Despair is best understood as a complete absence of hope. Often a sense of helplessness is associated with despair. Temptation to despair is fairly common; we live in a fallen world with no shortage of things that try to crush our hope. We even see this in the Bible. For example, after defeating the prophets of Baal and then running for his life from Jezebel, Elijah cried to God, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers" (1 Kings 19:4). Asaph, one of the psalmists wrote, "my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (Psalm 73:2–3 ). The Preacher in Ecclesiastes said, "I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 4:2–3). While earthly circumstances might tempt us to despair, is despair ever warranted for a believer in Christ? How can we avoid falling into despair?
Since despair is a lack of hope, the cure for despair is to look to our Living Hope—Jesus Christ. First Peter 1:3–9 explains, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
When we despair, we are rejecting the truth of what Jesus has done for us. Instead, we need to hold on to the hope of Christ. As Christians we have no reason to despair because we have a living hope who not only conquered death, but is working personally in our lives. Romans 8:24–39 reminds us of this. In part, it says, "For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. … And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:24–25; 28–32; 37–39).
Paul writes of the time where he and his fellow servants in Christ despaired of life: "For we do not want you to be unaware, 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. 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" (2 Corinthians 1:8–10).
Just a few chapter later he says he is "afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). How can he say that he is not driven to despair right after he says that he had been despairing? He realized that God used that experience of drawing him out of his despair so that he would rely on God and not himself, and that God gives us comfort that we, in turn, can share with others (2 Corinthians 1:3–7; 4:7–18). Paul could live in the midst of such suffering without falling into despair because he knows that "this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). Paul realized that there is more to our lives than the immediate experience we have on this earth (2 Corinthians 4:16). He was created to live for eternity, and his hope was in his Savior who secured that eternity for him to be spent in glory. Paul says in another letter, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18 ).
While in the midst of despair it can be hard to change your mindset. In addition to the Scriptures quoted above, there are some other biblical truths that we can grab hold of when we are tempted to despair:
"When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all" (Psalm 34:17–19)
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:6–7)
"When I thought, 'My foot slips,' your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul" (Psalm 94:18–19)
You might be in a place where you are currently struggling to have hope. Remind yourself that, like it was for Paul, you are going through a season that will eventually pass. You will again be in a place where joy and praise come easily, and there are things for which you can be grateful even now (Ecclesiastes 3:1–13). If you are struggling with falling into despair, surround yourself with the truth of God's Word and remind yourself of God's promises. Don't be afraid or ashamed to share this struggle with a mature believer who might be able to help you through this time and remind of you the truth that you are struggling to believe. Despair can lead us to isolate ourselves, but the family of God can encourage us and walk alongside us in difficult times, so refuse to believe the lie that you must suffer alone (Romans 12:15). If you struggle with depression, you should consider seeing a Christian counselor and getting whatever medical help you might need. Oftentimes when tempted by despair the most we can do is have the attitude displayed in Psalm 43:5, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."
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