God Understands…When You Feel Despair and Hopelessness: Chapter 1

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"I alone know the plans I have for you,
plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster,
plans to bring about the future you hope for."
Jeremiah 29.11

“All that I ever hoped for in life is gone. There is no hope for me. Tell me, Chaplain, what is God’s great hope for me?” Maybe some of us can relate to these words. A young Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran who we’ll call “John” said these words to me at a time of deep despair. John explained to me how he had grown up listening to his deeply spiritual mother tell him that God had great hopes for him because he had survived a difficult delivery at birth. John had a deep respect for his country and for God, and he chose to make a career of being a Marine . . . serving his country and humankind.

John suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when an improvised explosive device blew up near him. As a result of the TBI, John found that all he had hoped for in life was changed. John’s TBI manifested itself as an unexplainable seizure disorder, so he was medically discharged. His dream of being career military as a U.S. Marine was dashed. When John learned that his disorder would not allow him to drive, he saw himself as unemployable to anyone. John’s heightened point of despair came when his wife told him, “You’re not the man I married, and I want a divorce.”

John looked at me and stated, “All that I ever hoped for in life is gone . . . my career as a Marine, my marriage, my identity as a contributing member of society. There is no hope for me. Now I’m back home in the house in which I grew up, and I hear momma’s words mocking me, ‘God has great hopes for you.’ So . . . tell me, Chaplain, what is God’s great hope for me? You tell me. I want to know.”

Anyone in a similar situation would likely feel despair and hopelessness at some time or another. In such situations, when it seems there are no justifiable answers to be given, our view of life becomes short-sighted, and we may feel like one Veteran who said to me, “It’s like God has gone AWOL.”

In this booklet, we’ll reflect on when we despair without answers, how despair makes us shortsighted, and why despair clouds our view of God.

Chapter 1: When We Despair Without Answers

When it seems that there are no rational answers to explain our deepest despair, we don’t want to hear trite explanations. I knew that John in his situation did not want me to give a justifiable response to his question, “So tell me, Chaplain, what is God’s great hope for me?”

My own tragic times of despair have taught me the value of empathetic silence and listening for the unspoken as well as the spoken. Numerous times people would try to encourage me and tell me, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. So, this will make you such a stronger person.” However, I felt like boiling up with anger and yelling, “I’m strong enough. Just let me die.”

Initially, as I sat with John in his deep despair, my heart’s response was to echo the deep hurt that I was hearing and to provide John with a time for lament. I did not want to be like Job’s “so-called friends” in Scripture who were simply miserable comforters. Giving a person in deep despair the safety and freedom to lament openly can bring tears of healing. The laments we hear in Scripture can also comfort us, because we learn that God desires us to be genuinely honest with our entire range of emotions.

Readings from the Old Testament/ Hebrew Scriptures

We can safely approach God and cry out in anguish for a response.

But as for me, I will pray to you, LORD;
answer me, God, at a time you choose.
Answer me because of your great love,
because you keep your promise to save.
Save me from sinking in the mud;
keep me safe from my enemies,
safe from the deep water.
Don’t let the flood come over me;
don’t let me drown in the depths
or sink into the grave.

Answer me, LORD, in the goodness
of your constant love;
in your great compassion turn to me!
Don’t hide yourself from your servant;
I am in great trouble – answer me now!
Psalm 69.13-17

We can be certain like the psalmist that God will answer our heartfelt cries for help.

Listen to me, LORD, and answer me,
for I am helpless and weak.

Save me from death, because I am
loyal to you;
save me, for I am your servant
and I trust in you.
You are my God, so be merciful to me;
I pray to you all day long.
Make your servant glad, O LORD,
because my prayers go up to you.
You are good to us and forgiving,
full of constant love for all who
pray to you.
Listen, LORD, to my prayer;
hear my cries for help.
I call to you in times of trouble,
because you answer my prayers.
Psalm 86.1-7

Even when we feel lonely, God will listen to our cries for help.

I love the LORD, because he hears me;
he listens to my prayers.
He listens to me every time I call to him.
The danger of death was all around me;
the horrors of the grave closed in on me;
I was filled with fear and anxiety.
Then I called to the LORD,
“I beg you, LORD, save me!”
The LORD is merciful and good;
our God is compassionate.
The LORD protects the helpless;
when I was in danger, he saved me.
Be confident, my heart,
because the LORD has been good to me.
The LORD saved me from death;
he stopped my tears and kept me from defeat.
And so I walk in the presence of the LORD
in the world of the living.
I kept on believing, even when
I said, “I am completely crushed,”
even when I was afraid and said,
“No one can be trusted.”
What can I offer the LORD
for all his goodness to me?
Psalm 116.1-12
Readings from the New Testament

Jesus assured his followers that our suffering will not last forever.

“Happy are you poor;
the Kingdom of God is yours!”
“Happy are you who are hungry now;
you will be filled!”
“Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh!”
“Happy are you when people hate you,
reject you, insult you, and say that you are
evil, all because of the Son of Man! Be glad
when that happens, and dance for joy, because
a great reward is kept for you in heaven. For
their ancestors did the very same things to the
Luke 6.20-23

In the midst of our despair and hopelessness, God gives us a hope that will give us strength and assurance.

Now that we have been put right with God
through faith, we have peace with God through
our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith
into this experience of God’s grace, in which
we now live. And so we boast of the hope we
have of sharing God’s glory! We also boast of our
troubles, because we know that trouble produces
endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and
his approval creates hope. This hope does not
disappoint us, for God has poured out his love
into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who
is God’s gift to us.
Romans 5.1-5

Just as the apostle Paul was honest about his sufferings and frustrations, we can be honest and forthright about our own struggles.

We do not want anyone to find fault with our
work, so we try not to put obstacles in anyone’s
way. Instead, in everything we do we show that
we are God’s servants by patiently enduring
troubles, hardships, and difficulties. We have
been beaten, jailed, and mobbed; we have been
overworked and have gone without sleep or
food. By our purity, knowledge, patience, and
kindness we have shown ourselves to be God’s
servants – by the Holy Spirit, by our true love, by
our message of truth, and by the power of God.
We have righteousness as our weapon, both to
attack and to defend ourselves. We are honored
and disgraced; we are insulted and praised. We
are treated as liars, yet we speak the truth; as
unknown, yet we are known by all; as though we
are dead, but as you see, we live on. Although
punished, we are not killed; although saddened,
we are always glad; we seem poor, but we make
many people rich; we seem to have nothing, yet
we really possess everything.
2 Corinthians 6.3-10
Thoughts for Reflection
  1. Do you believe that you need an answer from God for your own suffering and despair? Write or share why you feel this way.
  2. And when you have no answers to your despair, how do you react?
  3. What is most comforting for you when you despair without answers?
  4. Describe these things. Like the psalmist, write a lament to God in which you cry out your frustrations.

Dear Lord, I’m hurting and I’m in deep despair. I feel so hopeless and there are no answers for my heartache. In fact, I do not want answers! I simply want to cry and know you are listening. Even if I do not understand my present situation, I want to believe that you know the pain in my life.

Help me to know that you care and listen to my cries. In your name. Amen.

Next: Chapter 2: When Despair Makes Us Shortsighted »

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