Despair Vs. Hope
Is Despair a Sin?
I’ve been considering the relationship between despair and hope. Hauerwas says “despair is a sin” (see the video “Despair Vs. Hope”). Many people struggle with depression and anxiety that leads to feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes, these feelings turn into thoughts about suicide. Is this a sin? In Roman Catholic theology, despair is often spoken as a sin because it is defined as a conscious and deliberate decision to reject God’s hope of salvation (see the entry under the topic name in The Catholic Encyclopedia). So, this voluntary act is different from feelings of depression that one may feel; despair is active while feelings are passive (the Latin word for feeling is passio, which is related to “passive”). Feelings, such as depression and anxiety, come upon us and we have almost no control over them when they do. However, what we do have control over is how we deal with these emotions.
I am not a trained therapist (I am a philosopher and theologian), but I have worked as a hospital chaplain and a pastor, and I know how these emotions can get the better of us. It is reported by the Center for Disease Control that suicide rates are rising in the United States and that the number of suicides have exceeded the number of automobile fatalities. There have been more veterans who have died from suicide than from war related injuries. This deep despair is the letting go of hope, the abandonment of the idea that problems can be fixed and that these problems are temporary. It is often said that “suicide is permanent solution to a temporary problem,” but in a society where there are few solutions, one can easily spiral down into despair.
Looking at countries that have a high rate of suicide, America ranks somewhere in the middle and it seems that the more wealthy countries have this problem (see the suicide rate for South Korea, a country ranked at the top of Asian countries with the greatest GDP). However in poor countries with democratic governments, there is a surprisingly low rate of suicide, even non-existent. Why is this? In these impoverished countries, the individual is always wondering about their next meal, the water they will drink, if they would have to sell themselves into prostitution, if they will survive to the next day, etc. However, at least they have a goal and this goal gives them something to which to look forward. I don’t have to think about physical survival and therefore these goals are non-existent. I don’t worry about clean drinking water, but which brand of bottled water to buy (some people have humorously called these problems “first world problems”). So, what then do I have as a goal? What do I have for which to hope? Here is my point: The goal is that which gives meaning. No goal = no meaning.
So in North America, because we do not have these persistent goals; we have very little meaning given to our lives. We are told to work hard, go to college, get a job, get married, have children, etc., but these “goals” are activities that do not have any meaning themselves, like the goal of “not starving,” which means “not dying.” In other words, many young people don’t know why they are in college or why they should get a job. They are not starving or their lives are not threatened like the life of the little boy in Nepal who does not know from where his next meal will come. So many young people in the United States turn to destructive activities to satisfy their cravings for meaning. Violence and self-harm provide immediate gratification because these activities seem like ends in themselves, the final and ultimate end being death. Nietzsche said that if we do not have meaning then we will take nothingness and make that meaning (paraphrasing from Genealogy of Morals).
But the Christian gospel is about hope. It is about a future of life, free from sin and strife. It is a resurrected future that is based on what God has done in the past. God is a God who makes “all things new” (Rev. 21:5), who opens up the future to new possibilities. Yet, how can this knowledge fill the longing that we have to look forward and not to give up? Part of the answer is in the commitment to a life that is lived out with goals that are realized by God’s will and calling. In other words, to live with hope is to embrace the God who works together all things for good (Rom. 8:28), and to realize that God has called us all according to God’s desire for our lives.
Is despair a sin? Yes, it is a sin when we reject this act of God in our lives and therefore deny God’s grace and love. However, this is different from the emotions that affect us when life becomes difficult and we wonder what this may all mean. And in this latter state, we are given grace to reach out to God and others for help in order to avoid despair and continue to hold on to hope.
Personal note: If you have consistent problems with anxiety and depression, please consider seeking help from someone trained to do so. If these feelings and thoughts are only momentarily due to the situation you are in, then find hope in a community of faith that can love you through these times. In either situation, I am praying for you and hope for your deepest happiness in Christ.
Phuc Luu teaches philosophy and theology, and when he cannot keep out of trouble, he is the associate pastor at Heights Church, Houston. Phuc is married to a gifted and talented voice and piano teacher, Paula Nguyen Luu, who is also the music pastor at Heights Church. They have two feline “fur babies,” named Bebop and Roxy. In the little spare time Phuc has, he paints, writes poetry, works on his “old house,” and loves to cook for dinner parties. You can contact Phuc at firstname.lastname@example.org