So here we are nearing the end of 1st quarter 2022. Let me be honest with you - I feel a bit ragged and worn.
I know for a fact I'm not alone in this - it's a conversation I've had time and again. Discouragement, feelings of betrayal from those we trusted, lost hopes and dreams, deep grief over relationships lost due to death or division, an endless onslaught of news and experiences that make us feel like the foundation beneath our feet is crumbling away. Just when we think things are getting better, more brokenness is revealed through a phone call, an email, a news report, an obituary. We want to sing of God's grace upon grace, but our hearts are reeling with grief upon grief.
Lately I've struggled to pinpoint how I'm feeling and why I feel so, well, stuck. As I have poured out my heart to the Lord this line from the old 19th century hymn "Before the Throne of God Above" keeps resonating in my heart:
When Satan tempts me to despair...
Despair? This is a term we aren't all that familiar with. And doesn't it seem a bit... dramatic?
During Morning Time this year, one of the books we have slowly been reading through is Stories from the Faerie Queen by Mary MacLeod, retellings from Edmund Spenser's incredibly imaginative and influential original work. One of the stories tells the tale of the Red Cross Knight, the personification of Holiness, who ends up in a dark cave being tempted by Despair. Despair speaks mournfully to the Knight, reminding him of all of his egregious sin of the past, that even what he thought he had done with pure intent was corrupt, that the longer he lives, the more he will sin, that the world is better off without him, that to take his life would be a mercy to himself and to the world.
Lady Una, the personification of Truth, intervenes at his lowest moment when he is most tempted. "'Fie, fie, faint-hearted Knight!' she cried. "What is the meaning of this shameful strife? ...Have you not a share in the heavenly mercy? Why should you then despair who have been chosen to fight the good fight? If there is Justice, there is also Forgiveness, which soothes the anguish of remorse and blots out the record of sin."
We are familiar with this fight; Lady Una, the Red Cross Knight, and Despair are painting a vivid story-version of what most of us have sung about many times, using those very lyrics I quoted earlier:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea;
A great High Priest, whose Name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while with God He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
The antidote to this Despair is the Truth of what Jesus has done - our sin is real, but our Hope is sure. Like Lady Una reminds our Knight, there is Justice and Forgiveness. Jesus stood in our stead and paid the price for us, and now He lives and pleads on our behalf.
But... back to my original struggle... I'm not really wrestling with resting in God's forgiveness. Is this still "despair"?
Despair, at first glance, seems to be a past-focused temptation. Look back, do you see all your failures? But in reality, Despair is a temptation to be without Hope, and Hope is a future orientation. Despair takes the failure and pain in our past and carries it to the future and says - "look, everything is dark and hopeless. This will all change like everything else you have held dear. You will eventually lose everything you love. What do you have to hold on to? What good can you do? You've tried before and failed. You've trusted God before and still suffered. Wake up. Stop being naive."
Despair shows us a blank future ahead. Despair makes our own selves and our own pain and our own sin loom large and makes God's Mercy and Grace and Forgiveness seem very small. As though His Goodness were not so good after all, His Steadfast Love not so sure and steady, His plans for us suspect. Despair is an attack on God's very nature.
Upward I look and see Him there...
In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior remarks, "Aquinas says... to despair is a sin against God in His goodness and mercy... Despair has caused some to place more faith in political leaders than in Biblical principles. In turn, some Christians, disillusioned over what other believers have said or done, have chosen to disavow their family of faith, giving in to despair. To despair over politics - regardless of which side of the political divide one lands on - as many Christians have done in the current apocalyptic political climate, is to forget that we are but wayfarers in this land. Choosing hope - whether amid the annihilation of the world or merely a political breakdown - is virtuous." [emphasis mine]
I think, in many ways, many of us are being tempted to despair. Perhaps over our own failures and lack of ability to do what God has commissioned us to do, as we see in the Red Cross Knight. Perhaps we are tempted to despair because we have set our hope in politics or people, as Dr. Prior points out. The antidote to this temptation is Truth (personified as Lady Una) calling us to set our Hope rightly on Jesus alone.
Hebrews 6:18-19 reminds us that we can flee for refuge to Him and hold fast to the Hope set before us in our fully sufficient, fully sympathetic, fully truthful, fully trustworthy Savior - this Hope is the sure and steadfast anchor for our souls.
"Choosing hope - whether amid the annihilation of the world or merely a political breakdown - is virtuous." - Karen Swallow Prior
Our world is changing fast. I cannot see what is coming in our future, but it is by no means blank. Will it involve suffering and loss? No doubt. But it will also be full of grace upon grace, the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, His unshakable purposes and unchanging goodness, world without end, amen. In the end, all will be well. Choosing hope is virtuous. Choosing hope is not naive - it is a courageous act of trust in our sure and steadfast anchor. And that foundation will never shift.