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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Can a Christian Know True Despair?

Some things should be used rarely and with great discretion. I would say both cilantro and the word "despair" fall into that category.

The Bible seems to agree. Cilantro isn't mentioned even once. (Though its seed, coriander--a vast improvement over the soapy herb--gets two mentions.) And despair--only four times: Twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New.

I was once told by a Christian church leader that "real" believers should never know the condition called despair. (I didn't ask his opinion on cilantro.) The Hebrew word is yaash (pronounced yaw-ASH). It means desperation without any hope. It's as low as you can go. The Greek, which we find in those two New Testament mentions, is exaporeomai (ex-ap-or-EH-om-ahee, if you're brave enough to try it; I just can NOT get the emphasis in the right place). It means the same thing, essentially, though qualified as "utterly at a loss without a way through." No way out.

I think of the Israelites out of Egypt, with their backs up against the impassable Red Sea and the Egyptians bearing down on them. No way out, or so it seems. But is that one of the places in the Old Testament in which we are told someone experienced despair? No. It isn't. Because really, they were not in despair. God was already making a way. He directed them to move forward even though they couldn't see where to go: move toward the sea. That body of water, in his hands, became their deliverance, though they could never have imagined it or done it themselves. Scripture does not record that they felt despair in that situation, even though I expected it might. Perhaps it isn't recorded because in that case, it was not a truthful desciptor.

Three of the four biblical mentions of despair do indeed seem to support my former advisor's position--that those who really believe do not have a personal relationship with utter hopelessness. Let's look at them.

The first occurrence is in 1 Samuel 27:1. David, in the Psalms, certainly shows us that he knows despondency, but what about despair? In this passage, we find him relentlessly pursued by Saul, to the point that he knows Saul will never, never give up until he has David's life. It may seem David is out of options and despair is nipping at his heels, but that's not how the word is applied. David does something that seems pretty unthinkable. He flees Saul, and where does he go? Straight into the camp of his enemies, the Philistines. Remember Goliath, whom the boy David slew? PHIL-IS-TINE. David took out the Lord's enemies' hero, and now, in his desperation to escape his own enemy, he finds the Philistines a safer bet. After all, it was in the killing of their giant that King Saul's heart was turned against David, filled with uncontrollable jealousy and rage that would not relent. David recognizes the full-tilt passion with which Saul desires to destroy him. Saul is nothing short of consumed with intent to annihilate David, and it is Saul who will then know despair as David slips away to the lesser enemy. David's state of persecution is not, to him, a cause for despair. Instead, he says that when Saul can't find him to kill him, it is Saul who will spiral into that state of utter hopelessness. His unsated bloodthirstiness will send him into desperate emptiness, hopelessness.

Score one for my advisor. Under extreme duress, David did not despair. (And by implication, neither should I, right?)

Next we find the word in Ecclesiastes 2:20. Qoheleth is lamenting the ongoing toil of this life and recognizing its futility and frustration. We work and we work and we work, but we can make for ourselves no guarantee that our profits--if any--will move forward in the wisdom and purpose we desire. With his hope set on the work of his own hands, Qoheleth gives his heart over to despair--utter hopelessness. Not even those who work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill can save themselves or redeem their own efforts well, not even one of them, in this life. Outside of the hand of God (9:1) is nothing but despair. But in the hand of God, the only truly wise place to be--a different story altogether. Score two for my advisor.

The third and fourth usages are found in 2 Corinthians, and for the structure of the argument, I'm going to jump ahead to number four first. 2 Corinthians 4:8, Paul, in writing to the troubled church, states that his current state (and possibly theirs as well) is one of perplexity, "but not driven to despair." Things are bad, but still, his hope is in the "surpassing power of God." Sounds like a third point for the argument that real believers persist in faith so that they do not know the actual condition of despair first-hand.

But I would say, because of the last one, that the scriptural evidence is that they do not know despair in these particular circumstances. Because 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 pushes back against that claim that never will a Christian be so deep in the pit that knowledge of despair moves from gnosis (conceptual head-knowledge) to epignosis (personal, relational, intimate knowledge).

"For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, 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."

Been there? Paul has. I have. I was told I couldn't. I was told I didn't have enough faith. I was told that no physical circumstance could be bad enough to make a "real believer" feel "utterly burdened beyond [his/her] strength" and "despair of life itself." And here is Paul, the very one chosen by God in a blinding flash of light to take the gospel to the world outside of Judea, an eye-witness to the resurrected Christ, one given a vision in the Spirit of all that is to come, one who knew utter transformation in himself now stating quite specifically that he has also, even in going about the very work assigned directly by God to him, known utter affliction to the point of despair. No way out. None. Death upon him.

And there is validation in that moment. I thought I was a vessel of God's wrath. I thought he had to have abandoned me if I could feel so completely hopeless and trapped and anguished. I thought it meant my faith had not been real if I couldn't hold on to peace and contentment in the midst of suffering. Why do we sunshiny believers feel like we have to push this "happiness doctrine" on one another with such force when here, Paul wants us to know that he, too, has been there? Not only ready to give up, but actually doing so. He was done. Beyond his strength. That was reality.

We don't get to know the specifics of the circumstances Paul experienced but it seems from the text that the cause was conditions outside his own heart. This is not just a spiritual struggle. It was something physical, material, that happened in Asia. Persecution? Betrayal? Illness? All of the above, and then some? It isn't just that he got a little case of spiritual influenza and had to pep-talk himself back into the zeal and fervor he's known for. No, something attacked him, and perhaps his angels were delayed in coming to fight on his behalf, but whatever happened, it broke him. Paul too could break. I did.

But praise be to God, who overcomes. He didn't leave Paul there. He didn't leave me there either. Paul came out of Asia. And in looking back, he can see that God had purpose, and going forward, he can tell the troubled Corinthians that they can take comfort and find peace in his experience for their own. "But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead."

He raises the dead. He reaches those in despair. He gives a way out where there is no way out.

The fact that he does so is not evidence that there was no real reason for despair. On the contrary, the reality of despair is the evidence that we need a GOD outside ourselves to reach into our helpless estate and do what we cannot do for ourselves. "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us AGAIN."

Beloved, it may not be completely over yet. The sea has parted. The clouds have lifted. The blows have stopped. The path out of Asia has been traveled. But what comes next?

All I know is that "On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again."

For now, may I say that Paul was afflicted so that I, and you, could share in his comfort and salvation? Perhaps I was afflicted so that you can share in my comfort and salvation. And if it comes again, remind me of your own story, and that despair is real. But we rely not on ourselves but on the God who raises the dead.

He is faithful.


Carolynn Markey said...

I think Christians can experience a brief time of despair. I went through a horrible depression after one of my miscarriages (probably due to hormone levels) where I literally could not get out of bed and wanted to die.

It passed, and it was like the world had color again. It was like I was awake.

It did not linger with me, it lifted as I struggled through it with prayer and help and friends.

--Rebecca said...

I'm sure hormone levels contributed, but I doubt they can carry the whole load. That grief and loss is very real.
I'm thankful to hear you say "the world had color again." I know precisely what you mean. Yes, he comes. He restores. He gives back life.
Praying for you tonight.