hope in despair

The Christian Response to Doubt and Despair

15 March 2021

3.3 MINS

In John Bunyan’s Christian classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the central figure, Christian, and his companion Hopeful, wander from the true Way, ending up in a place called By-Path-Meadow. It was a simple — but deceptive — mistake to make, because it looked easier and also appeared to be going in the same direction to which they were travelling. However, they soon realised their error and turned back to the right path.

One night, they slept in a place ominously named Doubting-Castle, owned by the Giant Despair. They were immediately thrown into his dungeon, where they were mistreated horribly. The giant’s wife, Diffidence, suggested that Christian and Hopeful be beaten and abused, telling them that they really should kill themselves, since there was no hope left for them at all. When they failed to comply, the Giant Despair showed them the remains of those he had previously murdered and, after assaulting them again, threatened that their end was only a matter of time.

Christian and Hopeful though, devoted themselves to prayer. As they continued to pray throughout the night, this is what Bunyan records as happening next:

Now a little before it was Day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech; ‘What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will I am persuaded open any lock in Doubting-Castle.’ Using the key, Christian and Hopeful escaped.

It’s a timeless truth that any real follower of Jesus can relate to. There are times when we feel completely abandoned and alone. Dark and depressing periods, such as William Cowper went through, who in February 1773 had a dream where he heard a voice crying, “It is all over with thee; thou hast perished.” Interestingly, Cowper’s mother was Anne Donne, a descendant of John Donne (the poet and Dean of St Paul’s who died in 1631, a century before Cowper’s birth).

How does one cope — or even seek to escape — when trapped inside the castle of despair? While medication, counselling as well as diet and exercise can all play an important part in the healing process, the Scriptures also play a vital role. Speaking personally, I have especially found the truths contained in Psalm 13 to be especially helpful.

There is nothing in the superscription to suggest a specific context for the Psalm. Instead, we’re simply told that it is ‘For the Director of Music’, written by none other than King David. There is a plethora of incidents in David’s life that could have triggered what he was divinely inspired to write. But I find it significant that we are not told, in that it makes its application all the more timeless.

Five of the six verses speak of incredible despair. Of being forgotten by God… having His face hidden from him… wrestling with his thoughts… having sorrow in his heart… the enemy triumphing over him… living in darkness… the threat of sleeping in death… and having one’s enemies rejoice over him when he falls. It’s difficult to think of a more bleak or depressing picture.

And yet, in the final verse everything changes. Suddenly, and dramatically, David breaks forth in the spiritual freedom of praise. But rather than a change in his circumstances — let alone inner feelings — the release from darkness is gained by three decisions. First, David chooses to trust God’s “unfailing love”. Second, he rejoices in God’s salvation. And third, the Spirit of God leads Israel’s king to write, “I will sing to the LORD, for He has been good to me.

Now, while it’s right to lament and grieve, Psalm 13 also provides profound insight into how to respond whenever we are feeling downcast. We’re not to look to our circumstances, but the Christ. We’re to remember God’s love, His saving mercies, as well as His faithful goodness. For it is as Bunyan describes, the ‘Key of Promise’ that is able to unlock the dungeon gates whenever we wander into Doubting Castle and are harassed by the Giant Despair.

And this is a key that is not far off, but on our very person. William Cowper well understood the reality of this truth as he endured a lifetime of significant depressive episodes. And yet, Cowper could write in God Moves in a Mysterious Way (1774):

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for his grace:
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be flower.

This means that rather than a true child of God being kept from times of trial, we are instead, moulded and refined through them. For in the loving hand of Almighty God, there is a sense in which the believer can even rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that it is part of a larger plan. The divine purpose for suffering to produce perseverance, character and ultimately, hope (Rom 5:3-5).

[Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash]

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  1. Lee Street 19 March 2021 at 10:57 am - Reply

    There is an insidious undermining to the subject of suffering in the post modern world. Coming through the door of Pentecostal blessing. It looks down on suffering as an indicator that your not trusting in the promises of God. As a vivid example read Bill Johnson’s book ‘ The way of Life’. It encourages you to pray through till you hit the blessings. Try to ignore the suffering, don’t give it any energy, look to Kingdom of God and Heaven on earth as it should be, as in ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’.There is no suffering in heaven so why should we be suffering now?
    Rather than rejoicing in all things, or considering it pure joy to face trials of many kinds. Embracing the pain of the situation and acknowledging Gods goodness in everything.
    Thank you for your article as it helps to counter the culture of cancelling suffering.

  2. Coralee 19 March 2021 at 11:36 am - Reply

    Thank you for timely and timeless encouragement from God’s word. Really appreciate this!

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