You can read part one of this missive, Despair, Interrupted, here.
The last few months have been a long slow slide towards a familiar companion.
I no longer view Despair as the enemy; we’ve been together too long for that sort of animosity. In many ways we’re old friends, the type that go their separate ways for months and years, and yet remain able to resume their relationship without hesitation when next they occupy the same address. We need no introduction, no explanation for our reunion.
Heavens of stone and heart of glass. A heart devoid of love and a soul emptied of grace. My Bible, gently used these last several weeks, offered no comfort. I tried wondering for a time if faith had been a mirage, something I dreamed long ago. I realized, though, this was not a crisis of belief so much as a crisis of being. The well-reasoned details of my faith remained solid; less certain the existential form my Christian life would take. Obedient? Bitter? Silent? Would I aspire to do great things for God, or would I finally accept as true Despair’s testimony of my self-worthlessness?
My mother hummed songs by the Gaithers when I was a child. One of them, “I Believe,” contained a few lines to which I have clung many times:
“I long so much
To feel the warmth
That others seem to know.
And yet if I never feel a thing
I claim Him
This time the words offered no comfort. Instead of assuring me of the security of my place in the kingdom regardless of my temporal emotions, the lyrics reminded me of the probability of giving myself completely to Him from now till the day I died, cradled gently by the despair that never abandoned me, never forsook me, was always by my side.
And so I embraced him, my erstwhile companion, resigned to simply toil joylessly until death graciously smiled on me. In doing so, I finally committed my one clear sin in all of this.
I found there’s a special hell in determined hopelessness. When we Christians take it upon ourselves to declare the meaninglessness of life, we deny the reality that God reserves such determinations for Himself. Pushing Him aside, we establish ourselves as tiny little gods, limited in every sense but our depravity. We determine the values of this and that, lording it over His creation as though it were our own. The main spiritual issue, of course, is hubris, but the primary practical problem of being our own god is that we have no one to whom we can pray when the burdens become too great.
By welcoming my tormentor into my life, I moved beyond merely falling into the Hole and found myself standing at the bottom, digging furiously. I had not foreseen that walking arm-in-arm with despair required that I share his aims. And so, once again, I began to climb, humming through gritted teeth, “I long so much/ to feel the warmth/ that others seem to know…”
Almost no one knows these things about me. I’ve learned to hide them. The Body of Christ is uncomfortable with depression and despair. Mental health sounds too much like “crazier than a peach orchard boar.” An admission of emotional issues inspires visions of popping pills in lieu of seeking God’s help. We’re viewed as inconsistent and unspiritual, failing to rejoice in the Lord always, and I again I say rejoice. Perhaps there’s some truth to those perspectives. Being spiritually healthy can often stave off emotional and mental struggles, I think.
If we stop there, though, we miss something far better.
For Christians and suffering, Paul’s voice carries greater significance than David’s and Job’s. Suffice it to say he’s got a certain credibility when it comes to hurting, and as such he spilled significant ink on the matter. Paul viewed hardship as allowing us the chance to participate in the sufferings of Christ. He did not differentiate between physical woes and emotional bruises. Deliberate persecution by men no less than spiritual torment at the hands of Satan await us who call on the name of the Lord. Our suffering is only natural in this fallen, sinful, God-hating world. Even illness, such as Paul suffered, stands to bring us closer to Christ. Enduring, even as we stagger and stumble, is credited to us as joining Christ in His sufferings, qualifying us for comfort like no other.
This, my friends, is biblical.
The American church and society enjoy many blessings. We have the right to worship. The military does not determine electoral outcomes. We lack civil wars and invasions. We have an excellent, if expensive, health care system. We’ve successfully eliminated vast sources of suffering from our lives.
I’m from a middle class home with no personal experiences of discrimination. I’ve never been through bankruptcy or foreclosure. My parents never divorced and I had all four grandparents until I was a father. I’m healthy, married to a fabulous woman, and have as many tax deductions as I desire. God’s calling takes me to many places, but His hand has protected me from persecution where ever I’ve gone.
Therefore, what sufferings exist in my life? Am I doomed never to be allowed to join the cause of Christ fully because the circumstances of my life have eliminated the usual avenues for hardship? Or am I simply whining about my first-world heartache in the absence of third-world problems? Is this, relatively speaking, Poor Little Rich Kid Syndrome?
Or is Despair my hardship, my pathway to participation in the sufferings of Christ? With everything else eliminated, is an internal wound all that remains? In the absence of major trauma, does the Hole exist for my growth, my edification, my chance to rejoice of being worthy of suffering for the name of Christ? Do I praise Him as I fall, not because He pushed me in but because He’ll pull me out?
I say yes.
Instead of despair being internal response to external suffering, it IS my suffering. Emotional pain is my personal gateway to knowing the sufferings of Christ and understanding the comfort of the cross. Despair has meaning not because I’ve defined it, but because He has.
Then come, Despair, and test me. Sift me like sand. Bind my hands and lead me where I would rather not go. Cripple me that I can lean on Christ more fully. Allow the ground to fall away as frequently as you choose. I’ll climb out every time, though not because I’m strong or brave or anything so petty. I’m as much a weakling coward as the next guy. No, what gives me the strength to climb is the incomparable joy of knowing I’ve suffered for Him, joy I’ll receive in this life or the next.