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Desperate – (adj) having an urgent need, desire, etc
Despair – (n) loss of hope; hopelessness. (v) to lose, give up, or be without hope
There is a fine line between desperation and despair, between (as the dictionary puts it) having an urgent need and giving up hope. Desperation, on the one hand, is an essential (but difficult) place to be in for the disciple of Jesus. Despair, on the other hand, is a terrible and deadly place to end up. I have found in my short life that God often wants to bring his children to the point of desperation, to a place where they recognize that they can not make it on their own strength, but that they are utterly dependent on Him for everything. However, I have also found that Satan is always lurking right around the corner, whispering in our ears, and doing his very best to turn that desperation into despair, to cause God’s children to lose hope and turn away from the only one who can save them.
Think of the first two steps in any twelve step program: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.” And “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Taken together, that is the language of desperation – I can not do this on my own and I need help from a higher power outside of myself. But take away the second step, and it is only despair – my life is unmanageable, and there is no hope for me. There is a fine line between desperation and despair.
As most addicts will tell you, it can take a long time to get to step one. Most addicts believe that they can manage their own life, that their addiction is not really an addiction but something that they can control and could say no to if they really wanted to. After all, they can compare themselves to people who really seem out of control and justify that at least they are not as bad as those people. But that attitude, that I’m okay as I am, ends up being the enemy of health and recovery, while desperation, as hard and humbling as it is, ends up being the first step towards real health.
The same is true in discipleship. As long as we are convinced that we’re generally good people, that our sins and struggles are manageable and not really that bad, we’re in trouble. As long as we continue to compare ourselves to others who we see as worse sinners than we are, then we are standing in the way of true health, wholeness, and progress in our faith and love for God and others. God’s desire, I am convinced, is to bring us to a point of desperation, where we name our sins and struggles for what they are, where we allow Him to remove the veils of excusing ourselves and justifying ourselves and comparing ourselves and where we admit that we are powerless over our sin, that we need a Savior. Not just to save us from the penalty of sin, eternal separation from God, but also to save us from the presence and power of sin in our lives.
Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21-28:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Listen to how Jesus puts it. Are you angry with your brother? Then you are a murderer. Are you lusting after your sister? Then you are an adulterer. There is no mixing of words, no excusing, no favorable comparisons. Jesus doesn’t say “Sure you may be angry, but at least you’re not a murderer!” No – he says to the angry man, “You ARE a murderer.” He does not say to the lustful man, “Yes, you may lust after that woman, but at least you didn’t sleep with her!” No – he says, “You ARE an adulterer.”
Why so mean, Jesus? Why so black and white? I think it because Jesus knows that our tendency is to excuse ourselves, to justify ourselves, to compare ourselves, and to believe that we’re not so bad after all. But the truth is that if we were given the freedom to act without consequence, without fear of getting caught or penalized, then anger would quickly turn to murder, and lust into adultery. Our hearts are much more prone to evil than we would ever dare allow ourselves to believe, and so we are quick to turn away from that reality and to instead convince ourselves that in the end we’re good people. But that self-justification is the very thing that stands in the way of desperation, of coming to the point where we truly realize the horror of what is in our heart and of our great need for God, so that we can then truly experience the great love and salvation He gives to us.
Think about the plot of just about every romantic comedy. Guy meets girl and they fall in love. But girl (or guy) has a secret that she knows, if exposed, will doom the relationship – she’s not really a princess, but a servant girl; not really a socialite, but a maid; not really genuine in her affection, but doing it for a column she’s writing. Then the secret comes out, the guy is hurt, and it seems like she will be rejected and the relationship will not survive. But then, in the final scene, the guy realizes that he loves her anyways, despite her secrets, and they live happily ever after.
What does this reveal about the human heart? We have a fear of being exposed, of being seen as we truly are. We believe that if people saw the truth about ourselves, knew what we were really like, then they would reject us. And this is one reason why reaching the point of desperation is so important, for it is only when we are exposed and at our lowest that we truly experience the grace of God that says “Neither do I condemn you” and the power of God that picks us up and overcomes that which we could not overcome by our own strength.
Do not fear desperation. God wants to bring you to a place where He is your only hope. Do not be afraid to let Him reveal the truth about who you are and what is in your heart, so that you might recognize your desperate need for a Savior. And do not be afraid when you find yourself in a position where your own strength has failed you and you can not heal or rescue yourself, for it is at that time that you will come to know God as your Savior, Redeemer, Provider, Healer, and Lover.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
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