Despair is not uncommon, though at times we are surprised to find ourselves in the midst of it once again. I have recently been thinking about the connection between a growing despair and declining diligence. Apathy and neglect, or spiritual sloth, oftentimes usher in waves of conflicting emotions, thoughts, and actions. Yet Jesus can calm even this storm, and heal even this apostasy.
Oftentimes the Psalmists describe their despair, and a few lines later we witness them praise God, and preach to their own souls concerning the truth that will counter their fears, doubts, and feelings based in untruths. Yet, we also have plenty of examples of the Psalmist exclaiming the opposite: My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast… Psalm 57:7 This is no superhuman declaration, this is not exaggeration or hyperbole. This is the voice of one who knows and deliberately remembers the work that God can do in and for us. We often hear this in the midst of prayers concerning overwhelming life circumstances.
Our steadfastness is rooted in Christ, not in myself, my efforts, my feelings, my performance, my expectations, my dreams, etc. In Christ, we share in His steadfastness. How did He display this toward the Father’s will during His earthly ministry? How did He teach His disciples, and how did they in turn lead the early church in this? Is this where the teaching of ‘abiding’ comes in, and speaks to our deepest longings and our most crippling emotional turmoil? (Yes)
It is not uncommon, as you well know, to experience spiritual despair; overwhelming despair that makes you feel like a candle dimly burning about to be snuffed out. Spiritual? Because it impacts your entire being, your inner man. Can it have ties to our physical being? Yes indeed! Our inner and outer, the spiritual and physical, until death, will be intertwined in ways that we cannot separate. You cannot compartmentalize your life.
Neglect and Apathy
What can we do in these times? Can we avoid them in the future? The thing we do not want to hear, but that we must wrestle with, is that our despair is quite often (not always, but often) linked to our neglect. When trials come, and sometimes when they do not, we–little by little sometimes–slough off, we cease from seeking Him and clinging to Him and remembering His truth and His ways.
We neglect our spiritual duties, we quench the Spirit even as He is leading us, we grow weary of well doing, of following Jesus, of listening to Him and abiding in His Word. It becomes more difficult to pray through our weariness, and self pity to settles in. We neglect; we grow apathetic; we allow our malaise to fester.
In these times our desire is to dim the lights, and as His Light wanes we yawn and stretch… We put earbuds in to hear an unorthodox voice inviting us to declare over ourselves “peace, peace.” We have forgotten that there is no darkness in Him, we are on the verge of making peace with the despairing darkness.
To some Christians who have experienced this, even after facing hardship and persecution with steadfastness in faith and hope, what should a pastor say? What should we say as we encourage one another in these times? And yes, beloved, we encourage one another through these times rather than allowing a brother or sister to continue on in this spiritual despair and decay. (see Hebrews 3:12-14; 4:1, 14; 10:19-25).
While there is no room in Christianity for what my pastor calls “sola bootstrappa” or more plainly, the “just try harder” theology, yet there is room for us to encourage one another toward love and good deeds, toward abiding, toward seeking Christ where He is seated–seeking always things above rather than things on earth, etc. We must recognize the difference between legalism (and any attempt at works-based-righteousness) and obedience–true obedience is the fruit of faith. Faith working through love! (Galatians 5:1-6)
So perhaps these words should be ones that we ponder, hide in our hearts, and listen to when the time comes:
We want to “realize the full assurance of hope until the end,” until Christ takes us home. Our hopeless hearts want this! This portion of Scripture is reminding us that there are times when showing some diligence will help us fight off sloth, apathy, weariness; those attitudes that wage war against our soul that we sometimes believe we have every right to sit in, stewing.
Diligent in heart, soul and body
In our diligence, we must ponder the truths will set us free (Galatians 5). Muse upon His power at work in you, the very power displayed when God raised Jesus from the dead, the very same that the Spirit worked in Him to carry out His earthly ministry. Ponder His purposes that cannot be thwarted, His calling of you, His gifts and promises (Ephesians 1-2). Lift up your gaze to His glory, to His ways that are higher than ours, the number of His thoughts toward you, His unchanging love, His faithfulness despite our neglect, our faithlessness. Set your mind on His thoughts, meditate on His Words.
We must also not neglect diligence in other facets of our life. We have so many helps available to us, gifts from the LORD for such times as these. Get outside, soak up some sunshine, let your feet touch the earth, find a copse of trees to sit in, or hang up a hammock. Intentionally breath deeply, and rehearse God’s faithfulness and works. Do some exercise to get the much needed dopamine flowing.
Grow in Grace
Revive the old habits of grace that you’ve let slip away. Set new habits. In the moment, all of the above can be a help. But in the next few days and weeks, listen to Paul who said “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)
It may be time to meet with a mentor, someone faithfully walking with Jesus, and learn some of these practices. Or read up from the centuries of good Christian literature that detail these practices (John Owen has many such wonderful books!). Build in habits so that when the old enemies of apathy and despair come for a visit, though your flesh is weak, yet you will overcome by faith. Fight the good fight, beloved! Persevere!