Thursday, February 01, 2024

Anonymous Asks (287)

“I know the Bible says we’re not supposed to depend on our feelings, but sometimes, honestly, it gets hard to feel my faith. Any thoughts?”

Feelings? Yes, they’re tricky things. You’re right to wonder about whether it’s not just a little too optimistic to simply suppose Christians never ought to feel down. We all have moments in life when things are not just a little dark, but really, really dark. What’s interesting, though, is that the writers of the Bible are far from unaware of this.

There’s a balance between realism and hopefulness, of course. Christianity is notable for its ability to make something positive out of pain and mischance. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fair to say it doesn’t keep a firm grasp on how tough life can be. What the Bible teaches is that in all, we can remain hopeful and trusting of the Lord’s intentions.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, David, Moses — really, all the heroes of faith — went through very dark times. How dark? Sometimes so dark that even to continue living seemed impossible. We must never forget that the man we follow is the Man of Calvary, who sweat great drops of sweat like blood, and yet remained able to say, “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

That’s no pie-eyed optimism. That’s fully facing the grim realities. There’s nothing more Christian than that.

But maybe that raises another question, too: namely, how is it possible to have both? How can one be, at the same time, utterly downcast and despondent, and yet still hopeful, still believing, still trusting? Don’t the two simply cancel each other out?

Maybe the answer is in 2 Corinthians 1.

Paul’s Case

As we know, there had been a case of dire sin in Corinth. The apostle Paul had to rebuke it in the harshest of terms even while yearning for the healing of his beloved fellow believers. But in 2 Corinthians, Paul undertakes to work a restoration. The sin dealt with, the relationship now needs healing. As his starting point, Paul confesses his own struggles and what the Lord has taught him out of them, so that the believers can all see he knows what he’s talking about.

He says in verse 8, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of our affliction which occurred in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life.”

Imagine that. The great apostle Paul himself could relate to a time when he was so down, so beaten and so crushed that he could say “This burden was beyond my strength … so much so, that I despaired even of life.”

Paul expected trouble, and not just the ordinary kind. He reports how the Lord had promised Ananias, “I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Paul could describe how bad times had often already been throughout his ministry. His life had been in terrible danger many times, and his physical security more times than that. Still, it’s hard to imagine that even an apostle, a messenger personally chosen by the very hand of God, could fall into despondency. Is it not enough if one knows that one is a true apostle?

But no. Even the great Paul knew what it was to come to the end of himself, and to say, “I don’t know how my life can even continue.”

However, we should pause to notice the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 1:8. It’s very interesting. The word translated “despaired” is a form of the verb exaporeó [ξαπορηθῆναι]. And it does not mean what we may think it does, judging by English translations. We think of despair as a kind of giving up. It’s not quite that. Literally and etymologically, the word means “to see no way through”. In other words, the apostle is not saying, “I completely lost confidence in God”, but rather that the valley was so deep and the woods so dark that “I couldn’t any longer even imagine how the way forward would go. I even thought I might die.”

This is sorrow. This is terror. This is sadness. But it is not loss of faith.

Keeping the Faith

What the apostle is trying to say to the Corinthian believers is, “I understand how down you are. I have been there. But I have come back, and now tell you that even when you see no way through, there is one. God is still faithful.”

He goes on to say, “Out of our sorrow we learned certain things about being down and out. And God restored us, so that we could come back to you, and comfort you with the comfort with which we have been comforted by God.”

This, then, is the strategy of God in consolation. That he permits some of his servants to go through deep waters so that they may return and give aid to their brothers and lift them up in their time of need. Reflecting on this, Paul cries out, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”

Making the Difference

So what is the message to the despairing? Two things.

Firstly, if I “see no way through”, that does not mean that God does not. It does not mean there isn’t a way through. What it means is that I, with my poor human sight, my inability to see the future beyond the circumstances, have lost perspective and become emotionally overwhelmed. What I need most at this minute is to trust. The Psalmist has famously written, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” How is that possible, if one is in such a deep valley that death seems to loom? It’s only possible because, in spite of my fears and unknowing, “You are with me.” There will be a tomorrow. There will be a day beyond the pain, the confusion, the end of my hopes, and even beyond death itself. In life, in death, we are the Lord’s.

Secondly, it means that God can take my terror and my experience of learning how to trust his faithfulness, and use it to strengthen others. The sorrows I have endured can make me a “lifeboat captain” for others who are sinking, to pull them from despair. Just as Paul could encourage the Corinthians with such astonishing tenderness because Paul had known a despair even greater than that of his audience, so too your trials can become the lifesaver you cast out to sinking souls. You can make a profound difference in their sorrows, because you’ve been there.

So, there is not just sorrow, there is life beyond sorrow. There is not just sorrow but purpose and even blessing beyond sorrow. The whole thing is not to lose that perspective: that even when we “see no way through”, God does, and he is always with us, even when our feelings are at their lowest. His plan for us is not only to bless us in our faithfulness, but to bless others in us.

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