Despair Is Presumptuous

By R. Leigh Spruill

This past week I had two unexpected conversations with two very different individuals. Each was for about an hour over a cup of coffee. The first conversation was with a U.S. Marine who is also a businessman. The second was with an artist, a painter. Neither are members of this congregation, but both would self-describe as good Christians.

I asked each for their opinions on the state of the world. What impressed me was not that they both said the state of the world is bad. Of course, it is. What impressed me was that they both — from quite different backgrounds and perspectives — described the bad state of the world in the same spiritual terms: “These are dark times and the Evil One is having a field day.”

I think they are correct. You don’t need me this morning to enumerate all the reasons how. But to hear the gospel means we have to know our reality.

It seems to me our times are marked by several realities: the politicization of everything; the remedy to nothing. And the result is fear, anger, and despair on a wide scale. These are not Christian virtues; they are not fruits of the Holy Spirit. This season is unveiling that the places where we as a culture have placed our trust actually do not have the strength or the coherence or the substance to sustain us in crisis.

I am sensitive to sounding so negative. That is not my nature. What I really want in highlighting these scary and chaotic, urgent and revealing, times is to force the question: what do you perceive God is up to in all this?

I simply cannot imagine a more hopeful passage from the entire Bible to aid us in contemplation of that question than the one we hear today from St. Paul in Romans 8.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us.”

Do we believe glory is about to be revealed to us? It certainly does not look like it right now! What does Paul mean here? How can he say this?

Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the longest, densest, and most theologically challenging of all his letters. I get it. But I suggest that the best thing you could do all this coming week would be to read each day Romans 8, especially verse 12 to the end of the chapter. It is beautiful and powerful and so hopeful.

Here Paul is naming the unavoidable reality that Christians suffer in this world all the stress and sadness, all the sickness and sinfulness, as everybody else. And yet we experience these realities differently, because of the Cross.

This is a major stress point again and again in St. Paul: the cross is not simply a historical event from the past. Nor is it merely an abstract theological doctrine of the church. Rather, Paul teaches us the cross is the pattern of faithful living. In bearing sufferings with hope, we are pulled up onto the cross of Jesus, where with him, God’s power is made manifest in weakness. The gospel life pattern is that glory emerges from God’s ultimate victory over sin and suffering, even death, rather than victory being won because of our success in avoiding those realities. This is the good news.

I feel confident St. Paul would want us to know that, especially in times like this, Christians are given a fresh opportunity to embody in our lives the pattern of the Cross:

·      Realism about the facts of our fallen world;

·      Repentance for our participation in its brokenness;

·      Prayerfulness shaped by trust that precisely in all that, precisely now, God is capable of birthing new, glorious realities.

This is not optimism that things will get better. This is hope that God’s glory will be seen better.

Paul continues and — unforgettably, beautifully — uses the imagery of childbirth: “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains, and not only creation, but we ourselves.” I think that gets at it for me. At the heart of life right now is a deep-down groan. With every news headline, or a friend saying, “Hey, did you hear about the latest about this or that?” There is a groan these days. And there are different kinds of groaning.

I sat for a long time once with a woman who had just received the news that her son had been killed in an accident. And there were no words in that quiet space, only a groan, low like an agonized whisper surfacing from the depths of unspeakable shock, barely audible, but the only real thing in the room.

Yet I know another woman, quite well, with whom I have sat for hours on three different occasions listening to groaning of another sort — the groans of childbirth.

There are different kinds of groaning. And our God knows each one. Perhaps we do too. But in light of Christ, our orientation is always to the groans of new birth, even in a season like this one, when we so obviously “see only in part as through a glass darkly.”

What do you perceive God is up to in all this?

You have heard me mention so many times my love for my dear mentor John Claypool. John grew up here in Nashville in the 1930s and ’40s, at a time when he was simply not able to see the reality of racial inequality. The scales fell from John’s eyes in the early 1950s, when he had an encounter with the influential Christian leader Clarence Jordan and John came to see that the segregated way of living he had known all his life was not only antithetical to our national ideals but to the gospel.

At some professional cost as a pastor, John got involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He used to recall one particular low point in that ministry (he has written about this episode in one of his books): one afternoon, a meeting with some African American pastors had broken up acrimoniously, those pastors storming out of the room in frustration. In that moment, John felt a sense of utter despair. As it happens, John had befriended an elderly rabbi at this time and shared with him these words: “This problem is so old, so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply no way out of it.”

As John used to tell the story, the old rabbi squinted at John through a big puff of smoke from his pipe and said: “I need to tell you something, young man. To the Jew, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair. … Despair is presumptuous. Who are you to say what God can or cannot do? Who are you to set limits on God’s potency that brings into being the things that do not exist and can even make dead things come back to life?”

Despair is presumptuous. That crusty rabbi and Christian convert, St. Paul, says very much the same thing to us today from the Letter to the Romans. Remember that you are a Christian too, and therefore always a person of hope.

Here are three things we can be about more than ever in a time like this:

First, ask what God is doing, every day, over and over. Paul says today we are to wait with “eager expectation” for new revelation. The Greek literally means to “wait with your head raised” or to “look out with your neck straining forward.” Is this the posture for Christians in our day?

That same woman I know so well who has given birth to our children is also a birdwatcher. Any number of mornings as I pour my coffee and come out on our back patio to join her in our morning devotional time, I will spot her peering up into the trees, craning her neck to see something, a bird, that I fail to see. But she is always watchful and she has learned to see beautiful birds all around us. That is the posture I am talking about.

Second, like never before, use the resources the church has given us to learn how to look and what we are to look for! I am speaking of the priority of worship, prayer, Scripture, and holy conversation with others, such as I described with those two men earlier.

And third, look with hopeful and patient endurance. Do it not only for yourselves, but as an act of witness. We are to be like birdwatchers caught peering up to see winged creatures the world does not yet know to look for. But as people see us craning our necks upwardly, they too will look in the direction we are looking. I cannot imagine a more potent gift we might give the world in these times than that: to be examples to others of where to look.

I suppose you could say that I am claiming an awful lot for this present moment. I am. This is an important time. Not all times are of equal significance in terms of the direction of human history or opportunities for the gospel.

Also, I ask us to remember that the gospel is not about the times getting progressively better and better. That is a fiction and always has been. The gospel is about the kingdom coming nearer and nearer. And it is in the nature of how Jesus wins the gospel for us that it is birthed on the other side of the cross.

We look in eager expectation even as we groan. For the cross of Jesus Christ lays bare the pretensions and illusions of all the false ways of the world. It also offers a better way, his way, the path to glory.

There is suffering now. There is grief now. There is fear, anger, and despair now. And there is in store for us … something promised if not yet seen. Whatever is happening or not happening in the world for you right now, it does not compare to what has happened already in Christ and what will happen in days to come because of that. If we cannot offer that promise to one another and to the world, then we truly have lost our way.

No, the sufferings of today will be dwarfed by the glory to come. Pray for it. Hope in it. Watch for it. Crane forward into it. Point toward it. For those who believe, despair is presumptuous.

The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill is rector of the Church of St. John the Divine, Houston.


Online Archives