When people talk about the Christian life, they talk about things like joy, freedom, victory over sin, confidence, stability, purpose, etc. Yet, this is rarely or at least not always our experience. But why? It’s not as if most of us experience much real suffering. After all, Christians in the West do not experience the kind of suffering and persecution that Christians historically have or that Christians currently do globally. But then why aren’t we happy? We know that we are forgiven, redeemed, baptized children of God. We know that whatever sufferings we face, we will be given new life forever with Christ. Furthermore this eternal life is ours now so that we can even stare death in the face and know that death is not the end. Death is just a sleep.
We know all of this, but we’re still not happy. Sure, maybe for a moment we can be caught up in the joy of the promises that we have in Christ. But sooner or later that joy leaves us and we are left in our sadness. We fall back into the rhythms and routines of life and before we know it, the promises of God seem far away. The joy that we once had is now out of reach for us. We know what the endgame is, and it’s great, but that doesn’t change the reality of the present. Sure, death has no ultimate hold on us, but we still die. And soon enough it becomes easy to look down the barrel of daily life and feel despair at the utter pointlessness of it all. We work and we plan, but all of it can and will be taken away at some point. Nothing lasts. Nothing really fulfills. Nothing matters.
Or maybe it’s just me. I recognize that I am a particularly melancholic soul, but, I think that all people, Christian or not, see this in some way or another. Some of us like to wallow in it, while others like to avoid this despair as soon as it raises its head. They might suffer in silence, keeping on a happy face for their family, friends, and the world, but the despair eats them away inside. They might wonder what’s wrong with them. Why do they feel like this? Why can’t they experience the joy other people seem to have, the joy they are supposed to have as Christians?
The Despair-Driven Life
Perhaps, in all our talk of purpose and joy, we’ve missed out on a vital component of the Christian life: despair. I don’t mean vital in the sense that this is the final goal, and I do not mean despair over God’s promises. That’s a different question entirely. I mean despair over this world and what life can give us.
The writer of Ecclesiastes explains how he found that everything in life is meaningless: wisdom, work, prudent living, all of it, “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (2:17).
Later he writes, “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” (4:2-3).
Despair is natural and even biblical. It’s an honest response to the reality of the fallen creation we live in. If we never despair, then we are simply ignoring the reality of things.
Of course, we don’t want to remain in this despair forever, and we don’t need to. This kind of despair is helpful in preventing us from turning this life into an idol. It frees us from trying to find ultimate meaning in our work, our moral living, or anything else. And this is a lot more than the common Christian impulse to separate from the world. This despair does not push us to create our own insular community that is “not of this world.” Rather, Christian despair sees that even our attempts to construct a pure Christian community and way of life are all “vanity and striving after the wind.”
Once we have despaired and once we have stared deep into the void, then and only then are we free to find ultimate meaning. This meaning cannot come from inside of us nor from within the world, it must come from outside all of that. This ultimate meaning is found in the promises of God fulfilled in Christ. He has promised to make all things new. Not now in this life, but when Christ returns at the end of the age, he will fulfill all of the promises he has made to his people from the beginning. Work will have meaning. Wisdom will have meaning. Human community will have meaning. The creation and life will be what it was always meant to be.
Isaiah, in the face of the exile of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem, writes:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising (60:1-3)
The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever…. I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it. (60:19-22)
This is our hope too. God is not far off in our suffering. His promise is not just to make us feel better like a divine therapist, but he, the creator God, will break into the darkness of our suffering and make all things new with the light of his Son, the true light of the world.
So Now What?
It is not as if the coming restoration of all creation has no effect now. Sure, we don’t experience it now in full, but some of that promised light and life breaks into our lives now. We can experience real joy and have real life now. Furthermore, the fact that creation will be restored shows us that God’s creation is in fact good. This life fails to fulfill us not because fulfillment is impossible or because that is the nature of existence, but because the world that we currently live in is broken. The world as it is meant to be, as it was created to be, does fulfill us.
So, despair sends us outside of ourselves and forces us to cling to nothing but God’s promises. Clinging to God’s promises forces us to see the world we live in and ourselves differently, such that we see that our despair is not the end of the story. The end of our story has already been written by God in Christ. He wrote it when he died and proclaimed that it is finished. We love to talk about how Jesus’ death forgives our sins, which is certainly true, but when he died he also put an end to all “vanity and striving after the wind.” He put to death our despair.
So when we despair, we only despair for a little while. That’s because the promises of God and the goodness of his creation don’t allow us to despair for too long. Sooner or later the light dawns on the darkness.