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Posts Tagged ‘despair’


Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

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“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Some people don’t need to enter anywhere to abandon hope. Some people can’t seem to abandon hope no matter how bad the circumstances.

I was listening to an interview with a former career Navy Seal. Part of the unspoken agenda of “Hell Week” is to bring the candidates to the point of despair, the point of giving up or thinking they are going to die. For him it was the pool. When you face death and lose your fear of death you build a wise soldier (not a reckless soldier). This builds the attitude of hope, so to speak, the idea that any problem or situation can be solved when we work together. Even if it means you or your team mate may die in the process.

There is something there to help us understand what is should mean to be a Christian. We have faced death & condemnation and been delivered by Christ. We should no longer fear death and live in hope thru the living Christ who has overcome the world.

But … just as not everyone is wired to be a Seal, not every Christian is wired to, or called to be, a martyr.

Augustine hits on this. Sort of.

In Homily 33 on the Gospel of John he said this:

“The Lord is gentle, the Lord is longsuffering, the Lord is tender-hearted; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. You are being granted time for correction; you, though, love putting it off more than putting it right.”

We all tend to fixate on one or two attributes of God, the ones that fit our general temperment. This puts us at risk. Augustine posits this in the fact that God is more than the attributes we fixate on. He is longsuffering AND just; tender-hearted AND just. The true God shocks us at times. He’s not what we want Him to be. He isn’t less, but more than we want Him to be (to steal a Kellerism).  When God revealed Himself to Moses (Ex. 33-34) He revealed both His abundant mercy and His persistent justice.

“Because God is tender-hearted, God is good, God is gentle. These people are endangered by hope.”

Those fixated on God’s gentleness are often endangered by hope. They forget God’s justice and holiness and think they have forever and a day to repent.

“Endangered by despair, however, are those who have fallen into grave sins, thinking that they can no longer be forgiven, even if they repent, and see themselves as certainly destined for damnation. They thus say to themselves,’We are already going to be damned; why not do whatever we want?'”

They are fixated on the justice and holiness of God and do not see His mercy, goodness, compassion and patience. They veer into despair when they sin as if they have exhausted God’s mercy.

“Despair kills these, the others are killed by hope. The mind, the spirit, fluctuates between hope and despair. Be on the watch lest hope kill you and, while pinning your hopes on mercy, you come under judgment; be on the watch as well lest despair kill you, and, while assuming you cannot be forgiven for the grave sins you have committed, you refuse to repent and run into the judgment of Wisdom, who say, I too will laugh at you ruin (Prov. 1:26).”

While we must embrace hope, we should beware of of any hope that says I don’t need to repent. At times we must despair, but beware of any despair that says “there is no grace left for me.”

Each of us have a tendency toward hope or despair. This is not absolute. Hopeful people can experience despair and despairing people can experience hope. But you will have a tendency toward one that poses a danger to you as you face your sin. As a result you will have to spend more time meditating on the opposite attributes of God. Those who despair need to consciously fixate on God’s mercy and patience. Those who “indulge” in excessive hope (one that puts off repentance presuming on mercy) need to fixate on God’s justice (not to the exclusion of mercy).

Perhaps this is part of the current debate over law and gospel with regard to sanctification in Reformed circles. Perhaps some are fixating on mercy. Perhaps others, fixated on justice, emphasize the role of the Law. Some are abounding in hope, and others while not despairing, warn against a superficial view of grace that forgets God’s justice as also revealed in the Gospel.  Just a thought.

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Weakness is not something we tend to spend much time thinking about. We usually spend time avoiding it or trying to get out of experiencing weakness. Thankfully there are men like J.I. Packer who don’t (or can’t) run from it. Recent health problems have provided him with the opportunity to consider his own weakness. More importantly it gave him the opportunity to consider 2 Corinthians and how Paul, when faced with his own weakness, found strength in Christ.

The fact that weakness is not option is found in the title of the book that resulted: Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength. This is a short book with only 4 chapters. Size should not be confused with significance. This is no Knowing God, but it is a balm for the soul plagued by weakness, which will eventually find all of us.

“The memory of having fallen short in the past can hang like a black cloud over one’s present purposes and in effect program one to fail.”

Many of us live with such black clouds. It could be moral failure. It could be vocational failure. I was the pastor of a church that closed. That black cloud hung about me for years. It still shows up  at times seeking to distract & deceive me. For Packer, his childhood accident and its consequences have hovered over him his entire life: weakness, alienation, left out…

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Previously, I talked about the false expectations that we often have regarding addictions.  We seem to think that our repentance will be complete and we won’t struggle with old temptations.

The second thing I was talking with my small group from By Grace Alone was Satan’s agenda in their addiction.  We can mistakenly think that our addiction(s) is Satan’s end game.  But it is only a means to an end.  And what, pray tell, is that?

“Of course, Satan can attack by never ultimately destroy true Christian faith, because we are preserved by grace.  Therefore, he seeks to destroy our enjoyment of the grace of God. … But he is well able to destroy our assurance and our joy- our pleasure in the gospel.”

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A Treasure Chest of Grace

As I continue to read Letters of John Newton, I am just amazed that so few people have sought these out and fewer cherish them.  His pastoral care is a balm to my soul as he tenderly applies layer after layer of the gospel.  His letters to Rev. Barlass, in particular, focus on our on-going struggle with sin.  Rev. Barless was a minister of the Secession Church of Scotland.  Sounds to me like he was one of the Seceders or Associate Presbyterians from whom the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has come.  As such, he had defended the free offer of the gospel and tried to free the church from patronage among other things.  But this man also knew his own sin, and sought out Rev. Newton to guide him.  Young pastors, have YOU found an older man experienced in all the ways of the gospel?

First, Newton sets his heart at ease in that he is not different from us.  We are “like coins from the same mint.”  But, due to his calling, Rev. Barless had greater experiental knowledge of his own sinfulness.

“They that go down to the sea in ships, and do their business in great waters, experience hardships, and likewise see wonders, which people who live on the shore have no idea of.  Many of the Lord’s people are comparatively landsmen; others are mariners, and are called to conflict a great part of their lives with storms and raging billows.”

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In the Letters of John Newton, he writes often to Rev. Symonds.  His friend was preaching the gospel well enough, but his personal application of the gospel had fallen on hard times.

His problem?  His focus on evidences of faith and one’s spiritual condition.

“You may think you distinguish between evidences and conditions; but the heart is deceitful, and often beguiles our judgment when we are judging concerning ourselves.”

We are to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.  He was right to do that, but wrong in how he approached it.

“Because you lean to conditions, and do not think yourself good enough.”

He was looking at his obedience and “spiritual temperature” (how much prayer, Bible reading, witnessing etc.).  Being the sinner saved by grace that he was, Rev. Symonds saw evidence of disobedience and spiritual lukewarmness in his life.  He did not live up to God’s standards (yes, quite shocking).

He was not doing this to see where he needed to grow in godliness.  That would be quite different.  He was gauging the authenticity of his faith.  He found himself wanting and was beginning to despair.

“It is certainly a delusion to imagine oneself of the number of elect, without scriptural evidence. … You tell me you what evidences you want, namely, spiritual experiences, inward holiness, earnest endeavors.  All this I may allow in a right sense; but in judging on these grounds, it is common and easy in a dark hour to turn the gospel into a covenant of works.”

He was not looking at the one sure sign of being elect- faith in Christ and His work ALONE.  He was looking for spiritual experience- today people look for the spiritual mountain top, ecstatic experiences, charismatic gifts etc. as proof of regeneration.  They are not.  Freedom from temptation and sinful thoughts?  That’s not it either.  Involvement in spiritual disciplines or a cause?  We can turn devotions or the pro-life movement, ministry etc. into signs of whether or not we are Christians instead of marking progress in our faith.  Newton rightly discerns that he has turned the gospel into a covenant of works.  His focus has shifted from what Christ has done to what he does.

Lest we be rough on Rev. Symonds, remember he is not alone.  Most of us struggle with this very same temptation in its numerous and varied forms.

I see here and early version of something Tim Keller talks about.  Picture a see-saw (or teeter-totter depending on the region of the country you’re from).  The “evidence” in question serves as the pivot point.  If the evidence is found we struggle with pride, often looking down on those who “don’t measure up.”  If it is not found, we despair and are crushed under the weight of condemnation.

“For my own part, I believe the most holy people feel the most evil.  Indeed, when faith is strong and in exercise, sin will not much break out to the observation of others; but it cuts them out work enough within.”

Paul, toward the end of his life, saw himself as the biggest of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)- present tense not past tense.  If we were to look upon him, we’d think him one of the most godly people we know.  But the closer to the light you come the more you see the stains on your clothing.  Being closer to Jesus meant seeing the stains on his heart- the sins only God sees because they don’t find manifestation in behavior.  But they are sin nonetheless.

“You will not be steadily comfortable till you learn to derive your comfort from a simple apprehension of the person, work, and offices of Christ.  He is made unto us of God, not only righteousness, but sanctification also.”

Now he points his friend in the right direction, echoing Hebrews 12.  Keep your focus on Jesus, the author and perfector of your faith- your justification and sanctification before the Holy One.

“… the best evidence of faith is the shutting our eyes equally upon our defects and our graces, and looking directly to Jesus as clothed with authority and power to save to the very uttermost.”

Saving faith looks to Christ, and only Christ.  Look to your graces and pride will soon grow.  Look to your defects and despair will soon swamp your heart.  Jesus saves us from both legalism and license.

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Some timely thoughts from the Puritan William Gurnall for my needy heart.  They are from the Christian in Complete Armour daily devotional.  Perhaps some others need to hear them too.

The grace which God has given you is a sure pledge that more is on the way.

God is not a loan shark who will only lend you money with the hope you will be able to repay.  God gives grace with the full knowledge we will need more, and more, and…  That he has provided grace in the first place (will not he who did not spare his own Son, but offered him up for us all…) proves more is to come (give us all we need).  Christ sits upon the throne of grace- seek him!

The same faith which caused you to work against your sins as God’s enemies will undoubtedly move Him to work for you against them. … The reason so many Christians complain about the power of their corruptions lies in one of two roots- either they try to overcome sin without acting on the promises, or else they only pretend to believe.

Faith praises God in sad conditions. … Faith can praise God because it sees mercy even in the greatest affliction. … Will we let a few present troubles become a grave to bury the memory of all His past mercies?  What God takes from us is less than we owe Him, but what He leaves us is more than He owes (us).

I really like that last series.  It was a great struggle in my heart to think that we might lose our home in this time of transition.  I saw that it had become an idol, but one that filled me with fear and despair.  I had to remember that God owes me NOTHING.  All I have is His, and He is free to give and take away as He sees fit.  It is a difficult thing getting to that place of acceptance.  And it happened just before I read that, oddly enough.

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