Does Despair Have a Function?

What do you think about despair in the life of a believer? Does it have a place? Does it play a role? Is there any redeeming value in such a dark emotion? I know there are mixed opinions on this topic. Check out this text from 2 Corinthians and let me know your thoughts about these verses and the questions above.

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

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6 comments

  1. Despair, I think, is a tough one. Quick opinion: Despair can have a place, but it should be approached with caution.

    Despair finds it’s home in our emotions. Emotions can be very amazing, but they can also be very dangerous. They can make us believe things that are not true and put us in a state of irrationality and drive us into deep anxiety and despair. They can also allow us to experience and feel some amazing things in life. Emotion is at the forefront and pinnacles at some of the best things/times in life, and at the worst. When life is fairly normal, emotion is more stabilized. This is why I think it must be approached with caution.

    The Bible tells us to not be anxious, and to not worry. It also suggests that we have great reason to hope (the exact opposite of despair). Yet, as you pointed out, even such rocks of faith like Paul clearly have dealt with despair, and Paul even felt it fit for others to be aware of it.

    According to Paul, his despair (amongst other things) “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” Despair sucks. But with despair and other similar thoughts and feelings, we have the opportunity to rely on God.

    I almost feel that, in a sense, that despair is like a reverse ‘echo’. The slaughtering of the lamb on passover in Egypt was an echo of Jesus’ work to come. Jonah being stuck inside a large fish’s stomach for three days was an echo of Jesus burial and resurrection. Despair perhaps could be looked at as a reverse echo to point back towards the fall of man, and the darkened and sinful state we found ourselves put in. Not sure if that’s worth looking at that way, or even if it’s helpful in any way, but it’s a thought..

    So in summary, despair can definitely happen. I believe that despair will play the most beneficial role in the believer’s life if they are careful and thoughtful about validating that there is real reason to feel despair, and if they choose to turn towards Jesus and take their focus off the despair and focus instead of Him and the truths and promises therein. It will still play a role if the despair is not used wisely, as we can certainly learn from all life experiences, it just may lead to other problems and hardships as well.

    1. Pratt, thanks for the helpful thoughts. In the text I was noticing how the sentence of death on Paul and the despair resulting from it provided the opportunity to understand something fresh about resurrection. It seems as though death is a necessary precursor for trusting the God who raises the dead. I agree with you that despair can be dangerous and it must be approached with care. At the same time I think despair is much more like a vicious lion that consumes his prey no matter how careful he may desire to be with this wild animal. I am not saying that we are mere victims, but I am saying that despair is not easy to tame or control. What is really helpful to me about this text is that despair plays a significant function in fostering hope in the resurrection. Apparently even despair serves hope. Does that make sense? I think as Christians we often get real uncomfortable with emotions that seem just a bit too negative or out of control. To me it is a breath of fresh air to hear the apostle talk about seasons in his life that he would rather have not been alive for. I also agree with your thoughts about despair pushing us back to the fall. It is an emotion that would be drained of its life if there were no sin, death, or fall. It’s very presence in our hearts does point to our need for a rescuer to conquer death and usher in a new earth. I think this is exactly what Paul is pointing us too as well. He kills to make alive. Despair is ultimately the slave of hope for the Christian.

  2. Initially, I think of despair as a bad emotion, even a sin. I agree with Josh’s assessment of emotions. I tend to not trust emotion, as it can lead me down the wrong path.

    But in your passage, the translated word used is despair. I looked at several translations and they all used that word, along with overwhelmed, beyond our ability to endure, crushed. Now, just because an emotion is described in the life of an apostle doesn’t mean it’s ok, or not sinful. But there’s a positive result described. Reliance on a God who has power over death. A clearly stated purpose for the extreme duress experienced. If despair IS a sin (and it could easily be defined as a lack of faith, trust and hope), could it mean that God can use our sinful responses for His purposes and our good?

    The way Kory described being cautious with despair makes me think about anger. The bible says ‘in your anger, do not sin’, rather than ‘don’t be angry, it is a sin’. The bible also describes God at times as being angry. But we also know anger can be a fire, a conflagration that consumes people and relationships. So it must be dealt with very carefully.

    Our comments from the earlier post – Desperation and the Design of the World – tie in with this topic as well.

    1. One thing that was interesting to me as I studied this text was the use of the word translated despair. The word only occurs in one other NT passage: 2 Corinthians 4:8. Paul says he is “perplexed, but not in despair.” I do think there is a paradox and tension between these two texts. But more interesting to me is the only occurrence of this word in the Old Testament (the Greek translation called the Septuagint): Psalm 88:15. This Psalm is one of the darkest and painful laments in all of Scripture. It starts in the dark and ends in the dark. It seems possible that Paul may have had this Psalm in mind as he wrote. One can see a clear thematic connection in the use of death as a metaphor for suffering. All of this to say, it seems that Paul is expressing a sentiment that is not foreign to the people of God. What do we do with the lament psalms, Job, Lamentations, the laments of Jeremiah, and Ecclesiastes? There seem to be some moments in these books where hope is utterly ravaged. How should we think about this? Are these sinful responses to their circumstances? Are they expressions of faith? To me this discussion drives to the heart of what faith and the conversation of faith looks like. What do you think?

  3. I came back to this post just to comment on 2 Cor. 4:8 and see that you already have. I didn’t know about those being the only 2 times that word is used in the NT though. When you say the Greek translation of the OT, is that really the same thing as using the same word since the original would’ve been in Hebrew?
    Are you fascinated with pain and darkness? Do you struggle with those issues personally?
    I know we all struggle with difficulties in life, I’m just wondering about your focus here.

  4. Rob, the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew. The apostle would likely have been familiar with both. For his Greek speaking congregations he probably would have utilized it. I would not say I am fascinated with pain and darkness. I would like for it not to exist. However, I am interested in a two-sided conversation of faith. I believe that Scripture calls us to engage God in our joy and in our pain. I think the church in the West is inundated with a triumphalism that shuns any sort of authentic engagement with the more painful side of life. The language of lament is foreign to our tongues. In fact, it seems like the language of unbelief that we dare not speak. I find Scripture very liberating in this regard. It demonstrates, encourages, and even gives us language to engage in this two-sided conversation of faith. As to your question on the focus of this entry. I have been reading closely through 2 Corinthians and came across this text and have been wrestling with it. I have also wrestled hard with Psalm 88 and so the possible link was intriguing to me. On a personal level I am no stranger to both sides of the experience and conversation of faith.

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