Overcoming Doubt and Despair

Doubt and despair. Who hasn’t experienced uncertainty and a lack of trust in something or someone? Doubt can make us hesitant in making decisions or make us question someone’s motives or capabilities. Despair is the feeling of hopelessness. It’s when we end up in a place in our minds that keeps us caged and feeling defeated and doomed. Difficult and painful circumstances in life can lead us to despair. In life we will all find ourselves in times of hopelessness, discouragement and even doubting God’s presence or goodness. But the good news is that there is a way out of doubt and despair.

The one person who experienced some of the most anguishing and despairing moments in a human life encourages us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)

The Giant Despair

In the book The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the protagonist, Christian, and his friend Hopeful find their path difficult to walk on; they have been  told to follow the path towards the Celestial City, which is Heaven. As we know, the way that leads to life is difficult, and there are few who find it and still fewer who stay on it. When faced with challenges we as Christians have the option to decide to jump the fence and take another route of our own choosing or to keep on the path set out for us. However, as we read in The Pilgrim’s Progress, intentionally getting off God’s path to choose our own easier road comes with a cost and it usually stems from following our own vain confidence. The cost of leaning on our own understanding and not trusting God is that we many times end up in the hands of the Giant Despair, as in the story of Christian and Hopeful.

Regardless of how we end up in doubt and despair, God wants us to put our trust in Him and take courage knowing that He will sustain and rescue us. One thing to remember – and bring clarity – is that faith is not blind trust. Our faith in God is built on historical facts and evidence of His presence and power at work in the world throughout generations. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who died and rose again from the dead. Our faith is built on God’s Word that has always proven to be trustworthy and timeless. Our trust is strengthened through our experience with God and in hearing the testimonies of others who have encountered the transformative power of God. And, as always, Jesus is the only infallible way out of doubt.

Help My Unbelief!

We all have moments of doubt, but we do not want to ignore nor cuddle our doubts. We want to wrestle through our doubts and not allow them to turn into unbelief and distrust in God. Recognize your doubts and confess them to Jesus – like the desperate father with the demon possessed boy who asked Jesus to have pity on him and heal his son. Jesus responded, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Without delay, the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24). That is when Jesus listened to the desperate prayer of the father rebuking and casting out the demon and healing his boy. Where do you struggle with doubt or unbelief? How would you gauge your prayer life? Today might be the day for you to honestly confess your unbelief to Jesus and cry out to Him who is full of mercy.

One of the most well-known passages on doubt in the Bible is found in the book of James, the half-brother of Jesus:

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” (James 1:6-8)

Here, Apostle James is writing to believers to remind them that God is moved by faith, and to warn them that doubt can make us unstable and even hinder us from receiving answers to our prayers. Even though it is not explicitly mentioned here, I believe that Apostle James here is warning double-minded believers who are not seeking Jesus’s help with their doubts. It is people who pray to God for one thing, but do not do God’s will. They are unstable in all they do. They cannot confess that they struggle with unbelief, but rather pretend to be faith-filled – but their actions say otherwise. May the Lord be our solid foundation and help us to humbly seek His help with our doubts and despair.

How Long, Lord?

You might be finding yourself wrestling with doubts and a time of despair right now and  your one question to God might be, “How long, Lord?” King David struggled with doubt on several occasions during his life, especially during times of crisis or uncertainty. One of the most noteworthy examples of David’s doubt is found in the book of Psalms, which contains many of his personal prayers and reflections. For instance, in Psalm 13, David expresses his doubts and fears about God’s faithfulness and asks Him how long he must suffer:

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2)

This passage shows how King David struggles to understand why God seems distant or unresponsive to his prayers. His very honest and sincere writings reveal how this made him feel isolated and vulnerable.

Similarly, in Psalm 42, David speaks of his longing for God and his sense of despair in the face of his enemies:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5)

Here he acknowledges his feelings of despair and discouragement, but also preaches to his own soul to hold onto hope and trust in God’s faithfulness.

These Bible passages (and many others like them) show that God’s people are not immune to doubt or despair. The Word reveals that we ultimately can find our strength and comfort in a relationship with God who alone can save us. God wants us to turn to him in times of doubt and despair, not away.

What’s the Point?

If you are asking why suffering and trials exist then a good place to look is found again in the book of James. James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

According to Apostle James, one positive outcome of going through a trial is that our faith in God is tested, and if we continue in trusting God through the trial we gain perseverance that will then lead to our spiritual maturity and wholeness. Therefore, when you find yourself in a circumstance that is extremely difficult, and your trust in God is being tested then remind yourself that this is an opportunity for spiritual growth. And if you end up questioning why you might be undergoing this difficulty, then the following reasons might help shed light on your current spiritual condition and walk of faith:

Three types or reasons why you might undergo suffering or trials in life:

  1. Common suffering/Innocent suffering. Common to all and not because of our actions or words. Everybody will suffer one way or another. For instance, anyone can suffer from a natural disaster, a hurricane or an earthquake, an illness or death itself – whether you are Christian or not.
  2. Carnal suffering/Deserved suffering. This is because of our sin. Our sin can bring suffering or trials upon self and others. For instance, when a person drinks and drives and ends up killing someone on the road they cannot blame anyone else for being punished with a prison sentence. When someone commits adultery and destroys their marriage and family relationships it is considered carnal suffering.
  3. Christian suffering/Righteous suffering. This is when you live for Jesus and stand for Biblical justice and righteousness and experience suffering and persecution because of it – not because of sin that you have committed. This type of suffering shows that we love God more than we love comfort or the praise of others.

It Is Too Late For Me!

In the story of Christian and Hopeful, they find themselves so depressed and despairing while being kept captive and beaten daily by the Giant Despair that they consider taking their own lives.

You might feel beaten up by life and people and have had thoughts of suicide or you are currently having suicidal ideations because life has become so unbearable for you. My message to you today is that it is not too late for you! Like the character Hopeful, I want to remind you of the hope that we have in Christ:

“Remember the Word that tells us, ‘We are saved by hope.’ Now, since we have hope, let us be patient in tribulation and continue steadfastly in prayer.” (Romans 8:24, 12:12)

Taking our own life is not God’s way for us to escape suffering and despair. Christ’s sinless self-sacrifice by the hands of evil people is God’s way to liberate us. Our Savior died for us taking our punishment, the beatings and nails on the Cross so that we can experience God’s love, eternal life and be filled with hope.

The Key of Promise

If you find yourself under common or Christian suffering then continue to be planted in God’s Word hanging onto His promises. In our story, while Christian is still caged up, he eventually remembers the key of Promise in his pocket next to his heart, which unlocks all the doors in Doubting Castle. By remembering the promises of God, Christian and Hopeful are able to escape from the castle and continue on their journey towards the Celestial City.

The way you and I will endure suffering and overcome doubt and despair is by placing our faith in God and hiding His Word in our heart: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) Stay rooted in your local Church, loving and receiving love, serving and being served, sharing your burdens with other believers whom you trust to actively listen to you and encourage you in the faith and to cover you in prayer. Pray alone and corporately. Pray without ceasing, and continue to give thanks even in times of suffering and despair as it is the will of God for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). These are some ways to endure suffering faithfully and to overcome despair.

If you find yourself under carnal or deserved suffering that might have led you to despair, then repent of your sins and turn to God for forgiveness and deliverance. Do not let your sins drive you into the hands of the Giant Despair. Open up your heart and do not doubt God’s goodness and mercy. The Bible is clear that God promises, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

The story of Christian and Hopeful’s encounter with the Giant Despair shows us that even when we feel imprisoned by doubt and despair, there is always hope in Christ who defeated death and sin for us. As we face doubt and despair, let us hold fast to our faith in Christ and trust in the hope that we have in the Son of God.

For teaching material on faith and mental health please visit this Coastal Church link and for a list of organizations specializing in crisis and counseling go to this link.