The Contours of Hopelessness

Theology must find feet, it must bleed. We must always ask the ever-relevant question, so what? Why does any of this matter? How does this help us at all? How does an accurate biblical understanding of hopelessness change things for us. Jurgen Moltmann is correct, “as long as hope does not embrace and transform the thought and action of men, it remains topsy-turvy and ineffective.” [1] Consider a few things regarding the pertinence of a theology of hopelessness.

God is a surgeon and his Word is a scalpel.[2] With great precision and skill, He diagnoses our ailments and provides saving care. Hopelessness is the diagnosis. It puts words to the unrest in our souls. It pinpoints the aftermath of our sin. It captures the wreckage within us. It speaks to the pain around us.

We put our finger on a core problem when we speak about hopelessness. It is a deeper issue than we thought. It is more pervasive than we imagined. It is multi-faceted and shows up in ways we didn’t anticipate. Jurgen Moltmann makes this astute observation about hopelessness.

“Hopelessness can assume two forms: it can be presumption, and it can be despair. Both are forms of the sin against hope. Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope. They rebel against the patience in which hope trusts in the God of the promise.”[3]

In other words, hopelessness has multiple faces. It shows up in active rebellion as it strives to rip prerogative from the hands of God and fulfill his promises with human strength. We see this in the Abraham-Sarah story. The promise of a miracle baby to a century old spouse was more than a stretch, it was impossible. Instead of resting in the promise, Abraham took matters into his own hands. The root of his action was hopelessness, he lost hope in the promise of God. But this hopelessness took the form of active, prideful rebellion.[4]

Hopelessness also shows up in despair, this is its inactive face. It curls up into a ball, crawls into a hole, throws its hands up and simply quits. Like active hopelessness it gives up on the promise of God. The only difference, it lays down instead of rising up. We see this in the story of Elijah. God does mighty things through the prophet showing his power through fire and rain. Moments later, his life is threatened and Elijah despairs of the promises of God. He flees, hides, lays down and pleads with God to die.[5]

[1] Moltmann, Hope    Moltmann draws this observation from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949)

[2] God is described as Physician a number of times (Exodus 15:26, Psalm 147:3, Hosea 6:1, Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). Hebrews 4:12 states that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword and capable of “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7. Moltmann states that this idea is drawn from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949).

[4] In the Abraham-Hagar narrative (Genesis 16:1-15) we learn that Sarah and Abraham jointly despaired in God’s promises. Sarah explicitly says, “The Lord has kept me from having children” (16:2). In other words, God is the own barrier to his promises! He has kept me from the very thing He has promised. She then states, “Go sleep with my slave, perhaps I can build my family through her’” (16:2). The despair is potent. God is in the way. He won’t build the family he has promised, so I will. The remainder of the narrative points to an unsurprising tension between Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. The fruit of active hopelessness is always painful.

[5] 1 Kings 18-19. This side of hopelessness may also exist in the Abraham-Sarah story. In Genesis 18:1-15, the promise of a child is reaffirmed in spite of the successful attempt to defy God’s word and have a child through Hagar. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh in response to the promise. It is clear that Sarah’s laughter at this time is not one of joy-filled faith (18:12-15). The laughter of unbelief may be very close to the passivity of hopelessness—it is despair cloaked in a smile.


Hopeless Without God’s Promise

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The “covenants of promise” are the words of a God who cannot lie.[1] They are his gracious commitments to his people. They are the good He swears to do for them. They are blood-drenched promises, ultimately costing him everything. O. Palmer Robertson provides an insightful definition of a covenant.

“A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignly administered.” [2]

God makes promises. I will forgive you.[3] I will rescue you from judgment.[4] I will hear your prayer.[5] I will give you eternal life.[6] I will provide you daily bread.[7] I will not punish you.[8] I will be gracious to you.[9] I will be your God.[10] You will be my people.[11] I will be with you.[12] I will never leave you.[13] I will not forsake you.[14]

He swears to his own harm that these promises are sure and will never be abnegated. He takes a cross and vacates a tomb to ensure the efficacy of every word. Without God’s promise of salvation, there is no salvation. Without God’s promise of forgiveness there is no forgiveness. To be without God’s covenant is to be without a relationship with him and without all his promises. This is hopelessness.

When God speaks, it is true. When God promises, it is certain. Hope is directly tied to our relationship with His word. If his promises are not for us, despair is inevitable. If his promises are for us, hope is guaranteed.[15]

[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians (Word Books: Dallas, 1990), 137. “The only other place in the NT where the plural form of ‘the covenants’ is found is Romans 9:4 where Paul states, ‘to them belong…the covenants…and the promises.’ The writer probably has in mind a series of covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15:7-21, 17:1-21), with Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5), with Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15), with Israel (Exodus 24:1-8), and with David (2 Samuel 7).” I would add the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34. Walter Kaiser argues that repeated Old Testament formulas “epitomize the content of the promise…the gospel itself is the heart of the promise: ‘in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ Another is the tripartite formula, ‘I will be your God, you shall be my special possession and I will dwell in the midst of you.’” Walter Kaiser Jr, “The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972), 12. In other words, all the covenants serve to emphasize the certainty God’s presence with us, possession of us and faithfulness to us. They all drive us toward the gospel and the hope which is found in that good news.

[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (P&R: Phillipsburg, 1987), 4.

[3] Psalm 51:7-9, 103:12, Isaiah 1:18,1 John 1:9, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 4:32

[4] John 3:18, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 1 John 4:18

[5] Psalm 91:14-16, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Matthew 7:7-11, 21:22, John 14:13-14, 1 John 5:14

[6] Psalm 16:11, 21:4-6, Daniel 12:3, Matthew 25:46, John 3:16, 6:51, 8:51, 11:25-26, 17:3

[7] Job 38: 39-41, Psalm 34:10, 50:10, 81:10, Matthew 6:11, Philippians 4:19, Hebrews 13:5

[8] Psalm 32:1-2, 103:6-14, Lamentations 3:22-24, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10

[9] Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 5:1-2, 12-21, 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, Ephesians 2:4-9, Hebrews 4:16

[10] Genesis 17:8, Exodus 29:45, Leviticus 26:45, Ezekiel 14:11, Zechariah 8:8, Hebrews 8:10

[11] Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Ezekiel 37:23, 27, Jeremiah 7:23, 31:1, 33, Revelation 21:3

[12] Deuteronomy 31:8, Joshua 1:9, Matthew 28:20, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9

[13] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8, Joshua 1:5, Isaiah 41:10, John 14:6, Hebrews 13:5, Revelation 21:3

[14] 1 Kings 8:57, 1 Chronicles 28:20, Psalm 37:28, 94:14, Isaiah 41:17, 42:16, Hebrews 13:5

[15] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 62. Moltmann provides the following definition of promise and the unique dynamic a promise creates.  “A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist. Thus, promise sets man’s heart on a future history in which the fulfilling of the promise is to be expected. If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of the promise.”

No Church, No Hope

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Hope is remembered, worshipped and obeyed in community. Our connection to hope is sustained and deepened through the people of God. Further, the community of faith is entrusted with proclaiming the message of hope to the world. To be “alienated” from God’s people is to exist without hope.

Christ is the Master Builder of the people of God.[1] He forms the foundation and builds it brick by brick.[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that our connection to Christ determines our connection to one another. Hope himself binds us.

“What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”[3]

We are gathered together through Hope and for hope. Bonhoeffer argues that the community of faith should be engaged in three key disciplines: 1) preaching the good news of hope to each other; 2) preaching the good news of hope to the world; 3) preaching the good news of hope to ourselves.[4]

God works hope into our souls through the people of God. He sustains hope through others. He reminds us of the hope to which we belong through a fellow believer. The church is the light of the world, a city set on a hill, a fellowship of hope.

The church exists to wage war on hopelessness. It is through the proclamation of the church that we are pulled from despair and transferred to the kingdom of hope. It is our task to bring this hope-giving word to the world around us. The church is a bastion of hope, without it we are lost.

[1] Matthew 16:18

[2] 1 Peter 2:4-6

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Harper One: San Francisco, 2009), 21.

[4] Ibid, 32. “Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. They know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them guilty, even when they feel nothing of their own guilt, and that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous, even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness … [So] ‘they watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again … The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure. At the same time, this also clarifies that the goal of all Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation’” (emphasis mine).


Heirs of Hopelessness: Our Human Predicament (2)

Scripture puts words to our experiences. It explains the story where we find ourselves. Why does hopelessness feel so common to us? Why does it seem so familiar? It has long been our companion. It has never been a stranger. Hopelessness is our inheritance. We are born into it. It is the norm, not the exception. It is our story.

The first sun rise lit up a world that knew only hope. Eden was the place that literally defined paradise. Abundance surrounded humanity’s parents. A perfect place to live. A unique partner to enjoy. A meaningful job to do. And above all, a gracious God to worship and enjoy. [14]

As this study will show, to know the Triune God is to know hope. Adam and Eve knew hope. They walked with Him. They also lived with the reality that their perfect situation could remain forever. We live on the other side of that reality.

Hope was among the tragic losses of the fall. One forbidden act ruptured the world and dislodged our connection to the Triune God. It ripped us from paradise and left us homeless. Our parents were driven into the land of despair, the only place you and I have ever known.

Theologians have argued that hopelessness was not only the result of the fall, but its cause. “Despondency and despair are sin — indeed they are the origin of all sins. ‘It is not so much sin that plunges us into disaster, as rather despair’, said Chrysostom.’”

Hopelessness is the birth right of sinners. It is the land to which we belong. It is the air we breathe. It is the status of our souls. It is the condition of our futures. Rebellion has plunged the world into a dark night. The Bible paints a bleak picture of life without hope.[15]

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”[16]

This is a clear biblical description of hopelessness.[17] Paul reminds the Gentile Christians at Ephesus of their origins. He is calling them to remember where they come from. As he does, he confirms our suspicions of the fall narrative.[18] Hopelessness is indeed our lot, unless Hope himself intervenes.

Paul defines hopelessness as the absence of four critical things: God’s Son, God’s people, God’s promises, and God himself.

[14] Genesis 2:1-25

[15] Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of hope: On the ground and implications of a Christian Eschatology. (SCM Press: London, 1967), 7.

[16] Ephesians 2:11-12

[17] Paul uses the phrase “having no hope” (ἐλπίδα μὴ ἔχοντες) in the passage. The closest parallel in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which speaks of those who grieve “with no hope” (οἱ λοιποὶ οἱ μὴ ἔχοντες ἐλπίδα). These are rare occurrences in the New Testament. Both of these texts point to the centrality of the person and work of Jesus for hope.

[18] The context is focused on the Gentile’s helpless estate in contrast to the covenant people of God. The grace of God given to the Israelites highlights Gentile hopelessness. Paul is very clear that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been demolished and that all the benefits of the covenant people of God belong to the Gentiles in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-22). I am looking at this text from a broader perspective. Hope was not a given for Israel. They were just as hopeless as the Gentiles. God broke into the world with hope and he chose to work that hope in the people of Israel and through them to the nations. Hopelessness was the inheritance of both Jew and Gentile after the fall. This fact is what pushes me to argue for a definition of hopelessness from this text, although it is directly speaking to Gentiles. Prior to Abraham the Israelites were in the exact same situation as the Gentiles. They were separated from Christ and without God. They were not God’s people and did not know the benefits of his covenant.


Heirs of Hopelessness: Our Human Predicament (1)

Hopelessness is all around us. We see it in our families. We see it in our friends. We see it in ourselves. Researchers have explored the far-reaching impact of hopelessness on human well-being. Hopelessness is a force, a devastating power to be respected.

Drill down into many of our problems and you will find hopelessness. Many studies have done the drilling and have established hopelessness as the driving force in depression,[1] suicidal ideation and suicide,[2] distorted thinking,[3] poor physical health and illness,[4] poor self-confidence,[5] anxiety and dysphoria,[6] poor mental health,[7] gender stress and social class level,[8] low income and lack of success,[9] a poor problem solving skills and lack of productivity,[10] criminality,[11] negative social behavior,[12] and substance abuse.[13]

A brief sampling of the literature on hopelessness speaks to the power of this intangible reality. Many symptoms can be traced back to this root. It is the engine that drives painful experiences and destructive behaviors. The reach of hopelessness is breath taking when you consider its ability to touch every area of our lives.

This unwelcome guest and bitter companion is no stranger to us. Hopelessness is a force to be reckoned with. The research is right. We begin here because the research is pulling on a significant biblical thread. A thread in the storyline of this world. The story of you and me. Hopelessness is deeply imbedded into our experience, into our story.

[1] Richard T. Liu, Evan M. Kleiman, Bridget A. Nestor, Shayna M. Cheek, “The Hopelessness Theory of Depression: A Quarter Century in Review.”  Clinical Psychology in Science and Practice (Vol 22:4, December 2015).

[2] Lyn Y. Abrahamson, Lauren B. Alloy, Michael E. Hogan, etc, “The Hopelessness Theory of Suicidality.” Suicide Science: Expanding Boundaries (Kluwer Academic Publishing, Boston 2000). E. David Klonsky & Alexis M. May, “The Three Step Theory (3ST): A New Theory Rooted in the ‘Ideation-to-Action’ Framework.” International Journal of Cognitive Therapy (Vol 8:2, 2015). Regina Miranda, Aliona Tsypes, Michelle Gallagher, etc, “Rumination and Hopelessness as Mediators of the Relation Between Perceived Emotion Dysregulation and Suicidal Ideation.” Cogn Ther Res (New York, 2013).

[3] Firdevs Savi Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness: Role of Self-Esteem as Mediator.” Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice (Educational Consultancy and Research Center, 2014), 11.

[4] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[5] Katherine Kandaris, “The Moderating Effect of Hope on the Relationship Between Emotional Approach Coping and Flourishing in College Students.” College of Education (DePaul University, 2013), 23.

[6] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[7] Peter Halama & Maria Dedova, “Meaning in Life and Hope as Predictors of Positive Mental Health: Do they explain residual variance not predicted by personality traits?” Studia Psychologica (Vol 49:3, 2007), 193.

[8] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 12.

[9] C.R. Snyder, Hal S. Shorey, Jennifer Cheavens, etc, _Hope and Academic Success in College.” Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol 94:4, 2002). Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[10] Cakar, “The Effect of Automatic Thoughts on Hopelessness,” 11.

[11] Michelle A. Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth.” Master’s Theses SJSU ScholarWorks (San Jose State University, 1995).

[12] Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth,” 5.

[13] Tomishima, “Hopelessness as a predictor of juvenile delinquency in at-risk youth,” 3.

Counseling a Despairing Man

I think Scripture is loaded with great instruction for engaging with people in all seasons of life. This post focuses on engaging with a believer during a difficult season in their life.

1. Give them voice

Job 6:26 says, “Do you think you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” Let the wind blow where it will. Healing comes, in part, through giving voice to the fullness of our pain. Metaphors that push the limits, passionate exaggeration, scandalous theological statements, expressions of doubt, and bold argumentation are the standard language of the man in despair. We see this in Job, Jeremiah, Moses, and the Psalmists. When we encounter a man in this place we often feel uncomfortable. Their statements alarm us. It appears to us that they are losing their grip on the truth. We are tempted to correct their statements and reprove their “unbelief.” Without knowing it we often compound the pain of the despairing man by silencing his voice. If we can understand that this type of expression is a natural and even biblical way of moving through darkness to the light it will help us walk with people in their pain. See this helpful article on the subject: John Piper- When Words Are Wind.
2. Give them time

Psalm 42 and 43 are one unified unit of Scripture. The refrain that runs through these psalms and ties them together is this expression: “why are you cast down o my soul.” It occurs three times throughout these two psalms. The first time it occurs is early on in Psalm 42. The next two occurrences come at the end of both psalms. The interesting thing about this refrain is that the Psalmist is striving to bring himself out of a place of despair. In fact, that is the point of the Psalm. He is calling himself out of the dark place he finds himself. He gives himself every reason to leave the pit and yet at the end of both Psalms he remains there. These two psalms together teach us that the journey out of despair can take time. The suffering man should not be put on our healing timetable.  As we walk with people in this place we will love them much better if we can remember this.
3. Give them grace

1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” The term translated fainthearted here is literally “little souled.” The language communicates a soul shriveled and shrunk by some kind of difficulty or suffering. Those who are crushed and small in soul need an infusion of hope and encouragement. According to Paul, patience is a must as we engage with people in this place. Impatience will only exacerbate their pain. We must take our cues from the master comforter. Recall this word about Jesus, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench (Matt 12:20).”
 4. Trust the indwelling Spirit

Roland Allen was a missionary to China in the early 1900’s. He was also one of the foremost missions thinkers of his time. His work continues to impact missions practice to this day. One of the principles he emphasized in church planting was trust in the Holy Spirit. He believed that missionaries should place their confidence in the Spirit that indwelt new believers to lead, expand, and multiply the church. He understood the significance of the third person of the Trinity residing within a human being. He believed that the Spirit would accomplish what God promised he would in all believers. Like the apostle Paul, he was convinced of the Spirit’s faithfulness: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). I am certain that this principle can help us as we walk alongside hurting people. When we trust the Spirit in other people we can journey with them without anxiety when they are struggling and hurting.

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).