For some reason, I know quite a few people who have recently taken their own lives. I don’t know how much of it is because becoming a pastor a few years ago has circumstantially put me in closer contact with more personal tragedies than I would otherwise be aware of, or if it is because suicide is on the rise, or maybe if it is just bad luck. But what once was a rare horrible shock is starting to turn into more of a familiar, terrible, recurring pain.
I’ve read quite a bit on the natural and psychological causes of suicide. Suicide is usually linked to either mood disorders, personality disorders, or substance abuse. Also, along with the typical addiction, schizophrenia, depression, etc, there are often life circumstances that compound the situation. People who attempt to end their own lives often feel trapped, unable to escape, without hope, afraid. Often, they feel despair.
But despair can come from other causes, too. Not all despair is due to a chemical imbalance making it impossible for a person to have the right perspective to see that suicide is a permanent non-solution to a temporary problem. There is also spiritual despair.
Spiritual despair is when you are faced with the impossibility of your own redemption. When you look at your own dysfunctional behavior and at evil you discover in your own heart and cannot see any hope of change. Despair is often the final stage of the spiritual trials we call temptations. Spiritual despair causes you to feel like you’re drowning, like you’ve been punched in the gut, like you’re trapped under the ice, like you can’t draw a breath and soon will suffocate if you can’t manage to somehow escape the flood and suck in some air. In despair, things that once seemed certain–the existence of God, the love of friends, the value of life–fall to doubt and even rejection.
I’ve been there. I have been certain that life has no meaning. I’ve been convinced there’s no hope for my soul. I’ve never been suicidal. But I most certainly have despaired.
I’m not saying most suicides are connected to spiritual temptation alone. As I said earlier, suicide is heavily linked with mental illness. Usually it involves someone whose brain is not allowing them to see the full spectrum of possibilities in their lives. Depression is a natural ailment, but it imitates a spiritual one, and hell will use any tool it can get its hands on to destroy a person. So there is a spiritual component to suicide. Just not the one most traditionally expounded by western religions. The Christian idea of suicide as a special kind of sin comes from medieval theologians, not the Bible. Yes, suicide is horribly hurtful to all the people left behind; it is evil. But committing suicide doesn’t have any special go-directly-to-hell-do-not-pass-go rules associated with it. It is one more short-sighted, hurtful mistake among the thousands we humans often commit.
But despair is evil. It is not evil to despair, but to cause it. We are spiritual beings, surrounded by an unseen world that influences us nonetheless. There is a heaven and there is a hell, and hell doesn’t like you very much. Despair is a powerful tool for hell.
Despair can cause you not only to kill yourself physically, but to attempt spiritual suicide as well. To decide, “Well, I’m not the sort of person that belongs in a church.” To say to yourself, “What difference does it make what decision I make. It’s not like I’m ever going to heaven, anyway.” To declare, “There is no God, so it doesn’t matter which decision I make.” Despair sets you up for the next temptation, shatters your resolve so that you backslide into behaviors you had been trying to break free from. Like going on an eating binge just because you slipped once in your diet, despair can trigger a series of decisions that themselves lead to even more despair.
Don’t let despair get you. Spiritual despair tells you that you are no good. It’s a nasty trick, because it takes the very true idea that all goodness comes from the Lord, and turns it on its ear. The Lord said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me you can do nothing.” Despair says there is no God, so there is no good. Or if there is a God, he wouldn’t help you, because you are no good.”
That’s a lie. The Lord is forever flowing into ever person’s heart, inspiring in every person a desire to do good. You just have to accept it. You have to give it a place in your heart to land. True, you cannot overcome your spiritual temptations, but if you let Him, the Lord can.
When someone is drowning, they will instinctively act in ways that make it hard to save them. A drowning person is a dangerous thing. Ask a lifeguard. When you are in spiritual despair, your instincts are all wrong. Stop flailing. Surrender. Ask the Lord to save you from your despair, and then wait. He will save you, if you give Him permission. And He promises that after despair comes comfort. That after struggle comes rest. After combat, victory. Read the Psalms.
Moreover, when you are in despair, you are on the threshold of something good! Read Seth Godin’s The Dip. We often quit the wrong things at the wrong times. The great things in life only come after struggle.
Read through Secrets of Heaven. Over and over you will see references to spiritual rebirth as a result of spiritual struggle. And know that hell wouldn’t need to attack so fiercely if heaven wasn’t just around the corner.
My friend Jason killed himself a few days ago. I’m angry. Sad. Guilty. Irrational. Heartbroken. Full of “what if”. None of what I write here changes anything for him. It doesn’t give his family what they most want. It doesn’t undo the pain his friends are in.
But maybe some day you will be in despair, too. And maybe some tiny spark hidden deep within you will latch on to some small part of what I’ve said today. And it will give you the strength to get your head above the flood one more time, for one more breath. And you will be able to hold out, to buy time, to do whatever you need to do to get through your spiritual struggle so you can return to a place where hope again shines.
God Himself has felt it. He knows what we go through. He’s been there. And He’s defeated it. And if you let Him, He’ll defeat it for you, too. In Secrets of Heaven it says this:
All temptation is attended with some appearance of despair; otherwise it is not temptation… They who are being tempted are brought into anxieties, which induce a state of despair concerning the end: the very combat of temptation is nothing else… As the Lord endured the most direful and cruel of temptations of all, He, also, could not but be driven into despairs, which He dispelled and overcame by His Own Power.
Faith saves. But faith isn’t saying a certain prayer, or making a certain statement. Faith is living as if you trust that the Lord will save you. And to be able to honestly have that trust, you need to make an effort. Fight on a little longer. Do something for someone else no matter how you feel about yourself. Take another breath. Trust in the Lord, and He will keep His promises.
I could say, “Don’t despair.” But despair happens without our choosing. Rather, when you despair, hope anyway.