The Necessity of Despair (December 7  2018)   

I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a man without strength,  Psalm 88:4  NASB

Down to the pit – “Modern man’s greatest fault, Kierkegaard maintains, is his total self-reliance.  It is his nineteenth-century delusion that he has progressed beyond his ancestors.  This conceit derives from egotism.  There is but one remedy for him: despair.  It is only when he finds himself in the deepest extremity that he understands his true condition; then, and only then, does he realize that his self-reliance is a delusion.”[1]

Go down to the pit!  The verb is yārad.  To descend, decline, march down, go down, sink down.  The verb might have its roots in the descent from the mountains of Israel into the rift valley of the Jordan, but for this verse, the metaphor is clear.  The author feels like he is sinking into (for lack of a better contemporary word) Hell.  Life is becoming a shadow of the past.  His strength has vanished.  His purpose fails.  Death scratches at the back of his neck.  The graveyard beckons.

Ah, the glory of despair.  What a useful tool in the heavenly arsenal.  God just pushes us to the place where all those pretensions of power evaporate, where we are left clutching air as we watch our well-laid plans turn to dust.  Backed into the corner of divine concern, we look down into the pit—and realize we were fools.

But it’s too late now.  What we thought we had under control is gone.  The vast arena of emptiness opens its welcoming mouth, slurping at our feet, ready to reveal all those wounds we so carefully concealed.  It’s too late to pretend we’re okay.  We’re over and done.  Finished.

And that’s precisely where God needs us to be.  At the end.  On the edge.  Bleeding away that fictitious reality we used to profess.   Despair.  What a lovely word.  The gateway to hopelessness.  The key to despondency.  The remedy for joy.  The blunt force trauma of anguish and wretchedness.  So much packed into such a tiny expression.  Capable of swallowing entire civilizations without a burp.  Despair seems to be the true condition of our petty lives.

Without God.

But remember what Heschel said, “Despair is forbidden.”

Oh, do you  think otherwise?  Do you still think your life is yours to do what you wish? Wait awhile.  The pit is patient and persistent.

Tonight begins Yom Kippur.  An appropriate time to reflect on our absolute need for God’s mercy and the undeserved grace we experience.  Yes, despair is forbidden simply because God cares.  That just might be the most important fact of existence.

Topical Index:  go down, yārad, despair, pit, bôr, Psalm 88:4

[1] Abraham Heschel, A Passion for Truth, p. 90.

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Richard Bridgan

Despair is forbidden because our ‘partnership’, the ‘between’ and equivocal territory of our relation to God, is with the Almighty One! Our own contribution is limited, confined to discrete terms (faithful loyalty), and attended (because of the curse of sin) by our physical demise. But the self-existent partner in our relationship, whose intentions and purposes are that for which we were created, is the Eternal I AM!

Despair! How can that be?

Why are you in despair, O my soul? [Why are you bowed down?] 
And why are you disturbed within me? 
Hope in God, because I shall again praise him, 
My salvation, the salvation of my countenance, and my God. (Psalm 42:11)