The Blessing of Despair

J.I. Packer, the late Anglican theologian, wrote: “The index of the soundness of a man’s faith in Christ is the genuineness of the __________ it springs from.”

How would you fill in that blank?
The genuineness of the confidence it springs from?
The love it springs from?

Here is what Packer said: “The index of the soundness of a man’s faith in Christ is the genuineness of the self-despair it springs from,” (A Quest for Godliness, p. 170).


Does that strike you as odd? Dane Ortlund writes similarly, “…the only sure foundation on which we can build spiritual growth is the solid ground of self-despair,” (Deeper, p. 40).

What does that mean? Are these just the reflections of two particularly gloomy, introspective men? Isn’t despair–the absence of hope–one of the things the gospel remedies?

In 1 Samuel 7, the people of Israel are in a dire set of circumstances. They have languished under the burden of false gods and desire to return in earnest to the Lord, but as they do the Philistines draw near to destroy them. Israel did not come for a fight; they came to lament and repent. They likely have their women and children with them (7:5), probably don’t have the military equipment they need, and (just to top it off) they have been fasting from food and water (7:6), so they are situationally unprepared, militarily unequipped, and physically weakened. They are sitting ducks for the Philistine army. They are brought to a place where they don’t even have the option to pretend that they are capable–all illusions of strength, control, and power have melted away.

And perhaps it is this difficulty, this utter weakness, that leads to their desperate plea of faith. They grab the hem of Samuel’s robe and plead with him: “Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us,” (7:8). Israel isn’t trying to think creatively about how to handle the problem themselves. They aren’t trying to be clever or strong. They aren’t putting on a brave face or stiff upper lip. They are just desperate for God to do what they cannot do themselves. They abandon any hope in themselves and fling themselves wholly, completely, and without reservation onto the Lord. “God, save us!”

And God responds in thunder (7:9-10).

But it is precisely this kind of self-despair that Packer and Ortlund are pointing us to: a certainty that if we are left to ourselves, we will perish. And that is just what we need. That is why it is in our weakness–not our strength–that the power of God is made perfect (2 Cor 12:9).

Many times in life we can have a seriously outsized perception of our capabilities, of even our own goodness. Have you ever found yourself shocked by something you said or did? Or ever realized: I just don’t have what it takes. I am not the husband I thought I was; I am not the mother I thought I was; I am not the Christian I thought I was…

Dane Ortlund writes, “One reason some Christians remain shallow their whole lives is they do not allow themselves…to pass through the painful corridor of honesty about who they really are,” (Deeper, p. 42). Like the celebrity who spends too much time reading their own press, we can begin to have an inflated picture of how spectacular we really are. But then along comes pain, failure, or a humiliating sin that pops the illusion. And there we are; the real us is revealed. We are weak, fickle, two-faced, lazy, cruel, selfish.

What do we do?

Packer and Ortlund would encourage you: despair of yourself. Don’t overlook your own depravity. Don’t rush past it too quickly or distract yourself from it. Simply realize how little you have, but then realize what abundant help there is in Christ. Like the Israelites caught in a desperate situation, we too must grab the hem of the robe of the Mediator–the greater Samuel–Jesus Christ, and cry out: Lord, have mercy! Help!

And there He arrives with help! God wants to bring you to the end of yourself so you can experience the fullness of Him. And sometimes, the only way we can be disillusioned with ourselves is through pain, hardship, and our own failure. 

Consider Paul’s own experience of this in 2 Corinthians:

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (2 Cor 1:8-10)

The deadly peril that led Paul to despair of life drove him to stop relying on himself and to turn to God for help. And for Paul, that made the hardship worth it. The crushing weight of adversity opened his eyes to reality: I can’t do this, God I need you. And so, later reflecting on the thorn in his flesh, Paul could simply say: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Cor 12:10).

Brother and Sister, I don’t know what you are going through, but I know that the sin-battle you are wearied by and the difficult set of circumstances that are exhausting you are not pointless. If you feel you are at your rope’s end, that you have nothing left in the gas-tank, then perhaps that is God inviting you to look to Him for help in a way that you haven’t yet.

Are you a sinner? Well, Christ is an overcoming Savior who has fully atoned for your sin. He won’t abandon you. Come to Him!

Are you weary? Jesus is a gentle and lowly Savior who is eager to take your burdens off your back. Come to Him! Rest in Him.

“When a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself; but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace. – Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

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