the stock market crashed in October 1987, Jake
feared it meant the end of life as he knew it. He
had pinned his financial hopes for retirement
upon years of careful investing in securities.
Within a day chest pains landed
him in the hospital. The diagnosis: a heart
attack. His body had caved in to the bad news
along with his emotions.
Jake did recover, and after a
long hospital stay returned home and lived
another eight years. The stock market gradually
recovered as well, and Jake's stock holdings
never plunged into the free fall he feared. Yet
market ups and downs constantly unsettled him. He
worried often that he hadn't set aside enough for
retirement, and that a market downturn would
spell financial ruin for him and his wife.
Ironically, after he died at 83,
his widow found that the value of Jake's
investment in securities totalled over $700,000.
Jake, unfortunately, had no orderly method for
keeping track of their worth, and most of his
countless stock certificates were stuffed in the
drawer of a safe deposit box. As a result, he was
left to ruminate about their actual value, and he
often imagined the worst. In fact, he had more
than enough to live comfortably, and about half
of his holdings were in bonds, which don't lose
their value during stock market declines.
A friend of his confided in me,
"I just don't believe Jake had any idea how
much he really had."
From this one picture of Jake,
you might conclude that he was simply a
pessimist--unable by nature to see the glass half
full in his financial world. In fact, this Boston
attorney would better be described as an optimist
and a positive thinker in most areas of his life.
Yet he could give in to discouragement under
certain conditions, and was particularly
vulnerable in the area of his finances.
Facing Our Own Potential for
Jake's experience shows how even
a basically optimistic person may fall into
highly pessimistic thinking, given certain
circumstances. It prods us each to look carefully
at how we may be personally vulnerable to such a
slide into despair, and what we can do to prevent
Each of us
has what psychologist Robert Bramson terms a
potential for despair, which can be set in motion
by various factors.*
Yet, we seldom recognize this tendency as a
personality trait, let alone as an unhealthy
reaction. The result is that we normally don't
think of it as something we can modify or
control. Rather, we consider ourselves victims to
the experience of despair when it occurs.
Yet despair by its very nature is
almost always an overreaction, often severely so.
We assume that we're doomed to failure in a
situation where we may still have plenty of
reason for hope. Even worse, we may conclude from
this one setback that we're snake-bitten, and the
bottom is falling out of every area of our life.
The potential for despair that we
each experience is also a uniquely personal one.
What triggers despair varies greatly from person
to person, and often has to do with our past
experience. If we've been seriously slammed by
life in some area, or know others who have been,
we may have an inordinate fear of the worst
recurring at this point. We're shell-shocked by
the experience. It may take little to convince us
that life is turning against us in this area.
Jake, who was born in 1912, was
in his late teens and twenties when the Great
Depression set in. It broadsided for him what are
usually a person's most optimistic years. Seeing
once-successful business executives selling
apples on the streets of Boston left an indelible
impression on Jake that financial catastrophe
does occur, sometimes to the least expecting.
Those years programmed him to fear the worst
whenever stock market indications were negative.
In the same way, if we've
suffered a major tragedy or setback in some
area--be it with a relationship, our health, or
our effort to reach some cherished personal
goal--we may be predisposed to expect defeat at
this point. Even when our chances of succeeding
are good, we perceive small setbacks as major
ones, a single failure as indicating that the
doors are forever bolted shut against us in this
The Inertia Factor
The most unfortunate part of
despair, is that it's an emotion with inertia.
Left unchecked, it takes on a life of its own. A
case in point is the lame man in John 5, who lay
by the pool of Bethesda. He staked his hope for
healing upon a popular belief--that when the pool
rippled, an angel was present, and the first
person into the water would be healed.
Yet the man also regarded his
situation as hopeless. "I have no man to put
me into the pool when the water is troubled, and
while I am going another steps down before
me," he explained to Jesus. What's most
stunning is that this man seemed to regard his
dilemma as permanent; he had been ill for 38
years, and "had been lying there a long
Jesus challenged the man's
conviction that his situation was hopeless,
asking him, "Do you want to be healed?"
By posing this question, Jesus implied that the
man's attitude, as much as anything, was working
against his healing. Yet he also implied that the
man could break the inertia of his despair, and
take steps to improve his life.
The incident is a good one to
keep in mind when we're facing a situation that
we think is hopeless. It challenges us to stop
and consider whether our outlook itself is
keeping us from seeing a solution. We're reminded
that God gives us greater control to remedy the
predicaments in our life than we tend to think.
And Christ is on our side as we make the effort
to see things more optimistically.
Winning the Fight
There is fortunately much that we
can do to stop our tumble into despair when it
occurs, and to prevent it from setting in, in the
I'm not blandly suggesting that
the Christian never experiences defeat, nor has a
basis for feeling discouraged. We experience
losses at times which are so severe that grief is
the most appropriate reaction, and is also
healthy--part of the necessary process of coming
to terms with our loss.
But too often despair, as in
Jake's case, is an extreme reaction, triggered
more by the fear of calamity than the actual
experience of it. And even when grief is
appropriate, in response to a genuine loss, it
can continue beyond a healthy period, and blind
us to new beginnings and reasons for hope which
God provides us.
Here are some steps which can
help us break the spell of unhealthy despair.
Yourself. Understanding our own
psychology, and what makes us vulnerable to
despair, helps enormously in learning how to
Learn to identify the emotion of
despair as soon as it starts to set in, and to
recognize that you are giving in to a deceptive
emotion. Remember how your predictions of doom
have usually been exaggerated in the
past--probably dramatically so--and recall
specific instances when this has been true.
Realize that your present ruminations are likely
askew of reality as well, and take comfort in
that. If you possibly can, laugh at your tendency
to catastrophize, which is only too human.
Think over your life, and recall
instances when you have given in to despair.
Identify the circumstances in which you're
vulnerable. If you know that certain situations
tend to trigger despair, you can be braced for
that possibility when you have to face them.
Being clearly aware of what these circumstances
are also gives you the freedom to decide to avoid
Steve Simms, author of Mindrobics: How to Be
Happy the Rest of Your Life,* offers this advice
for those times when situations fail to meet our
expectations: Withhold judgment. Take a
deep breath. While he makes an exception for
obvious tragedies (the death of a loved one, for
instance), he insists that in most cases we're on
good ground not to make immediate negative
judgments about situations that disappoint us.
Simm's advice is good wisdom.
Most of our negative judgments are based on very
little information; we simply don't know much
about what else is going on behind the scenes, or
about how events will unfold in the future as a
result of this situation. Over time, we so often
find that situations we've initially viewed
pessimistically have benefitted us in significant
ways. With the advantage of hindsight, we may see
them in a very different light. Given that fact,
we do well, as a matter of principle, to resist
the inclination to pass negative judgment on a
situation--forever, or at least until significant
time has passed.
Inventory. It is also very helpful simply
to think as clearly and broadly as we can, both
about the situation that's depressing us, and
about our life in general. Despair results
because we focus too much on one area--usually a
setback or defeat we've experienced--to the
exclusion of everything else.
Jake would have benefited from
having an accounting system that allowed him to
easily calculate his net worth; merely being able
to take inventory of his holdings would have
allowed him to see that his financial picture
wasn't as bleak as he imagined. In the same way,
taking inventory of a situation that we're
distressed about--looking at as many aspects of
it as we can--often helps us to put it in a more
encouraging perspective. In addition, we benefit
from prodding our thinking beyond this one point
of discouragement, to focus on other options we
have, and the fuller picture of what God is doing
in our life.
Most of us can use assistance in
taking such inventory. Having a friend or
counselor who thinks positively about us, and is
gifted in helping us see the bigger picture,
helps immensely. We derive great benefit, too,
from times of prayerful reflection, where we
allow the Lord an unhindered opportunity to
influence our thinking.
off the Dust. But what about the more
fundamental question of whether we should simply
avoid certain circumstances. If we know that a
situation triggers our capacity for despair,
should we try to stay clear of it altogether?
The answer depends upon God's
purpose for us in the situation. Is it likely to
help or hinder us in realizing our potential for
It is, of course, a prevailing
theme of Scripture that God is often concerned
not with changing the situation, but with
changing us. God brings many difficult situations
into our life in order to help us grow. His
concern is that we learn to handle challenges
effectively and not be easily unsettled by
adversity (Jas 1:2-4).
Yet Scripture also has plenty to
say about the importance of being good stewards
of our life, and of ordering it in ways that help
us to be most productive for Christ. This means
at times making responsible decisions to leave
situations in which we find it difficult to be
productive. One of the factors we must weigh in
such choices is how we relate to a situation
Jesus, for instance, went so far
as to exhort his disciples to leave towns where
they were not graciously received, and to shake
the dust off their feet as a testimony against
these people (Mt 10:14, Mk 6:11, Lk 9:5, 10:11;
see Acts 13:51). We might have expected him to
encourage his disciples to be long-suffering in
such situations--to learn to bear joyfully with
those who didn't treat them well, and to wait
patiently for them to change. Yet his intent was
clearly that his disciples stay productive. I
suspect, too, that he was concerned that they not
get bogged down emotionally in the inertia of
unfruitful situations. He wanted them to stay as
optimistic as possible about being successful in
their witnessing, for in that spirit they would
most effectively minister to others.
The New Testament's most dramatic
example of shaking off the dust is Paul's
decision to switch his evangelistic focus from
the Jews to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). Paul was
extraordinarily attached to the Jews emotionally,
and highly susceptible to discouragement when his
efforts to convert them failed. He went so far as
to write, "I speak the truth in Christ . . .
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my
heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed
and cut off from Christ for the sake of my
brothers, those of my own race, the people of
Israel" (Rom 9:1-4). I suspect that part of
God's purpose in leading Paul to go to the
Gentiles was to allow him to work in a climate
where he could more easily stay optimistic. While
he would still face many challenges with the
Gentiles, he would more naturally be resilient
with them emotionally.
From Paul's example, and others
like it in Scripture, we can take heart that it's
sometimes okay to leave or avoid a situation that
is emotionally taxing for us. The important
question is how the situation contributes to our
realizing our potential in the long run. We ought
to base our major commitments, as much as
possible, upon how well a situation fits our
personality and gifts--including our natural
ability to cope. By choosing a profession, a job,
a church, relationships, hobbies and other major
situations that match our temperament, we're
simply being good stewards of the life that God
has entrusted to us. Yet within each of these
areas we'll need to adjust to many emotionally
challenging circumstances, in order to reap the
long-term benefits the situation offers us.
Jane, for example, is a highly
skilled journalist, and loves writing more than
any other field of work. Yet she takes even
moderate editorial criticism hard, and rejection
of an article or manuscript crushes her. Jane
shouldn't avoid the profession of journalism
because she is prone to these reactions but
should strive to modify them. Here, the
assistance of a qualified counselor or support
group can be invaluable in helping her learn to
take editorial critiques less personally.
At the same time, Jane should
feel free to leave an unaffirming job for a more
affirming one. Choosing a job in which people are
supportive of her and her work, or leaving one in
which they are not, is simply exercising good
Contact with Negative People. One point
is abundantly clear for all of us: we should feel
great freedom to limit our contact with highly
negative people. Yes, Christ calls us to love and
minister to those who are difficult to love,
unquestionably. Yet he never expects us to be a
doormat to anyone. If someone purposely is
constantly insensitive or abusive to us, we
shouldn't feel obliged to maintain any friendship
with that person at all.
Many difficult people, to be
sure, are not intentionally unkind, and may even
have their compassionate side. Still, their view
of life is dour. We may feel that Christian love
demands we spend time with them, for the sake of
the influence we can have on them. Yet we need to
be honest about their influence upon us as well.
If we find that we're easily dragged into their
pit of despair, we shouldn't place unrealistic
burdens on our psychology. We may do best to
limit our time with them to small doses, and to
balance it with time spent with people who are
positive about life--and about us.
Your Trust in Christ. Recently a friend
invited me to visit an Alcoholics Anonymous
meeting she regularly attends. It was my first
opportunity to witness in person this program
which I've long admired from a distance.
Although I was familiar with the
proceedings at AA and thought I knew what to
expect, I was stunned by the level of humility
among these people. Person after person spoke
candidly about how they were powerless to remedy
their problems apart from God's help.
The experience impressed on me
how beneficial it is to face those areas in our
life where we have problems that are chronic. Yet
how seldom we do this. As Christians we have a
chronic tendency to lose the perspective of faith
on our life. Yet we usually fail to recognize
just how recurrent the problem actually is.
Simply facing the fact that we
have a constant need for our faith to be
rekindled is the single most important step we
can take toward keeping our hearts encouraged in
Christ. Nothing fights our slide into despair
more effectively than appreciating how fully
Christ can be trusted--both with our present and
our future. Yet we need to remind ourselves
constantly that this is true, for faith that
seems so vibrant to us one day so often eludes us
The good news is that, as we make
the effort to refocus our attention on Christ, he
always responds with what John calls "grace
upon grace" (Jn 1:16 RSV)--which in the
Greek means an endless supply of grace for our
While our capacity for despair is
considerable, our capacity for faith is even
greater. Let us take heart from knowing this. And
let us determine to make it our lifestyle to
nurture this capacity, that we may stay as fully
open as possible to the help and encouragement
Christ wants to give us.