Despair at Work

"Remember," Paul writes, "that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:11-12). This is spiritual despair, the "sickness unto death" (John 11:4) according to Kierkegaard. If despair is the condition of "having no hope and [being] without God in the world" then the opposite condition is "realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have the boldness and access [to God] with confidence through our faith in him" (Eph 3:11-12). Despair, in other words, is only remedied through faith in Jesus Christ, "through whom we have now received reconciliation" with God (Rom 5:11). Even those united to Christ through faith continue to struggle with despair--to live and act as though the grace of God is not enough--insofar as their faith remains imperfect in this life. For this reason, despair is as universal as sin (see part 1 of this series) and not to be reduced to or confused with mere consciousness of despair, since the consciousness of despair may be absent or superficial or even be false (see part 2 of this series).

The Subjectivity of Despair

While despair is not to be reduced to mere consciousness (or mood, attitude, emotion, or the like), it is nevertheless profoundly subjective in the Kierkegaardian sense that it concerns and involves one's self. People seem to despair over something, he observes, and in their despair are ever ready to (mis)diagnose their despair as something merely (and thus trivially) objective rather than profoundly subjective:

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment . . . despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself (SUD, 19).

To be rid of oneself--to no longer want or will to be the person you are or have become--in one sense that is the end of despair: it is the place to which the prodigal came when he "came to himself" in the "far country" (Luke 15:17) and it's the place we reach when we are finally sick of our sin and ready to be rid of "this body of death" (Rom. 7:24). We may come to this point by myriad different paths but it is a place we must all reach if we are to become true selves before God since we all begin in despair just as surely as we begin in sin.

Kierkegaard illustrates the subjectivity of despair with the case of an "ambitious man whose slogan is 'Either Caesar or nothing'." When this man "does not get to be Caesar," he "despairs over it."

But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar (SUD, 19).

Not getting to be Caesar is not the root of his despair but merely the occasion for its surfacing in his consciousness. His despairing "over something"--over not getting to be Caesar--is actually a symptom of his despair "over himself" which was even driving his ambition to be Caesar. In truth, Kierkegaard declares, this man is in despair over himself all along, "for whenever that which triggers his despair occurs, it is immediately apparent that he has been in despair his whole life" (SUD, 24).

This man's ambition to become Caesar, much like the prodigal's drive to squander his inheritance in a far country, is actually a spiritual device for losing himself in all the trappings of being Caesar in order to dodge or suppress the truth about being in despair before God. If he had become Caesar he would have been happy, perhaps, because he would have been preoccupied with being Caesar; being Caesar is very useful in the quest to avoid coming to oneself. His happiness may have been elusive or short lived, however, because his despair over his self would have survived his becoming Caesar and, as with the hungry swine-feeding prodigal, likely broken through eventually despite drowning himself in the world.

Even if the ambitious man successfully suppressed his consciousness of being in despair throughout his entire life as Caesar and had no anxiety at all over remaining Caesar, he still would not have escaped being in despair but only successfully suppressed his consciousness of it. This would be a far greater tragedy because he is so much more than Caesar: he is a human being created in the divine image and called to enjoy and glorify God forever. Without the consciousness of "having no hope and [being] without God in the world" he not only would be "just as despairing" as if he had not been Caesar, but also ignorant of his true condition and all the more hopeless for that (SUD, 19).

Despair as Weakness and Defiance

Coming to oneself in the far country of despair, or seeing oneself as one is before God in the mirror of his word, is not to be confused with coming to faith, however. While resting transparently in God, our creator and redeemer, is the only way to overcome spiritual despair, many despairing people take offense in the moment of self-disclosure and react in despair rather than in faith.

Kierkegaard proceeds, therefore, to describe two broad forms of conscious or reactionary despair: weakness and defiance. Both forms are described over against the formula in which the self, "in willing to be itself, . . . rests transparently in the power that established it," who is God (SUD, 49). Weakness is the form of despair in which the consciously despairing person does not will to be oneself; defiance is the form of despair in which the consciously despairing person wills to be oneself without resting transparently in God. Both have their exegetical counterparts before Scripture. The difference between the two forms of conscious despair--weakness and defiance--is just to what degree the despairing person is consciously defiant. All consciously despairing people are both culpably weak, in that they do not will to live to the glory of God, and defiant, in that they will to live to some other end.

The person who despairs in weakness experiences despair as "a suffering, a succumbing to the pressure of external factors" (SUD, 51). They are conscious of despairing but still conceive of despair as though its source is entirely outside of them rather than within them. Perhaps the person who despairs in weakness even becomes conscious of the fact that it is a kind of weakness to be in despair over earthly things. Even if so, "instead of definitively turning away from despair to faith and humbling himself under his weakness, he entrenches himself in despair and despairs over his weakness" (SUD, 61). An example is the person who, hearing God's word, becomes aware of her sin but instead of casting herself on God despairs over the possibility of repenting or being forgiven, which at bottom is a refusal to believe the gospel and rest in Christ.

At this point, the despair of weakness--of not willing to be oneself before God--passes into the despair of defiance--of willing to be oneself without resting transparently in God. Defiant despair, however, "is conscious of itself as an act" and thus aware that the source of despair "does not come from the outside as a suffering under the pressure of externalities but comes directly from the self" (SUD, 67). In defiance, the person "in despair wants . . . to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be, to determine what he will have or not have in his concrete self." As such, the defiant person "constantly relates itself to itself only by way of imaginary constructions, no matter what it undertakes, however vast, however amazing, however perseveringly pursued. It recognizes no power over itself" (SUD, 68).

Such willful despair cuts the person off "from any relation to a power that has established it, . . . severing it from the [very] idea that there is such a power" (SUD, 68). Thus, defiant despair is at its core defiance before God, the willful assertion of one's autonomy:

The self is its own master, absolutely its own master, so-called; and precisely this is the despair, but also what it regards as its pleasure and delight. On closer examination, however, it is easy to see that this absolute ruler is a king without a country, actually ruling over nothing. . . . Consequently, the self in despair is always building only castles in the air (SUD, 69).

Defiance before God is a futile effort of self-assertion. "In despair," Kierkegaard writes, "the self wants to enjoy the total satisfaction of making itself into itself, of developing itself, of being itself," but only on its own terms (SUD, 69). It is impossible, however, to become oneself before God apart from the faith that rests transparently in him; spiritual defiance is a suicidal folly in which one wills to actualize a self that turns out to be an imaginary "nothing."

When it comes to studying the Bible, the weakly despairing reader despairs over arriving at the meaning of the text and its significant for one's life and the defiantly despairing exegete asserts his or her own meaning and significance. Despair can twist and distort our exegetical work in shockingly obvious and remarkably subtle ways, as I shall try to show in upcoming posts. Already, Kierkegaard's analysis reminds us that exegetical technique alone is incapable of delivering us from spiritual despair before God and his word. Biblical exegesis, in other words, is an inescapably spiritual discipline before God that must be pursued by faith.