Redemptive Despair

Jun 24 / Witty Sandle

Can there be anything good about despair? 
In moments of destitution, can we still find inklings that point to better days ahead?

The Cambridge online dictionary defines despair as "to feel that you have no hope." A rephrasing of the opening question could be - can hope be found amid despair? Isn't despair the utter absence of hope? Despair says all is lost. It signals an end, a place of no return where our shattered psyche is buried beneath a rubble of cumulative losses, disappointments, and wretched circumstances. Despair is the most abject of emotions, a cry of desertion from the depths of our being. In despair, we echo Psalm 88:18, "Darkness is my closest friend." In essence, despair is a form of devasting psychological suffering. Given this, the answer must surely be that there is nothing hopeful and redemptive about despair.

It is tempting to dismiss the idea that any positive relationship between hope and despair can exist. Still, I suggest that it is possible. However, I must be cautious about minimizing difficult emotions and situations. This is particularly the case for a person of faith.

As a Christian, I can be as prone as the next person to this tendency, known as spiritual bypassing. I believe our lives are enfolded within a larger story where we know the ending, a glorious eschaton when all will be right. This is the Christian hope. It's not the "positive feeling about the future" definition of hope that the Cambridge dictionary gives – a kind of wishful thinking. It's an expectation that good will prevail. Doctrinally, I fully consent to this Christian view.

And yet…

I have faced situations where I have been unable to see through what seems intractable. I sometimes avoid the news as a defense mechanism because I cannot cope with what I hear. In this, I take comfort from Julian of Norwich, who shares how, at one point, she wanted to turn away from the horrors of the cross. The suffering was too much to bear. [1]

How can we have a different relationship with despair that acknowledges anguish and can get through it? More than that, can despair be the soil where the seeds of hope germinate? Although Julian may have turned away from the passion of Christ, it is as she returns her gaze that she sees the fullness of redemption.

In their book, "The Cry of The Soul," [2], Alllender and Longman write a chapter on redemptive despair, stating that "Godly the surrender to a reality of becoming that we are powerless to consummate but in which we are granted an opportunity to play a part." [2] 

To develop Allender and Longman's point, I can change my relationship to despair by recognizing that I always have some agency. I can choose to adopt a posture of surrender, which is different from fatalistic resignation. Surrendering is active, not passive. It looks beyond what I can see and feel. In surrender, I get to be brave, admitting that I am not in control and that there is no 100% certainty about anything.
Moreover, I am forced to acknowledge the reality of my situation. In despair, I cannot fool myself or anyone else. I cannot feign that all is okay. I am led to a place of humility and turned Godward, even as I may declare, there is no God.

 "Godly despair cries out for perspective but allows the hollowness of loss to move the heart to seek God," write Allender and Longman. [3]

I can also live into the truth that, as humans, we are designed to have relationships with others. It is often the case, when experiencing despair, that we withdraw. We cannot accommodate much apart from our anguish. While we may not have the capacity to reach out to others, we can choose to open the door to those who knock. These people demand nothing from us except that we show up as we are – a mess. Simple acts such as a short encouraging text help us to shift our gaze, if only for a moment. The quiet presence of the one who sits and shares our space for a while – no words needed – is a balm to our troubled souls. We are reminded that we have a community of companioning grace that can bring hope to us.

Ultimately, while despair may seem insurmountable, it is there that the sparks of redemption can flicker. Only when we have reached the end of ourselves can we begin to hear the whispers of the One who never went away but instead pulled us upwards to where heaven meets earth—the glimmer of a hopeful horizon. Despair does not get to have the last word. 

[1] Page 17 of Julian of Norwich's short text, Revelations of Divine Love.
‎Penguin Classics translation. Julian of Norwich was a 14th-century anchorite from England who received a series of revelations as she lay close to death. She captured these in what has become known as the Revelations of Divine Love.
[2 & 3] The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Dan Allender and Tremper Longman. Page 127, 128.

Witty Sandle
Witty works as the Career and Vocational counsellor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, where she also directs the work of the Centre for Career and Calling. She combines her professional career development background with her spiritual direction skillset, offering spiritual direction, and retreat and workshop facilitation. She is a certified MBTI practitioner and an enneagram enthusiast. She graduated from Portland Seminary in 2019 with a Masters in Spiritual Formation and obtained her Certificate in Spiritual Direction the following year. 
Witty is deeply interested in questions of vocation and the questions that arise as we discern our ways of being in the world and our calls to faithfulness. She describes her own vocation as seeking to be an attentive presence, providing safe spaces where individuals can share and process their stories,exploring all they are called to be and do.
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