Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Despair: Carriers, Symptoms and Antidotes

In II Corinthians 1:8, the Apostle Paul makes a startling admission of despair:

“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”

In 4:8, it is clear that the problems are still there, but the despair is losing influence:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair…”

What carries despair into Christian lives? How do disciples experience despair? Are there any spiritual antidotes for despair?

Carriers of despair:

We know from other parts of the New Testament that the mission to Asia (a Roman Province in what is now Turkey), especially the great city of Ephesus, was met with considerable hostility and resistance. There were rumors, demonstrations, riots and other actions against Paul and the first Christians. This is the “affliction” of which Paul writes. Resistance to our efforts to share the Gospel and nurture the Church is a significant carrier of despair.

Paul later lists “perplexity” as a potential carrier of despair. Other translations use “frustration” or words reflecting “constraint.” Problems that remain beyond our control inject despair into our frustrated efforts at solution.

The symptoms of despair:

The NRSV Bible uses “utterly, unbearably crushed.” Other translations take up this same idea of being under a weight too heavy to bear: “pressed out of measure,” “burdened excessively, beyond our strength,” “weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power.” Symptoms include significant stress, exhaustion and a sense of powerlessness.

Perplexity, the inability to think our way through a problem, leads to an agitated sense of frustration. The feeling of being trapped can fill us with adrenalin, followed by a crash into despair.

Antidotes to despair:

In II Corinthians, Paul uses several words for “confidence,” and confidence is his antidote to despair. No matter which word Paul chooses, confidence always has two active ingredients:

1) Great amounts of who God is
2) Trace amounts of our work for God.

Antidote 1 – Assurance

At 1:15, Paul writes “Since I was sure (confident, assured or persuaded) of this, I wanted to come to you first…”

“Sure of this…” refers to who God is. In 1:9-14, Paul has reveals that the profound despair in Asia led his team to “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” God had demonstrated this ultimate power by “rescuing” Paul and his companions again and again, and Paul finds relief from despair by leaning on this experience of God. When we find ourselves in despair, we should heed the warnings in the Psalms, “They forgot what he had done, and the wonders he had shown them” (78:11). We need to look back on God’s amazing record in our lives and find assurances of His faithfulness and purpose for us.

“I wanted to come to you first…” brings in that second ingredient, Paul’s work for God. Paul ultimately decides that he should not go to Corinth, in assurance that his presence is not needed: “for I am confident (assured, persuaded) about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you” (2:3). Paul is reassured against despair because the Corinthians, even at great distance, have taken Paul’s earlier letters seriously and have handled a hard situation well. They “stand by faith” (1:24). It’s just a trace amount of Paul’s work, since in Corinth many congregational problems remain. But it’s a sign, even a tiny one, that some of Paul’s work has served God’s purposes. When in despair, we need to get our eyes off of all the “undone” stuff and look at the examples, however small, by which God has used our efforts to plant the “mustard seed” of His kingdom.

Paul brings this combination of God and good work together in 3:2-6, brimming with confidence in the work he’s been able to do with the Corinthians while crediting it to God:

“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Such is the confidence (assurance, persuasion) that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…”

We can displace despair with assurance when we use evidence from our own lives to persuade us that God is great and that even the smallest results of our efforts are signs of God’s choice to assign and bless our work.

Antidote 2 – Courage

From the end of Chapter 4 and into Chapter 5, Paul writes amazing words about confidence in the face of our mortality, which is our ultimate burden, constraint and carrier of despair:

“For while we are still in this tent (our mortal body), we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always confident (of good courage); even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Paul encourages by pointing at God. It is God who can overcome the despair of our dying human condition, giving us the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee” that we are being transformed for eternal life, even as we “groan under our burden.” It is the Holy Spirit who establishes faith that in Christ, death leads to resurrection – and resurrection brings the new, imperishable, despair-proof body that Paul wrote about in his First Letter to Corinth. God positions us to find courage while despair itself can only despair – because its power is constrained and crushed by the eternal life secured for us by God in Christ. We can find courage by recognizing that God is eternal and despair cannot survive our passage into God’s kingdom.

In Chapter 7, Paul finds courage as his work among the Corinthians makes progress, even while circumstances constrain him from being with them:

“…our boasting to Titus (about the Corinthians) has proved true as well. And his heart goes out all the more to you, as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you welcomed him with fear and trembling. I rejoice, because I have complete confidence (good courage) in you.”

Circumstances cannot keep Paul in despair, because he is able to see that the Corinthians had received his message well and rightly welcomed a good leader like Titus. Paul sees that the work he did for God in the past had some impact, and this gives him courage to face the circumstances that constrain him now. We can take courage from even the slightest evidence that God has used our work to expand His kingdom, and let this courage displace despair when we are in situations of perplexity and constraint.

Antidote 3 – Sanctuary

With this third term for “confidence,” Paul reverses the order and first gives an example from his work.

In 9:4, Paul writes, “For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we--not to say anything about you--would be ashamed of having been so confident.” (NIV and other translations).

“Confident” here means “to stand under” – as though sheltered by. Although he’s stating it in the negative in this verse, Paul has established a sanctuary in his soul, a holy place of trust that the Corinthians will be generous, whether or not Paul is present to ask their financial help for poor congregations in Macedonia.

When in despair, we can find a similar sanctuary in our souls, a place where we stand under the certainty that people we’ve built up in Christ are standing ready to do His work, not based on our present circumstances but on our past work to equip them for ministry. There will be times in our lives when we are weighed down or tied down by situations – but we can slip out from under despair and into the sanctuary of confidence by thinking of those we’ve built up in Christ.

Finally and most formidably, Paul shares an unexpected sanctuary of God’s own making:

“What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence (shelter/sanctuary), I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool… If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he for ever!) knows that I do not lie” (11:17, 30-31).

Paul contrasts his honest ministry, vulnerable to despair but blessed by God, with the outwardly attractive yet secretly manipulative style of those he dubs “super apostles.” Paul’s confidence is to stand in the sanctuary of God’s power – which Paul discovers in his own frustrating burden:

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:8-10).

This final antidote to despair is the strongest. It is Christ himself, a sanctuary of great power implanted in our weaknesses.

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).


Some therapies for despair:

1. Take breaks from prolonged efforts to eradicate the carriers of despair. These are in many cases beyond your control. You can wind up badly bitten and with a much worse case of despair if you are around them too much.

2. It is recommended that you keep handy all three antidotes – Assurance, Courage and Sanctuary – and use them as prophylactics. Despair can be headed off when we are gazing at God and rejoicing in our work for Him on a regular basis. In other words, read the Bible and pray often.

3. When in perplexity or constraint, read neglected Bible passages like Genesis 41:1a, Acts 16:6 or Galatians 1:15 – 2:1. Sometimes, even the heroes of faith spend significant amounts of time just waiting or enduring. Don’t read too much into it, just fall back on therapy #2 above.

4. A “spiritual timeline” is a simple exercise for spotting and celebrating God’s presence in your life. Simply draw a line with your approximate conception date at one end and today at the other. Then start marking significant points in your life along the line. You might see some big moments and patterns of grace you had missed before.

5. You might ask Christ to help you see some of the value in your work for him. Jesus strengthened his disciples at the Last Supper by saying, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (Luke 22:28). He calls out to us when we are “burdened” and says that knowing and doing his work will refresh us (Matthew 11:28-30).

6. Remember always that God Himself is the more important “active ingredient” in any antidote to despair. Our work provides only “trace amounts.” As Jesus told his disciples, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20).

7. Do not neglect fellowship with other disciples. Christ is the strongest antidote to despair, and he is present when even a few of his own get together (Matthew 18:20).

8. Ask others to pray for you and seek out well attested ministries of spiritual counsel, healing and deliverance. “Satan” is “The Accuser,” and will always tell you that your burdens and constraints are God’s judgment against you. Some of us are more susceptible to this attack, and need special help to resist it.

9. If despair is a chronic condition in your life, see a doctor. There are types of despair which are organic in nature and can be treated accordingly.


The Underground Pewster said...

I often think of the serenity prayer in those times.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant I have put this on our website:-

Christian mental Health

TLF+ said...

Thanks so much Stueypants, I did pray while composing and posting this that God would use it for folks who needed whatever word He would provide.

Blessings on your ministry of healing in Christ's service.

Anglicat said...

Rick Warren advises this in order to avoid burn-out:

1)Divert Daily(whatever relaxes); 2) Withdraw Weekly(a sabbath); and
3) Abandon Annually(disconnect completely)"

TLF+ said...

Thanks, Anglicat. Put that up on Facebook!