No Pill’s Gonna’ Cure My Ill

If I but trust to see the LORD’s goodness, in the land of the living—Hope for the LORD!  Let your heart be firm and bold, and hope for the LORD.  Psalm 27:13-14  Robert Alter

Hope for – “We live in an age of despair, and those who despair would seem justified, considering the compounding crises we face, whether they be economic, viral, political, or environmental.  Yet despair, my father used to remind me, is forbidden; to despair is to deny that God is present, with us, caring for us, and that there is no challenge we are given without the resources to cope.  My father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is one of those resources.”[1]

It comes as no surprise that the NASB translates lûlēʾ heʾēmânti as “I would have despaired unless I had believed.”  Actually, the NASB adds the entire first thought, i.e., “I would have despaired.”  That isn’t even in the Hebrew text.  The NASB renders the verse:

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord.  Wait for the Lord;

But the Hebrew text begins with “If (Unless) I trust.”  There is no declaration of despair.  That idea is an accommodation to our modern world.  Heschel’s remark makes this clear.  In the biblical world, God is always present.  We might not see His hand in our lives, but that really doesn’t matter.  The spirit of the Lord invisibly weaves the destiny of the world.  This is an axiom of faith.  As David once wrote, “If I make my bed in She’ol, You are there.”  Therefore, the introduction of “despair” into the text is a misunderstanding of the biblical paradigm.

Of course, that doesn’t mean despair doesn’t exist.  I’m guessing that we have all had a run-in with this emotion.  But our encounter was a statement of our lack of faith, our abdication from God’s world.  I don’t mean that despair is a sin (well, maybe, no, maybe not).  What I mean is that despair is human.  It belongs in the human world; the world apart from the presence of the divine.  It’s Adamic.  Unfortunately, so are we.  It can be overcome, of course, by returning to the world according to God.  That’s not always easy to do.  But no pill’s gonna’ cure my ill when it comes to emotional collapse.  There are certainly plenty of addictive distractions and pharmacological symptom reductions, but this is a spiritual disease.  God is the only cure.  We just need others to remind us of this truth, especially when we feel like we’re falling into the dark hole.

By the way, this does not mean the answer to despair is God’s promise to explain why your world is falling apart. Explanation, if it comes at all, isn’t faith.  That’s why Alter’s translation would be incomplete without “hope for.”  Did you notice the odd preposition?  We would normally expect “hope in God,” but that misses the point.  Despair is resolved in hope for God, that is, in the confidence that God is still there, that He will show up somehow, that He cares because it is the belief that we will find Him present in the future, in the next day, the next hour, the next minute.  Despair has no foothold when God is next.

Topical Index: despair, hope, hope for, Psalm 27:13-14

[1] Susannah Heschel, in Abraham Heschel, Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God, p. xxii.

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Richard Bridgan

I have known despair… the deep darkness in which no hope is forthcoming. I was saved by a merciful light that shone in that darkness, which the darkness could neither comprehend nor overcome… And yes! It was hope for God that gave me a future… now lived in faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me! Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!