Friday, April 7, 2023

The "Sin" of Despair

 …She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

    He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” 

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

    Jesus said to her, “Mary.” 

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

   Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

    Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” 

-John 20:14-20 (NIV)

I read something this week about “The Sin of Despair.” It’s about the Covenant School shooting in Nashville and some of the responses to it. That title grabbed my attention. I have never thought of despair as a sin. 

      Despair is the sense that hope is gone, that there’s no way things get better. Despair is what maybe you feel when your wife of six decades has to be moved out of the home you raised your kids in together. It’s watching a business you’ve put your money and sweat and life into circle the drain. It’s a terminal diagnosis, a rejection, the loss of a child. It’s justice denied so long and so consistently that you lose even the expectation that one day things might get better.

     Despair, I think, isn’t a course of action we choose as much as it is a gloom and unhappiness that threatens to sweep us away. It’s too much a cousin of  clinical depression for me to be comfortable labeling it as sin. Despair is the unasked-for, unwanted, and yet very real sense that good has been overwhelmed by bad. It isn’t a path we choose, it’s a glacier that rolls down upon us, freezing anticipation and joy and initiative and leaving us barren.

     I can’t call it a sin. I can’t paint despair as rebellion against God. 

     Did Elijah sin when he hid in a cave on Mount Horeb with a price on his head, broken-hearted at what he thought was the complete apostasy of Israel? Oh, I know there were things he wasn’t seeing — but those weren’t things God had shown him, and once God did Elijah left his cave and went about his business. Despair is often — I guess always, if you take your faith seriously — a failure of vision. But a complete field of vision is something God doesn’t give human beings. 

      The author says that despair is a sin because it means that “we’re beginning to doubt if God Himself can do anything.” I don’t think that’s the problem most believers have — thinking that God can’t change things. We despair, I think, because we think he can. We despair, I think, because we believe in his power, we just don’t see his willingness. When people of faith despair, it isn’t that we’ve lost our faith in God’s strength. What we lose our faith in is his intention. 

     I think we can certainly sin in our despair  — and often do. We grumble and complain. We lose track of the blessings we have. We get self-absorbed. We lash out in anger. We self-medicate. We give up on our good intentions and stop doing good works. But the author mentions the disciples leaving Calvary, the women making preparations to embalm Jesus, Cleopas and his friend going to Emmaus, and Thomas deciding not to be in the upper room as examples of the sin of despair, and the Bible calls none of those things sin. All of them are examples of people who have evaluated what’s going on as they see it and decided that it doesn’t make any sense to keep on keeping on. They haven’t had their paradigm shifted yet. 

      Which is why God doesn’t chide them for forgetting something they were already supposed to know. 

     He tells them something new. 

     Mary went to that Garden tomb not as an act of resignation, but as an act of love. It’s that love, in fact, that places her right where she needs to be so she can be the first to say that he’s risen.“You can stop touching me,” Jesus tells her. There’s something new, something that Mary didn’t know. He didn’t need embalming services. He needed her to let go of him and go and tell.

     It’s true, Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them and sent them and gave them the Holy Spirit. We’re not given any insight into his state of mind. Nor why he wasn’t there that evening. Just that, when he was told that he’d missed Jesus, he said he wouldn’t believe. Said he needed to put his hands on Jesus’ wounds before he could believe. 

     We call him “Doubting Thomas” for this, as though he was somehow more settled in his doubt than the other disciples had been before they saw Jesus alive. When Jesus does show up, he doesn’t lecture Thomas for his doubt. He offers him peace. He offers his wounds for Thomas’ inspection. “Stop doubting and believe,” he says.

     Turns out, of course, that Thomas didn’t need to touch him either. As soon as he saw him, he believed. 

     Neither Mary nor Thomas believed without seeing. But Jesus offers a blessing for those who can do just that: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Paul says “we live by faith, not by sight.” If there is something of sin in despair, then I would argue that it’s the willful obstinance behind it that says, “If I can’t see it, I won’t believe it.” That obstinance, or something very much like it, is what drives us to despair. It’s believing that if we’re out of ideas, then God must be too. That it’s all up to us. 

     The article about The Sin of Despair had this to say: 

“I’ve lived long enough to figure out that the problems we’re dealing with today were solutions to yesterday’s problems. We don’t have a good track record of fixing anything.”

Curiously, that sounds pretty full of despair. I don’t find it very accurate, either. Human beings can fix a lot of problems. Human beings wholeheartedly committed to the Kingdom of God, even more. Strangely, though, there’s a wide swath of Christianity in America that seems to believe that if God wants some problems fixed, he’ll fix them. Then refuses to be part of whatever solution God might be cooking up. 

     What Jesus’ resurrection means, one of the things it means, is that people who have teetered over the edge into despair can come back and be part of God’s work in the world. In fact, that’s the only way God does things! No one knew about the resurrection ahead of time, though they should have. People in absolute despair saw the risen Lord, were filled with his Spirit, and went out announcing the coming of the Kingdom. People who have never seen him at all, but believe in the testimony of those who did, go out just as fearlessly and hopefully to do the same. 

     I don’t think despair is a sin. It just means you need to know that Jesus is alive, and that there’s nothing you’ll face that he can’t help you deal with. Not the worst-case scenario you obsess over. Not even death.

     Despair is for people who don’t know about the empty tomb. Easter is for people who do.

     How truly blessed we are if we can believe beyond what we can see.

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