Results tagged “despair” from Reformation21 Blog

Why You Don't Read Your Bible

According to Søren Kierkegaard's analysis of spiritual despair in Sickness unto Death, in terms of faith (see the first post in this series) and consciousness (part 2 and part 3), despair is the universal condition of being without God and hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). It is crucial to note that this concept of despair is "psychological" in the older spiritual sense and having to do with one's soul and not in the more contemporary sense of having to do only with one's mental or emotional self-consciousness. One can be in spiritual despair, in other words, without presenting any of the symptoms we commonly associate with psychological despair.

Spiritual despair, he contends, just is the faithless posture of not resting oneself transparently in God. As such, despair is unbelief before God (coram Deo) which is both sinful in itself and integral to all other sinning insofar as "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23; cf. Heb. 11:6). Spiritual despair, then, is always present to some degree wherever faith is imperfect, no matter if one is conscious of being in despair or not. Since not even those under grace are perfect in faith, some degree of despair remains; what is more, in our weakness we continue to wrestle with a kind of false consciousness of despair insofar as we doubt the sufficiency of the saving grace of God for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, because Jesus Christ is an all-sufficient savior for us the believer's despair is baseless, which only makes it all the more perverse, offensive, and pernicious.

So far Kierkegaard's analysis of despair coram Deo; my point here and in the next post is that this same spiritual dynamic is at work before Scripture (coram Scriptura). Exegetical despair, if you will, is often just spiritual despair before God operative in the act of reading and handling his word. This is because whenever we come before this text we come before God, who is "speaking in the Scripture" (WCF 1.10): coram Scriptura, coram Deo. If we are in any degree of despair coram Deo, the spiritual dynamics of despair will certainly be intensely at work coram Scriptura.

Despair Coram Scriptura: Not to Read

For this reason, Kierkegaard muses, most people in Christendom never read the Bible at all (For Self-Examination, 33). This is not because they don't have access to God's word but because they willfully neglect it as it remains boxed up in the attic or sits on the shelf or end table or nightstand, or constantly loses out to the news or latest television program or novel, or whatever else people choose to do instead of ever taking up and actually reading God's word. The excuses to put off reading the Bible are apparently endless--and often astonishingly pathetic--but the underlying reason is often spiritual despair.

Not reading the Bible may be the practice of one who is oblivious to being in despair. Perhaps they even reason that it's only addressed to the despairing--those who need some kind of spiritual crutch to get along in life--which is not who they imagine themselves to be. They even imagine themselves to e happy enough for those who've found help in Scripture, but they don't need help at the moment or at least the Bible, they tell themselves, doesn't offer them the kind help they think they need. This, of course, is not just the ruminating of unbelievers, though it is certainly the ruminating unbelief; many believers also often think and act this way, only resorting to their Bibles when something seems amiss in life.

But not reading God's word also may be the preferred strategy of others who are actively trying to suppress their consciousness of being in despair, as we all do but for the grace of God. Some are so disturbed by this word that they become militant about eliminating every display or reminder of it--or try to undermine the ministry of faithful preachers and teachers of it. As Kierkegaard confesses: "To be alone with Holy Scripture! I dare not!" (FSE, 31). That is the secret stance of many non-readers, and not reading the Bible is, to this way of thinking, the safest way to avoid the consciousness of despair. It should not surprise us if not reading the Bible is by far the most widely adopted strategy before Scripture; it's a dangerous book to anyone who would be comfortable in sin.


While declining to read the Bible is hardly an exegetical strategy, it is still an act of despair before Scripture. Far more importantly, it is a temptation to every one of us--no matter how studied or long in the Bible-reading habit we may be. "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12). God uses this word to strip away all our masks, pretensions, and illusions--all those ways we imagine ourselves to be or pretend to be but are not--and to show us our sin, our despair, all our faithless, hopeless, and joyless ways before him--how, despite the clarity of the gospel, we continue to live, study, and even minister as if we have no hope and are without Christ in this world. And when the Spirit does show us ourselves in the mirror of this "perfect law of liberty," as James writes, we have just two options: to turn away offended and try to forget what we saw or to persevere in faith, laying hold of the benediction in Christ.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a peculiar sort of apologist for the spiritual earnestness he believed is demanded by the gospel and necessary to being human. It is not surprising, then, that Kierkegaard had much to say about despair before God (coram Deo) since spiritual despair is, in many ways, the great enemy of spiritual earnestness. The theme of spiritual despair, developed under various terms, runs throughout his literature and takes center stage at the culmination of his pseudonymous corpus in his 1849 masterpiece, Sickness unto Death. Not much later, Kierkegaard muses under his own name on what spiritual despair does to us before God's word (coram Scriptura) in his 1851 discourse, "What Is Required in Order to Look at Oneself with True Blessing in the Mirror of the Word?" Reading the latter in light of the former, as he intended, is instructive: my aim here is to draw out and give voice to his warning about the subversive exegetical danger of spiritual despair to would-be Bible readers.

Since there are many aspects to his analysis of spiritual despair and warning to Bible readers, I intend to develop this line of thought over a several posts, each one capable of standing on its own but better when held together. Along the way I hope to set out something of Kierkegaard's concept of spiritual despair, draw out several dimensions of Spiritual despair, and then observe how this analysis of despair applies to the dynamic of reading and interpreting God's word. Some readers will no doubt recognize similar themes in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, a number of Puritan and Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation) writers, and perhaps others. The significance of spiritual despair has long been recognized in the Christian tradition and is inescapable among all who aspire to reflect soberly on living before God, few have given it the attention of Kierkegaard.

"What is Required?"

"What Is Required" is the first of the three discourses that make up Kierkegaard's little book, For Self-Examination. Dated the fifth Sunday after Easter, it is in fact a sermon on James 1:22-27:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

The spiritual distance between being a doer of the word who practices true religion before God and a mere hearer of the word is a matter of faith. The mere hearer of the word is just the sort of spiritually confused person who thinks she believes and perhaps claims she believes but whose life shows no evidence of faith apart from certain "counterfeit affections," as Edwards calls them (WJE, 2:379-80). "What good is it," James asks,

If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?...[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead...You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!...[F]aith apart from works is useless (James 2:14, 17-20).

The person who has only the faith to hear but not to do does not have saving faith--the sort of earnest faith Westminster says "acts differently upon that which each particular passage [of Scripture] contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come" (WCF 14.2). The mere hearer of the word lacks or fails to live by this sort of faith and is therefore in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

Despair is the faithless, hopeless, and in a sense, loveless condition of not living for what is promised, desiring what is given, and doing what is required but rather as one "having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The one who lives by faith hears the promise that the doer who acts "will be blessed in his doing" and rises up in hope and does whatever is commanded in love--and is indeed blessed in the doing; the one who lives in despair, however, may hear the promise and even want to be blessed but fails to do what is written and enter into the joy of the benediction, the blessing that belongs to those who live according to this word. Faith is the difference.

Despair as Universal as Sin

For reasons rooted in Kierkegaard's broadly Augustinian anthropology, he views faith as essential to being human. This is not just a psychological point for him: faith is not just necessary for humans to have a sense of wholeness in life but is actually necessary to being whole. The very structure of being human is such, he argues, that we can only be what we were created and are called to be by resting in the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

As such, all humans are absolutely dependent on God not only for our objective existence in the world, as rocks and trees and birds depend on God, but also for our subjectivity--depending on him at the level of self-consciousness and personal identity, for our knowing and willing and desiring and doing in the stream of being and becoming that is our life. In Augustinian terms, only faith is able to settle our otherwise incurably "restless" hearts; in Pascalian terms, only faith is able to bring us into that communion with God that fills the "infinite abyss" in our souls; in Kierkegaardian terms, only faith enables us to be and become a true human self before God:

Every human existence that is not conscious of itself...before God,...every human existence that does not rest transparently in God,...whatever it achieves, be it most amazing, whatever it explains, be it the whole of existence, however intensively it enjoys life esthetically--every such existence is nevertheless despair SUD, 46 (XI 158).

If, he explains, in faith "the [human] self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God," then in despair the human self fails to be itself by not resting transparently in God. Every fallen person fails in just this way: fails at life's great "task" of being human before God and is thus in despair. Even those of us who are being delivered out of despair through faith are susceptible to despair and remain in some measure of despair insofar as our faith remains imperfect in this life.

Despair, therefore, is universal, This means none of us are absolutely trustworthy handlers of God's word--none of us are beyond the possibility of taking offense at what is written or being tempted to defend ourselves against the force of it in our lives. Though "no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account," in the weakness of our faith not one of us rests in him with perfect transparency. So Kierkegaard is convinced, at least; and convinced of this, he's also convinced we're all a little too willingly distracted and diverted before God's word even as we (pretend to) hear and read it.

Hell's Horrors vs. Heaven's Happiness (Updated)

Updated: response to Professor Helm below.

When we speak of grace, hell, heaven, etc., we must not merely speak in generalities, but as specific as the Scriptures allow us, which includes good and necessary consequences (Matt. 22:32). Someone may reference the horrors of hell or the happiness of heaven in a sermon but to little effect because they fail to explain why hell will be so horrible and heaven will be so happy. Even the popular idea that hell is "separation from God" is so misleading and wrong-headed that I'm amazed people still describe hell this way. It is quite the opposite: a God-hating sinner, who does not have a mediator, lives in the presence of a holy, righteous, and powerful God.

Christ spoke on hell more than anyone else in the Bible. But he did not merely talk about hell; rather, he also described hell (Matt. 10:28). The Scriptures don't just offer us generalities, but specifics. For example, consider the language of Luke 3:17, which ends by describing hell as an unquenchable fire. Elsewhere hell is described as a "fiery furnace" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42). Moreover, hell is a lake of fire (Rev. 19:20), an eternal fire (Jude 7), outer darkness (Matt. 22:13), blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13), and a place where "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mk. 9:44). 

What I want to do in this post is consider the torments of hell in relation to the joys of heaven from the perspective of "time." In doing this, we might be able to understand a little better the glories of heaven and the terrors of hell. True, hell is a punishment so great and heaven is a reward so wonderful that neither can be properly comprehended by our thoughts in this life. But how do we seek to join with Paul, for example, in persuading men because of the terrors of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11)? Here is one way.

Time has a beginning and an ending for all creatures in this world. "Time began with the creature" is a truer statement than that which says, "The creature began with time" (Bavinck). Eternity, properly understood, belongs to God alone. The marks of eternity are: 1) there is no beginning; 2) there is no ending; and 3) there is no succession of moment. 

But Christians will receive "eternal" life (Jn. 5:24), and those who do not love the Lord Jesus with an undying love will receive "eternal" death (1 Cor. 16:22). There is another word used by Reformed theologians, going back to the Medieval tradition (e.g., Bonaventure), called "Aeviternity" (aeviternitas). Aeviternity has a beginning but no ending; it belongs to angels and humans. Eternity has no beginning, succession, or ending; it belongs to God alone (Ps. 90:2). This is an important distinction as we try to understand how our "eternity" differs from God's "eternity."

Some (e.g., Bavinck) have also distinguished between extrinsic time and intrinsic time. We measure the motion of the earth, the heavenly bodies, etc., according to extrinsic time. Extrinsic time will cease in eternity.

However, there is also intrinsic time. This refers to our existence by which events have a past, present, and future. All created beings live in the realm of intrinsic time, and we cannot escape the fact of intrinsic time because we are creatures. 

As we think about time in eternity, and the manner in which we comfort the godly and warn the ungodly, preachers should remind their hearers that in hell it will feel as though there is only time - "slow" time. In this world, when we suffer, time seems to stand still. Even waiting in traffic or in a doctor's office, time does not fly by. We become more sensitive to the seconds. This happens when listening to poor sermons, too. 

However, in heaven, because we resemble Christ, and because we shall have joy unspeakable, we shall have a far different response to intrinsic time than the person in hell. Time flies by when you're having fun: imagine how time will seem to evaporate in heaven because of the joy that awaits us. Or consider the difference between speaking to your mother-in-law on the phone compared to when you were first courting your wife. For us a "year" will feel like a "second" whereas for those in hell a "second" will feel like a "year."

Moreover, in connection with this, consider:

1) As we enjoy heaven, our joy can only increase, not decrease. Knowing that our joy will not end only heightens the joy we will experience at that moment. One sadness in experiencing a joyful moment in this world is knowing that the experience is likely to end or change (e.g., this Belgium beer is almost finished). Not so in heaven. There will be no end to our joys, which will therefore cause us more joy in each successive moment. 

2) But for those consigned to hell, their despair will only increase, not decrease. As the creature in hell realizes more and more that he or she is suffering forever, the despair of eternal judgment can only increase. Hope has utterly vanished. In our sufferings here on earth, we always have the promises of God to look to (Rom. 8:18, 28ff.). But those in hell have no promises, and thus no hope, but only increasing despair. 

According to Thomas Goodwin, in hell the wicked will despair, for the "wretched soul in hell...finds that it shall not outlive that misery, not yet can it find one space or moment of time of freedom and intermission, having for ever to do with him who is the living God." The wicked will despair because there is no end to the wrath of the living God. For that reason, there will be perfect fear, because wicked souls in hell will not only be tormented by what they experience in the present moment, but also by what they will experience forever.

The only response of the creature in hell will be to blaspheme God. And because the creature blasphemes God, there can be no end to his/her punishment. God's eternity, coupled with the sinners perpetual blasphemy against God demand an eternal place of torment. 

Therefore, the concept of ever-increasing despair for all eternity, whereby the creature damned to hell can do nothing else but blaspheme a living, eternal God, gives us all the reason in the world to persuade men and women, boys and girls, to put their faith in the one who experienced hellish despair on the cross (2 Cor. 5).

If you really believe in the cross of Christ, then you have to believe there is a hell. If you believe there is a hell, then you are beyond thankful there was a cross for Christ.  


I'm always happy to hear from my drinking buddy, Professor Helm. I think perhaps he reads a little too much into what I wrote. I actually (vigorously) stand with him on the society of resurrection bodies in heaven. "Solipsistic consciousness" is about the last thing I'd want to ever affirm about heaven, and still can't quite understand how my post lends itself to such an interpretation. What was my point? Simply this: Tasks in heaven will not feel "painful" - i.e., we will not suffer in our work or feel bored - because we are "cheerful laborers." 

Bavinck speaks of the "abundant and exuberant life of the cheerful laborer, for whom time barely exists and days fly by. From this perspective there is truth in the assertion that in hell there is no eternity but only time, and that the more a creature resembles God and is his image, the more he or she will rise above the imperfections of time and approach eternity." 

I expect to drink better (Belgium?) beer and better wine in heaven (alcoholic, of course), and I shouldn't at all be surprised if I have to actually make the wine myself in a vineyard. Without the curse (Gen. 3) on my labor, I expect both the wine-making and wine-drinking to be pure bliss! I also expect to enjoy the wine with my drinking buddy, and we'll both see how the time flies by. 

But, and let's not forget this: I was quite serious about the solemnity of hell. There is nothing entertaining about eternal perdition. 

The privilege of dangerous seasons


You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, "We do not have it so bad." However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor's conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?

My gut instinct - and, I hope, my scriptural instinct - is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to "know this, that in the last days perilous times will come" (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2Tim 3:2-5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into - if we are not already in - a perilous time.

And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: "Whatever you do, boy, don't try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don't make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side."

What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5)

So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.

But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?

Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2Tim 2:3-4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, "A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns" (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?

We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case - it certainly has been in past conflicts - that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: "Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off" (1Kgs 20:11).

All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, "when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Lk 17:10).

Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called "the greatest fight in the world." It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.

Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: "Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.