The Death and Resurrection of Hope in a World of Despair

American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years. 

The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.

Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.

Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:

  • The Puritan author John Bunyan
  • The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
  • The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
  • The hymn writer William Cowper

We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”

Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency. 

But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different). 

In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it? 

The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency. 

Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)

Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?

While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.

The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.

But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.

The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. 

Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.

Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.

Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.

Need to talk? Need someone to listen? Need someone to pray with you or for you? Feel free to contact me using the Contact page.

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Three Songs to Sing When Christmas Comes in a Minor Key

It’s not uncommon to have a blue Christmas in a fallen world. We’ve all been there. The empty chair at Chritmas dinner because of sickness or death. The sparse gifts under the tree because of unemployment. The stab of holiday depression because of failure, setback, shame, or some kind of chemical imbalance. It’s hard to have a “holly jolly” when you’re sitting in the sad seat. Or the sick seat. It’s even worse when everyone else around you doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.

But this year seems different. Harder. Stranger. Almost apocalyptic. Farmers tell us manure is great when it’s spread around, but we all know it just stinks to high heaven when it’s all piled up in one place. For many people, 2020 has been that kind of a year, and it’s taken its toll. We’re physically drained and emotionally fatigued. With 20 days left in 2020, we wonder what else can go wrong. Hitherto we’ve lived through:

  • The Australian bushfires
  • Prince Harry and Megan quitting the royal family
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its many lockdowns
  • Kobe Bryant and his daughter killed in a helicopter crash
  • The impeachment trial of the President of the United States
  • The stock market crash and record unemployment
  • The George Floyd tragedy and the resulting protests
  • Rumors that Kim Jun Un, the leader of North Korea, had died
  • Widesperad censorship and hostility on social media
  • Manipulation of the masses by Big Tech and a corrupt media
  • A bitter and still unresolved U.S. Presidential election
  • Outrage at politicians ignoring their own pandemic restrictions
  • The arrival of murder hornets to the United States
  • A massive explosion in the capital of Lebanon
  • Severe wildfires on the West Coast of the United States
  • The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • U.S. President Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19
  • The death of Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Trebek, and many others

And those are just the big things we know about. Your family can probably add to the list. Maybe you’ve had your own disappointments, tears, and heartbreaks this year. Maybe you’ve been bedridden, hospitalized, quarantined, or out of work because of the virus. Maybe you’ve felt the sting of your own unmet expectations. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov 13:12). Some of us are still waiting for that tree of life, aren’t we?

God cares.

That’s why he came to us on that first Christmas. God in Christ didn’t avoid the miseries of this world. Rather, he entered into them, experienced them firsthand, and then swallowed them up. He’s coming again someday to make all things new. In the meantime, we can count on his lavishing love to carry us through the hard times.

Have a good cry if you need to. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus. He should know. Christ had tears streaming down his own cheeks on more than one occasion. He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” So, you’re in good company if you “lose it” once in a while. It’s o.k. to not be o.k. for a season. After all, it’s only a season. “Joy comes in the morning.” So, dare to cling to hope, too. And let Hope himself cling to you. The Christmas manger leads to an empty tomb.

Here are three songs for when you’re singing Christmas in a minor key—two by Casting Crowns and one by Francesca Battistelli. Let them flow like liquid love over your aching heart. And feel free to contact This New Life if you have a special prayer request this time of year. You are loved. And you are not alone.

“Somewhere in Your Silent Night”
by Casting Crowns

Somewhere in your silent night
Heaven hears the song your broken heart has cried
Hope is here, just lift your head
For love has come to find you
Somewhere in your silent night

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
by Casting Crowns

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail 
With peace on earth, good will to men

“Behold Him”
by Francesca Battistelli

In your silent night
When you’re not all right
Lift your eyes and behold him
Feel the thrill of hope
You are not alone
In this moment, behold him

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