needs, so we trust ourselves to get the job done.  The trouble is we are an unreliable lot.  Not only do we let God down time and time again, we let ourselves down countless times.  The fact is we are a very poor object of our trust.  And as long as we trust in ourselves instead of God, we will despair.

Is despair always a negative condition?  We must be careful not to confuse despair with grief.  At the root of despair is an improper trust born out of self-interest.  But the root of grief is love.  There is an inherent hopelessness in despair absent in grief.  Despair drives us away from God; grief leads us to Him.  Despair causes us to take matters in our own hands, or worse, give up altogether.  We can despair at the misery in the world, and be overwhelmed; or we can grieve at the state of the world and look to God to overcome it.  Jesus grieved at the waywardness of humankind, and was compassionate.  Hmm, come to think of it, anger is the only emotion I ever seem to dredge up in the state of despair--certainly not compassion.

Now that we better understand the mechanism of despair, what can we do to escape its sticky web?  As we seek to do the work Christ has for us by clinging tenaciously to Him for our strength, direction, and motivation, we should pray daily with the Psalmist:

Look, you desire integrity in the inner man;
you want me to possess wisdom.
Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven!
May the bones you crushed rejoice!
Hide your face from my sins!
Wipe away all my guilt!
Create for me a pure heart, O God!
Renew a resolute spirit within me!
Do not reject me!
Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance!
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways,
and sinners will turn to you. [Ps. 51:6-13][NET]

Yes, we will suffer; yes, we will grieve; but we won't despair because we are trusting in God, alone.


Jeff said...

Bruce, you wrote "I despair out of a fear I am not using all I have been given" and I understand how you feel. And you are right - we all fall short of full trust in God. But I wonder if the goal or ideal you have in mind is in sync with the kingdom. Nothing you can do or say or feel or any act will ever bring you closer to God. Christ's sacrifice on the cross is the only thing that matters. We are all sinners and will be sinners in this world - no "good" use of my god given talents can impact the absolute necessity of Christ on the cross. My "good" actions do not make me less of a sinner. No one can live up to the kingdom - God's grace alone, by itself, independent of anything I do, is my salvation. So as Luther said "sin boldly" and repent boldly, and accept the total gift of salvation.