I seem to be writing about despair a lot lately; like that person who only has bad news to share at the party. Despair has been found through conversations with dear friends who feel broken, reading and listening to others who publicly declare their despair, and feeling moments of hopelessness myself. Oh, sure – there has been lots and lots of joy, too! But I keep coming back to discerning what, exactly, are we to do with this human emotion of despair! It seemed to plateau this past week as I both experienced and witnessed intense emotions at the conclusion of a divisive election.
I recently read a passage from a book written by old testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. He declared that despair is a “covert act of atheism” where nothing happens apart from us and no one is at work but us. Was this author trying to say it is within ourselves to simply trust God and despair will vanish?
I wrestled with that for weeks, and posed my questions to a trusted teacher and scholar. How do you say these words to people with clinically diagnosed depression; those with an imbalance of chemicals that can’t be changed simply by a decision to have hope? It would be naive and cruel to say, “Just trust God and you’ll be fine! Get over it.” Are despair and depression human conditions which work to separate us from God as our source of trust? And if so, what can we do about it??
Difficult questions. Full disclosure – if you are seeking definitive answers, you can stop reading now! I really don’t have answers – we must sort out these questions for the rest of our lives.
My teacher defined despair as “forgetfulness of God’s presence.” It is not that God is not present, but that we forget to recognize God’s presence. I get it. The world is harsh. Sometimes, it can be REALLY hard to see God’s hope and steadfast love shine through the chaos in the world.
Think of it this way… My 4-year-old daughter will wrong me in some way. (For example, coloring on the carpet.) She will get in trouble, of course, and there will be anger and tears. Once she is willing to accept that she made a bad decision (which might take a while!) she will often ask through desperate tears if I still love her. At this, I can stoop low, hold her closely, look her in the eye and say: “Of course I love you. I will ALWAYS love you!”
But when God’s children sin against our Father in heaven, we do not have that tangible, physical presence of our God in front of us, holding us close to remind us that He still loves us. Without that obvious, in-your-face presence, it is easy to live in the forgetfulness for a long time, leading to a state of despair and depression.
It is unfair to take Brueggemann’s words out of context. Throughout his book, he writes about speaking to God from our despair. Grief, depression and despair are a very real part of human existence – but so is hope through trust in our God who offers steadfast love to all – even if the person in despair can’t see it! Maybe Brueggemann meant what he said… trust in God WILL eliminate despair. What Brueggemann did NOT say is that it would always be easy. (He did use the word “covert.”)
Remembering to trust God can be terribly difficult – it means we have to ask for help, give up control, take a path we had not expected and set aside our own human ambition. The goal for us then is to train ourselves to trust God all the time – so we do not forget to seek God’s presence in each moment of our lives. To find God within our laughter, our joy, our hopeful moments, and yes, even our moments of despair.
The conversation and my wondering must continue – because I’m not an expert, and I don’t have the answers. Plus, grief and despair looks different for all of us. The one constant is God’s presence. We, as community of God, must continue to seek and find the loving presence of God.