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Dealing with Despair

By: Dr. James Dobson

As many of us know, the Holidays can be a stressful time for many people. Lost friendships and family rifts come to mind even as we prepare to celebrate…and unfortunately sometimes it doesn't feel much like a celebration. Furthermore, some of us become acutely aware of our distance and maybe even disillusionment with our God as we find ourselves inside the walls of the church, where we welcome the birth of God's son Jesus but feel so distant and disconnected. The Holidays can be a time of soul searching, and what we find in that search may bring cause us to admit to ourselves that we are a bit of a spiritual mess! Dr. Dobson has some wise words for us:

Christians who become confused and disillusioned with God have no such consolation. It is the absence of meaning that makes their situation so intolerable. As such, their depression over a sudden illness or the tragic death of a loved one can actually be more severe than that experienced by the nonbeliever who expected and received nothing. It is not uncommon to hear a confused Christian express great agitation, anger, or even blasphemy. This confused individual is like a little girl being told by her divorced father that he will come to see her. When Daddy fails to show up, she suffers far more than if he had never offered to come.

The key word here is expectations. They set us up for disillusionment. There is no greater distress in human experience than to build one's entire way of life on a certain theological understanding, and then have it collapse at a time of unusual stress and pain. A person in this situation faces the crisis that rattled his foundation. Then, like little Chris, he must also deal with the anguish of rejection. The God whom he has loved, worshiped, and served turns out to appear silent, distant, and uncaring in the moment of greatest need. Do such times come even to the faithful? Yes, they do, although we are seldom willing to admit it within the Christian community.

Wasn't that precisely what happened to Job? This God-fearing man of antiquity had done no wrong, yet he suffered a series of staggering losses in a matter of hours. I have heard many sermons based on the life of this remarkable Old Testament character, but the source of Job's most intense frustration (his inability to find God) has often been overlooked. That is a vital point in the story. Job lost everything--his children, his wealth, his servants, his reputation, and his friends. But those tragedies, as terrible as they were, did not create the greatest agitation for him. Instead, Job fell to the ground in worship and said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised" (Job 1:20-21).

Then God permitted Satan to afflict Job physically. He was stricken "with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head" (Job 2:7). His wife became irritated and goaded her husband to curse God

and die. Job replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" The Scripture then says, "In all this, Job did not sin in what he said" (2:10). What an incredible man of faith! Not even death could shake his confidence, as he proclaimed, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him" (13:15).

Eventually, however, Job reached a point of despair. This man of towering strength who had coped with sickness, death, and catastrophic loss soon faced a circumstance that threatened to overwhelm him. It emanated, strangely enough, from his inability to find God. He went through a time when the presence of the Almighty was hidden from view. More important, God wouldn't talk to him. Job expressed his great anguish this way:

My complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say. Would he oppose me with great power? No, he would not press charges against me. There an upright man could present his case before him, and I would be delivered forever from my judge. But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. (Job 23:2-9)

Are we to assume that this inability to find and communicate with God in certain times of personal crisis was unique to Job? No, I believe it occurs in many other cases, perhaps to the majority of us at some point in life. Scripture tells us that "no temptation has seized you except what is common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13). We all go through similar experiences. King David must have felt like Job when he asked the Lord with great passion, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1). Then in Psalm 77, David again expressed the anguish of his soul: "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever?" (vs. 7-8). We're told in 2 Chronicles 32:31 that "God left (Hezekiah) to test him and to know everything that was in his heart." Even Jesus asked why he had been abandoned by God in His final hours on the cross, which ultimately illustrates the experience I am describing.

I am convinced that these and other biblical examples were provided to help us understand a critically important spiritual phenomenon. Apparently, most believers are permitted to go through emotional and spiritual valleys that are designed to test their faith in the crucible of fire. Why? Because faith ranks at the top of God's system of priorities. Without it, He said, it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). And what is faith? It is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). This determination to believe when the proof is not provided and when the questions are not answered is central to our relationship with the Lord. He will never do anything to destroy the need for faith. In fact, He guides us through times of testing specifically to cultivate that belief and dependence on Him (Hebrews 11:6-7).

Still, a theological answer of that nature doesn't take away the pain and frustration we experience when we journey through spiritual no-man's-land. And most of us don't handle our difficulties as well as Job or David. When the heat is on and confusion mounts, some believers go through a horrendous spiritual crisis. They "lose God." Doubt rises up to obscure His presence and disillusionment settles into despair. The greatest frustration is knowing that He created the entire universe by simply speaking it into existence, and He has all power and all understanding. He could rescue. He could heal. He could save. But why won't He do it? This sense of abandonment is a terrible experience for someone whose entire being is rooted in the Christian ethic. Satan then drops by for a little visit and whispers, "He is not there! You are alone!"

What does such a person do when God makes no sense? To whom does he confess his troubling--even heretical--thoughts? From whom does he seek counsel? What does he tell his family when his faith is severely shaken? Where does he go to find a new set of values and beliefs? While searching for something more reliable in which to believe, he discovers that there is no other name--no other god--to whom he can turn. James 1:8 refers to that individual as a "double minded man (who) is unstable in all his ways" (KJV). He, of all people, is most miserable and confused!

Such a person reminds me of a vine that grew behind the house Shirley and I owned in southern California. It was an ambitious plant that had a secret plan to conquer the world ! In its path was a gorgeous, 150-year-old oak tree that I was most anxious to protect. Every few months, I would look out the back window and notice that the vine had again attacked the tree. There it was, winding its way up the trunk and around the upper branches. If allowed to continue, the oak tree would eventually succumb to the invasion of the killer vine!

The solution was really quite simple. Instead of jerking the plant off the tree, which would have damaged the bark, I made one quick cut near the bottom of the vine. Then I walked away. Though nothing appeared to have changed, the green monster had suffered a mortal blow. The next day, its leaves looked a little dull. Two or three days later they were slightly discolored around the edges. Soon they began turning brown with cancerous-looking black spots near the center. Then they started falling off, eventually leaving just a dry stick extending up the trunk. Finally, the stick fell away and the tree stood alone. So much for blind ambition.

Is the analogy clear? Christians who lose God during a period of spiritual confusion are like the vine that has been cut off from its source. They are deprived of nurture and strength. They seem to cope at first, but the concealed wound is mortal. They begin to wither in the heat of the sun. They usually drop out of church and quit reading the Bible and praying. Some go off the deep end and begin doing things they would never have contemplated before. But there is no peace within. Indeed, some of the most bitter, unhappy people on earth are those who have become estranged from the God they no longer understand or trust.

Jesus spoke of this relationship in John 15:5-6 when He said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned."

If you are among those people who have been separated from the Vine because of disillusionment or confusion, I have written with you in mind. I know you are hurting. I understand the pain that engulfed you when your child died or your husband betrayed you or your beloved wife went to be with Jesus. You could not explain the devastating earthquake, or the fire, or the terrible tornado, or the unseasonable rainstorm that ruined your crops. The insurance company said it was an "act of God." Yes. That's what hurt the most. The examples are endless. I'm thinking of a young man I know who was convinced the Lord would let him have the girl he desperately loved. He thought he could not live without her. The day she married another man, his faith was shaken to its foundation.

I'm reminded also of the woman who called in 1991 to tell me that her 28-year-old son had been killed in the Persian Gulf War. He was in a helicopter that was shot down somewhere in Iraq. He was her only son and was a born-again Christian. Only a handful of the 600,000 United Nations troops in that war failed to come home alive, yet this God-fearing man was one of them. My heart aches for his grieving mother.

The great danger for people who have experienced this kind of tragedy is that Satan will use their pain to make them feel victimized by God. What a deadly trap that is! When a person begins to conclude that he or she is disliked or hated by the Almighty, demoralization is not far behind.

For the heartsick, bleeding soul out there today who is desperate for a word of encouragement, let me assure you that you can trust this Lord of heaven and earth. There is security and rest in the wisdom of the eternal Scriptures. We will discuss those comforting passages in subsequent chapters, and I believe you will see that the Lord can be trusted--even when He can't be tracked. Of this you can be certain: Jehovah, King of kings and Lord of lords, is not pacing the corridors of heaven in confusion over the problems in your life! He hung the worlds in space. He can handle the burdens that have weighed you down, and he cares about you deeply. For a point of beginning He says, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).



From When God Doesn't Make Sense, by Dr. James Dobson