By Pastor Glenn Pease
Paul Aurandt tells the story of one of the fastest rising young singers back in the early 50's. He was called the Romantic Voice Of America. Teenage girls would give anything to see him, but he never appeared anywhere. He was not even seen in photographs. He was strictly a radio voice. Soon KFRC in San Francisco was flooded with teenage fan mail begging for signed photos, but none were ever sent. The golden voice was heard, but the person behind it was never seen.
One day a young girl went into the studio looking for a glimpse of her idol. When she saw him she was overwhelmed, and not with awe, but with laughter. The Romantic Voice of America was 5 ft. 10 and weighed 260 lbs. He was so embarrassed by her laughter that he went on a 4 month grueling diet. Because of that embarrassment he became fit enough to be seen in public, and he went on to become popular on television. By being crushed into despair he was able to rise to the heights of stardom. This young man is the now well-known Merv Griffin.
His experience reveals that there is often a link between the lows of life and the highs. The lows, or the failures, are often the motivating factors in our reaching for the heights and success. Had he never been crushed down by that negative experience he may never have been moved to change and climb to new heights. We see this process going on in the life of Paul as he records for all the world to see the depths of despair which forced him the heights of hope. Paul has been as low as a Christian can get, and he has been as high as a Christian can get. He knows the depth to which a Christian can sink in negative feelings, and he knows the heights in which they can soar in positive feelings.
Paul opens up and shares this intimate view of his own emotions, for he knows it will be a comfort to many, and God knew it would be a comfort to millions all through history. Christians need to know it is not a sign of lack of faith, or that God has abandoned you, because you feel sunk in a pit of despair. It has happened to the best of God's family, and is, therefore, an acceptable state of emotion event though it is not a state where you want to settle down and live. The proper response to this low state is to be motivated to climb to a higher level of faith and hope. We want to look at these two levels of life that Paul experienced so we can learn also to cope with the depths and climb to the heights. Let's look first at-
I. THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR.
The Greek word Paul uses here to describe his low point means-to have no outlet whatever. Paul felt trapped with no way to escape. It was a hopeless situation, and there was nothing he could do. It looked like death was inevitable, and there was no other choice but to die. Paul was at a dead end. The enemy was bearing down on him and there was no exist. The pressure was great that it was beyond his ability to endure it. Paul was admitting that he had come to the end of his rope, and he could not longer hang on. This is a terrible place to be, but God had Paul share this so that Christians might not be superficial in their judgments of Christians who reach this level of despair.
Many Christians who have lived sheltered lives, as many of us have, do not know the depths to which life can push the emotions. We have all felt depressed but despair goes deeper than depression. It is the feeling of utter hopelessness. It is a very dangerous state of mind, for this is what leads people to take their own life. It is the feeling that made Job wish he had never been born. It is the feeling that made Solomon feel that everything was vanity and totally meaningless. It is a theme very common in literature.
John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress has a scene where Great-Heart has a major battle with Giant Despair who had as many lives as a cat. In other words, despair is a hard foe to get rid of. John Milton in Paradise Lost has Satan cry out in despair, "Which way shall I fly-infinite wrath and infinite despair? Which way I fly is hell; myself is hell; and in the lowest deep a lower deep still threatening to devour me opens wide, to which the hell I suffer seems a heaven."
The lost world has picked up on the despair philosophy of Satan, and it has become, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, the culture of despair. He traces despair as one of the key ideas in art, poetry, and music in our culture. If you think a lot of modern art, literature and music is meaningless, then they have succeeded in communicating, for that is exactly what they are trying to convey-that life is meaningless and absurd. So when you look at a Picasso painting not knowing if you are looking at a male, female, or a chair, and you say this is absurd, you have gotten the point.
Despair leads to all kinds of absurdity. But despair does explain absurdity. The reality of despair helps us understand all of the mysteries of evil, and why people engage in atrocities so vicious and inhuman. Despair means there is no way out, and so what do you have to lose? Despair causes people to go and shoot fellow workers, or to kill strangers on the street. Despair causes teenagers by the thousands to take their own life every year. George Eliot said something long ago that fits our day as well: "There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moment of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and have recovered hope."
Studies show that despairing teens take their own lives because they think the feelings they have at the moment are permanent. The broken heart the feel when their boy or girl friend dumps them is what they think they have to live with the rest of their lives, and so they cut their life short to end the pain. They do not have the ability to see beyond despair to a whole new life of joy. Do not take despair lightly. It is a very dangerous emotion, and it is what makes this a dangerous world in which to live. But the point of all this is that Christians can experience it. It is so negative, and the cause of such depths of evil in the world that many Christians refuse to believe that it is possible to be a Christian in such a state of despair.
Jeremy Taylor wrote, "It is impossible for that man to despair who remembers that his Helper is omnipotent." The problem with making such a radical statement is that it ignores the Word of God, which is our final authority. If a Christian can or cannot feel despair, it is not going to be settled by a survey, a vote, or by scholars doing research. It is settled by the revelation God has given us, and Paul states it clearly that he and young Timothy despaired even of life. They felt utterly hopeless with no way of escape.
Why is it important to accept the fact that a Christian can reach the depths of despair? Because it is in assuming they can't that has led many Christians to neglect the ministry of comfort, and let Christians descend into a pit so deep they cannot get out. Never assume that a Christian cannot descend to the pit of despair. The Word of God and the record of history makes it clear that they can. I have dozens of books by Charles Spurgeon. He was the greatest preacher England ever produced, and many consider him the greatest preacher in history. But he often had a battle with depression. He once said, "I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to."
I have many of the books of Dr. John Henry Jowett, another man who has been called the greatest preacher in the English speaking world. Listen to his testimony: "You seem to imagine I have no ups and downs, but just a level and lofty stretch of spiritual attainment with unbroken joy and equanimity. By no means! I am often perfectly wretched and everything appears most murky." There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such testimonies from Christian leaders through history. Some feel these records should be hidden and not exposed to the public. But this is folly, for Paul opens up his own life for us to see the depths to which even an Apostle can go. And he does it to give comfort.
Christians who do not know that Christians can go so low feel rejected by God and man. Those who hide these records from them for fear of hurting their faith rob them of the comfort they need to cling to their faith. It is important for us to see Paul is in deep distress and despair. He is overwhelmed by the troubles of life. It is important for us to see that Paul prayed for the removal of his thorn in the flesh, and he did not get the healing. It is important for us to see all of the negative experiences and emotions of Paul, for they are a source of great comfort for us when we suffer the same emotions. Hide the negatives from people, and they feel alone as if they are the only Christian whoever felt like they feel. This is to be a miserable comforter, and like Job's friends add weights to the crushing load that is already pushing down the suffering saint.
What does Paul do with his despair? He shares it with the church. He says in verse 8, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered." And then he goes on to inform them of the awful pressures they feel that are beyond their ability to endure. You would think Paul would keep quite about such a depth of despair. After all, he is an Apostle and an example to all believers. Should he be exposing his inner soul like this and telling Christians how deep a pit he is in? Yes he should, for it is the source of great comfort to millions that he was in that state. But the comfort does not end with the feeling we are not alone, but in the highest of company if we are in the pit of despair. There is better news yet, and Paul goes on to deal with-
II. THE HEIGHTS OF HOPE.
St. Philip of Neri cried out in the streets of Rome, "I am in despair, I am in despair." A friend asked how he could say such a thing and he responded, "I despair of myself, but I trust in God." This is what Pal is saying here. He despaired of ever being able to save himself, but he did not despair of God's ability to save him. He says in verse 9, "This happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead." The value of despair is that it forces you to give up your pride and self-sufficiency, and realize that without God you are sunk. The value of being so low is that there is nowhere else to look but up to God, who alone can give you hope.
Paul comes to the end of his rope, but he does not come to the end of his hope. He had no resource in himself, and all he could do was to surrender his life and future to the providence of God. This is that place in life where we see unique answers to prayer. If there is no way out for man, and God is the only one who can deliver them, then there will be a marvelous demonstration of God's providence. For example, a chaplain in the South Pacific tells of being with American troops trying to hold a beach. It was a long battle, and their water supply ran out. They were desperate and they prayed for some relief. They were helpless to meet their own need. Suddenly, one of the shells the American battleship was laying down fell short and buried itself in the sand near them. It exploded and left a deep crater. It began to fill with fresh water from springs below. Their despair turned to thanksgiving, for what was hopeless for them was clearly possible for God.
Paul was likewise delivered from his hopeless situation, and this filled his despairing heart with the highest of hopes, for he learned you can give up on yourself and your own ability to escape, but you ought never to give up on God, for He can deliver you from any pit no matter how deep and seemingly hopeless it is. We see an example of this in Psa. 107 where God's people were in a stormed tossed ship. It looked hopeless for them to survive. Starting at verse 26 we read, "In their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunken men. They were at their wits end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and He guided them to their desired haven."
They were helpless in a hopeless situation. They were in the depths of despair, and yet they were also hopeful, for they cried out to God and He rescued them. The believer has to live sometimes in the paradoxical world of despair and hope at the same time. Politics makes strange bedfellows we say, but so does faith. Despair and hope are opposites, but the are often partners. The one aids us to let go of self, and the other aids us to take hold on God. Numerous were the passages where the feelings of despair and hope are linked together. They teach the same double lesson that Paul is teaching to the Corinthians, and that is that they are to be comforted in their despair, for it happens to the best. Be comforted because it forces you to look to God and be lifted to the heights of hope.
Edmund Burk said, "Never despair, but if you do work on in despair." Paul would say amen, for if you work on by looking up you can reach the heights from that pit. This is the good news for both the world and the church. It is the greatest message of comfort in the world, for even the worst sinner in the pit of despair can look up, and buy the love of Christ be taken out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. That is what salvation is. It is being taken out of the pit of self-sufficiency and being set on the Rock of Christ's sufficiency.
Francis Scott Key who wrote the Star Spangled Banner also wrote this letter to a cousin: "Nothing but Christianity will give you the victory. Until a man believes in his heart that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Master...his course through life will be neither safe nor pleasant. My only regret is that I was so long blinded by my pleasures, my vices and pursuits, and the examples of others that I was kept seeing, admiring, and adoring the marvelous light of the Gospel.
There was no one who can be so blind, or so depressed, or in such a deep pit of despair that the Christian does not have good news for them. To be at the end of your rope is the best place to be if you are going to let go of self-salvation, and look to God for your deliverance in Christ. People in despair are good prospects for the kingdom of God.
Chuck Colson in his book Kingdoms In Conflict writes that Winston Churchill died with these words on his lips, "There is no hope, there is no hope." He looked at a world of sinful men trying to gain power and control of other people, and he was in despair. Colson takes a survey of the world and says there is good reason for despair, for people all over the world are killing each other. He writes that man has the technology for the greatest era for peace and prosperity, but man uses his power for evil and destruction. He also despairs about mans ever being able to produce a world of peace, but he ends his book with hope, not in man, but in the God of all comfort who has given us a lasting hope.
He ends his book with these words: "Like any author, I would like to end this book on a triumphant note, announcing that ultimate peace and harmony can be achieved through human efforts. But that utopian illusion is shattered by the splinted history of the human race. Governments rise; even the most powerful fall. The battle for people's hearts and minds will continue. Where then is hope? It is in the fact that the kingdom of God has come to earth-the kingdom announced by Jesus Christ in that obscure Nazareth synagogue 2000 years ago. It is a kingdom that comes not in a temporary take over of political structures, but in the lasting takeover of the human heart by the rule of a holy God."
Our hope is not in self, not in the government, not in the U.N., not in technology, and not in all the idols of history, but our hope is in God. Anything that can get us to focus on this narrow way is a blessing, even if it means the pit of despair that robs us of all the other hopes. The world is indeed a hopeless case, but that is why God needed to provide us with a Savior. The world cannot save itself, nor can any person in the world. Our hope is in God alone, for He specializes in hopeless cases.
Tony was a good example. He was a 5 year old who was raised in the streets of Tijuana surrounded by crime, narcotics, and prostitution. His changes for a good life were extremely low. Then one day he heard his baby brother screaming, and when he ran into the house he saw his parents bending over his brothers body with a bloody club nearby. He turned and ran. His parents reported him to the police and told them that Tony had murdered his brother, and that is why he ran away. So 5 year old Tony was thrown in prison for murder. There he stayed until Carolyn Koons visited the prison. Carolyn was herself a product of great family abuse. But she found Christ and founded Mexicoli Outreach, which hundreds of college students into Northern Mexico for short term missionary work.
That is how she discovered Tony in prison. There had never been any investigation of the charges against him. He was just presumed guilty and left to spend his life in prison. She fought a long and expensive battle against bureaucratic red tape, but she finally won his freedom and brought him to the United States. She raised him as a single parent and sent him to a Christian college. A kid who had no chance in a hopeless situation was, by the providence of God, given love and life and eternal hope. He was taken from the depths of despair to the heights of hope.
The lesson Paul wants all Christians to learn is not that there are not hopeless situations. He knows there are for he had been in such situations. But the point is, it was not hopeless for God. We have a right to feel hopeless and helpless when all our powers are fruitless. But we also have a responsibility to then look to God for whom there are no hopeless situations. The Comforter helps the hopeless look beyond their despair.
A 26-year-old baseball player was cut from the Yankees and sent back to the farm club. He decided to quit baseball and get a job. He and his wife were driving back to their hometown in Louisiana when he stopped for gas. His wife said, "Honey, it is always going to bother me to think that you ran away and will never know whether you could have made it in the big leagues or not." Right there he made a decision to head back North. He went to the farm club and worked hard. Three years later he was declared the pitcher of the year. He won the Cy Young Hall of Fame Award, and led the Yankees to two world championships. Ron Guidry was his name. He was in a pit of despair about his future, but his wife's encouragement gave him the hope he needed to try again.
Paul's point is, don't give up in despair, for failure is a part of life. Just give up trusting in your own power to solve the problem. Let go of the self-sufficiency and put your hope in God. Is it 100% guaranteed God will lift you out of the pit? No! Paul was rescued often, but he was finally killed by Nero. The point is that Paul could have died much earlier, but God gave him assurance that he would be spared until his work was done. That is all the hope anyone needs. Like Paul, we should all be looking to God no matter what our circumstances, and be ever moving out of despair into hope.