It is hard to claim that twenty-first-century America is a happy place. Anger and bitterness abound, and joy and peace are in short supply. A sense of despair hangs over us. As a people, we seem to have no sense of purpose.
We try to alleviate this despair with busyness or toys, so we distract ourselves with work and social media and television and smart phones. Such things, though, do not solve our basic issues, so we seek therapy, believing that a psychiatrist and perhaps the right drugs will get our minds balanced to deal with the problems of contemporary living.
In many churches the pastor is the spiritual therapist, and his sermons are therapeutic, giving attention to hearers’ felt needs. People flock to such churches because life is all about them and their issues, and they know that this particular pastor is going to deal with human concerns and give them some spiritual therapy to apply to their psychological sore.
Unfortunately, we miss the root issues while trying to fix the surface ones. The primary reason for our despair is sin, and the solution is not a pseudo-psychiatrist masquerading as a preacher.
Fallen man and woman live in selfish sinfulness. They live outside of God and in rebellion to his will. This man or woman may attend church periodically, perhaps even every Sunday morning. Perhaps he or she recognizes that something is out of order in life and considers church as the place to get it right.
While the therapeutic salve or always being on the go may distract momentarily distract us, in the dark of night and the quiet of one’s soul the despair continues. It may be dulled, but it is not removed or replaced. Unfortunately, many stumble through life, day by day, pushing their despair aside with the distraction of entertainment or social media, work or recreation, or alcohol or pharmaceuticals. Anthony Burgess [1600-1663] observed this about the nature of man centuries ago: “Oh, it is to be feared that there are many that give themselves lusts, and carnal pleasures, that so they may put a foggy mist between their conscience and themselves. Others dig into the world, labouring to become senseless, that so there may be an eclipse of this light by the interposition of the earth. Others run to damnable heresies, denying Scriptures, God, heaven, hell. . . . What are these but refuges of guilty consciences? We must distinguish between our carnal concupiscence [desire], and conscience; between deluded imaginations, and conscience; between an erroneous and scrupulous conscience, and a well grounded and truly informed conscience, and when we have done so, we must follow conscience as far as that follows the Word.”
The despair remains because the condition of the fallen person remains. Scripture instructs that, as fallen humans, we are “dead in trespasses and sins,” that we “follow the course of this world, . . . the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” that we live “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and [are] by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
We are helped only when we recognize that despair is a God-given gift to alert us to the fact that we are not what we were intended to be. God created us to live in fellowship with him, but like the fish longing to live on land, we rebelled and find ourselves out of the environment unto which we were created.
God has graciously gifted us with despair so that we will grow weary of living in an alien environment. Our conscience convicts us of our waywardness, and the Word of God and the Spirit of God point us to Christ. Only in Christ will our lives find the peace and sense of purpose unto which we were created: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” [Romans 14:17 (ESV]). Despair arises from living in the wrong environment, but despair is God’s gift to drive us to Christ, the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).