Every person must deal with the reality of despair at some point. Such a meeting is inevitable and comes upon all. No one is immune and no one can escape it, although we may try to delay our encounter with despair or deny its presence. Despair, as I shall use it, is the absence of hope. Despair can come from death, debilitating sickness or health conditions, frustration in life, failure, purposelessness, moral evil, guilt, shame, oppression or elsewhere. The source of despair does not matter so much for our discussion as the reality of it. It has the power to destroy a person or, ironically, to lead them to life.
What I shall outline below is what I have observed about people. People can be sorted into five categories based on their response to despair. It is informed by scripture and, as far as I know, is pretty comprehensive. Some people may live in and utilize more than one of these categories. Some people are pushed into one category quite against their will, others slide into a category as a recourse against the inevitable result of despair, death. Some people will begin in one category to die in another. The five human responses to despair are:
Irrational Leap, Inadequate Hope-
This is hope in the midst of pessimism but is ultimately irrational, inconsistent and thus inadequate. It includes the various forms of mysticism we find. Mysticism can come in all major religions- in all flavors and forms. There is a secular mysticism for example (existentialism, believers in “progress”), eastern mysticism (Buddhism and Hinduism), even a Christian mysticism (neo-orthodoxy for example). Many of these systems are knowingly irrational (Mormon emphasis on prayer confirmation as opposed to historical facts for example); others are simply naïve. Still others provide a logical system that is inadequate to give hope (Islamic fatalism) or are self-contradicting (all of them); thus all are irrational hopes. They will not hold up under intensity, or if they do, the person holding to these systems will seem all the more irrational and crazy to those on the outside for holding to it. Indeed, the insane and mentally unstable are included in this category as they are defined by irrationality or else live in their own reality.
Any system that undermines or denies the existence of real evil (biological determinism) and yet holds to some semblance of hope (self-esteem teaching) falls into this camp. The people holding to it must make a leap of irrational faith in the midst of their pessimism: “Everything will be okay, even though everything tells me it won’t be okay.” Many people begin and end their lives with such hope, never fully examining it or else simply accepting it as irrational, then continuing to hold on to it.
Lose self and reality in fantasy of pleasures, illusion of security, or absorption of self-interest-
This is a refusal to deal with man’s deep issues. It is an abdication of the priority of thinking deeply and asking mankind’s most difficult questions. It delays despair by putting it off until later. The reality of despair is not felt or, if it is, it is ignored in view of the false security of continuing comforts, the immediate craving for another fix, or the intense desire to achieve one’s life goals. These include pleasure seekers of various kinds: be they innocent (family people; TV and movie consumers) or self-destructive (party animals, alcoholics, drug abusers, porn addicts). Many of these people are functioning members in society and very intelligent but are subject to shift into another category under despair. Some already feel acutely the pains of despair and are locked in a self-destructive cycle of shame, remorse, craving, and subsequent despair. We shall call these, desperate #2s.
The category also include those obsessed with goals of self-advancement. Those with OCD or “CEO’s disease,” dictators, control freaks and workaholics are included. They may be incredibly driven and motivated, but vulnerable to change under despair. If their comforts are taken from them, they may fall into despair. If they fail to meet their goals, despair. In short, if they lose or don’t get what they want, despair. In Biblical terms, these are those obsessed with life’s pleasures- the here and now.
After looking at the world, these people resign to its meaninglessness. They accept its injustice and join in on the mess. Rather than give up on life, they rebel. These are the misfits, anarchists, cynics, and nihilists. Because they reason the world is so unjust, their actions don’t really matter or may be legitimized because everyone else is equally as bad. These people may resent the hypocrisy of people around them and think of themselves as superior either because they are “more authentic” or experts at “playing the game.”
The worst and most hardened of these people are psychopaths, sociopaths or sadists- those who have hardened themselves to become callous. In their coldness, they have killed their conscience and can no longer feel compassion. In a real sense, the worst in this rebel category have given up their humanity to become monsters. They laugh at despair. Nevertheless, not everyone who has gone this far need be homicidal. Many are functioning members of society. It is not conscience or love that restrains them from evil, however, but self-interest. They are too lazy for a life of crime, its not worth it to them, they’re “smarter than that”- it isn’t in their interests. They are still extremely dangerous, however, and may neglect or turn against those whom they “love” with little remorse.
Resign to Death-
These people have given up on life. Despair has won out. They are either suicidal, reckless with their lives, or stuck in depression and numbing. No one can stay in this category for long without slipping into another category or finally ending their lives.
Adequate Hope, “the Blessed Hope” of the Gospel-
This is the only real hope for mankind. One that is fully consistent and can anchor the soul. Not only is it fully consistent but it is rational, verifiable by experience and external evidence. It teaches that life is broken due to a moral rather than a metaphysical problem. That is to say, man’s problems all stem from his sin and rebellion against God, not from his environment or the things around him. Even natural disasters, diseases and death are explained by God’s curse on a rebellious man.
If sin is the problem, Jesus is the solution. A person can find hope in the historical work of God in Christ, the present experience of the Holy Spirit, and the grounded promise of future redemption at Christ’s return. The way to experience this hope is to repent (reject and denounce) all sin and trust (embrace and believe) in the real existence and historical work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died to save sinners from the consequences of their sin. Not only does God make provision for past, present and future sins, but God gives present hope of a life redeemed from sin’s corruption. He makes us into good and godly people and uses us to redeem the people and institutions around us. He changes us from the inside out. Lastly, at the end of time, He will decisively defeat evil, put away crying and pain, damn remaining sinners, and usher in eternal peace and joy.
Most people begin in #1 or #2 or are a combination of both. By all appearances, these are normal people, but #2’s are more vulnerable than #1’s. Even those in #3 can be functional although they just as easily can be anarchists or criminals. Those in #2 usually will accept a leap (#1) in the midst of their despair or else resign (#3 or 4). As stated before, #2 is usually a temporary option although some people die as pleasure seekers, mixing #2 and #3. Likewise, no one can stay in #4 for long without slipping into another category or ending their lives. Only #3-5 are viable options in the wake of despair, yet even someone on the brink of #3 or #4 may suddenly jump to #1, making an irrational leap. At any point, someone can enter #5, except those solidly committed to #3.
Many in #1 are quite unaware that they are irrational. They think #5 irrational and would recast this list with themselves as #5’s. Many also in #1 are unaware they are accepting any leap, thinking themselves to be #3’s (resigned to meaninglessness) but their actions and optimism about life screams of a leap.
At the same time, many in the #2 camp will seem perfectly reasonable people. Often they are the anti-philosophers or nominal #1’s. They aren’t concerned with life’s big questions, not bothered by the world’s despair- until it hits them hard, at which point they might become desperate #2’s (self-destructive) or else slide into other categories. These desperate #2’s are akin to rebel #3’s. They are essentially playing with death (killing their conscience, self-destructive in behavior, reckless with their lives, often contemplating suicide), but ultimately they handle their despair differently than their counterparts: They feel despair acutely and their rebelliousness is often short lived.
Those in #2-4 may be suspicious of any hope and will vacillate back and forth between categories when despair hits. Nevertheless, there are some who have entered #3 who will never get out. This happens when a person hardens their hearts to such an extent as to be of the same mind as Satan. He or she essentially becomes anti-God, hardened to His voice and beyond hope. This is both a terrible and terrifying place to be but applies to only a select few who have no regard for their soul and no fear of God left. If you have any concern for your soul or fear becoming hardened, rest assured you have not reached this point yet; but be wary.
It must also be noted that many exist on the brink of #3, think themselves to be #3’s, or are merely experimenting with it (since it makes them feel powerful) yet they have not fully committed. Many intellectually accept #3 or the logical conclusion of their beliefs demands it, but they practically accept a leap (#1) or live as #2’s. When they encounter despair, they may abandon their espoused #3 to dabble with #1 for relief, give themselves to substances (#2) for a season only to slide into #4; or they may fully enter #3.
Those who have gone far enough in #3 are marked by a lack of conscience. They see their lives as purposeless- they are doomed and dead, but so is everyone else, they reason, so who cares? They have ceased to care about anything but themselves so they will not yield their sense of control or autonomy to anyone. Even under a gun, these people would take a bullet before losing control (unless it was in their interests to comply). They are of such a mind as to be virtually immune to the gospel and its teaching. They are in direct opposition to God and the gospel. They are rebels and okay with it.
We must say that a fully consistent #3 can no longer respond to the voice of God and thus essentially cannot be redeemed. The Bible speaks of people in Ex 7:3-4, Mt 12:32, Mark 4:15-20, Eph 4:17-19, Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-31, 2 Peter 2:10-22, Jude 1:8-13. The Bible speaks of avoiding giving what is holy to such people who are given the title “dogs” and “pigs” in Matt 7:6. However, we cannot know when a person has become completely hardened and so we still should preach hope to a person even if we feel they might be gone.
Finally, those in #5 can still vacillate into any of the camps but once one has decisively entered #5 (like with #3) he or she cannot fall out. Hope sustains them even if they lose sight of it for awhile. Some indeed superficially dabble with #5 (they merely taste it) only to reject it completely for #3. A true #5 can of course be functional members of society although they will often oppose its direction and appear quite subversive. While #1’s can die in relative peace and ease, #5’s are not only internally at peace, but are at real peace with God and thus can die knowing they are accepted and redeemed by God (which is unrivaled in the security it brings). Additionally, their hope is founded on truth and is not subject to disappointment after death.
Christians can take heart that our hope is anchored in God (Heb 6:19). Our hope can survive the waves of despair. Yet, our perpetual challenge is the weakness of our faith. When things don’t go our way, when we lose everything, when we sin repeatedly or to such a degree that we seem to have wrecked everything, we may feel despair. Sometimes, as stated above, we may wander from God for extended seasons. God sympathizes with us in these times (Heb 4:12), but He does not hold back from telling us that the source of our despair is a lack of faith in Him (Matt 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 15:16, Mark 6:50-51, Lk 24:25, 38).
Our despair is completely justified, except for one point: God reigns and is mightier than it all! He is a present dispenser of grace for today and His promises of future grace will not fail you tomorrow, so you can take on the battle of faith today! He is able to save you to the uttermost (Heb 7:25) and is always with you never to abandon you (Heb 13:5). Indeed, as a believer in Christ you have already overcome by faith (1 John 5:4-5). You are a child of God, and this hope will purify you into something more like Christ (1 John 3:3).
For those currently locked in despair, consider this: What if its true? What if the amazing promises of God are true? You can be forgiven, see victory over sin, and have eternal life, starting now. Believe in the gospel. You won’t be disappointed (1 Peter 2:6). You doubters remember also what is said in John 7:17, “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Recognize your real problem is the evil inside you and that Jesus is your only Savior. You must admit at least this much: either my problem is internal sin in which case I can have no hope of any kind outside the saving action of a merciful God to remove sins, or it is external in which case man himself is the problem. He is born in a hostile universe which is stacked against him. Man is a creature out of place, a cosmic accident, a sick joke. His desire for meaning is itself meaningless as is his feelings of despair. Hope is dead. Nothing really matters, you are just as good dead as you are a #2 or 3.
But consider hope:
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)