In the musical Les Miserables, there’s a particularly haunting song, sung by a dying woman (Fantine) who has been crushed by virtually every unfairness that life can deal a person. Abandoned by her husband, sexually harassed by her employer, caught in abject poverty, physically ill and dying, even as her main anxiety is about what will happen to her young daughter after she dies, she offers this lament. Many of us, I suspect, are familiar with these words:
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So much different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.
Recently while giving an interview on suicide, I was asked whether I considered suicide an act of despair. I answered unequivocally in the negative, at least for most suicides, and raised this question in return: What really is despair?What does it mean to despair?
Despair comes from the Latin word meaning “to be without hope.” Dictionaries generally define despair as a verb which means to abandon hope or to lose heart in the face of a difficult situation. I have no difficulty with that definition. What I have difficulty with and what I submit needs to be radically re-examined is how this has been understood both in our churches and in society, namely, as the ultimate moral and religious failure, the ultimate sin against God and against ourselves. Despair has all too often been understood as the one unforgivable sin, the absolute worst state within which one could die. In brief, despair has been understood as the worst single thing a person could do.
This, I believe, needs a second look, both in terms of how we understand our human condition and especially in how we understand God. When someone is so crushed in spirit by circumstance, unfairness, cruelty, sickness, pain, accident, or by another person’s sin so as to be unable for find any seeds of hope inside himself or herself, is this really a moral choice? Is this a moral failure? Is this really the worst of all sins, the ultimate unforgivable blasphemy? Sadly, that has often been our view.
There’s an old saying that God doesn’t send us more than we can handle. I accept that. God never sends us more than we can handle, but circumstance, accident, oppression, and nature sometimes do. There’s a healthy iconoclasm in the title of Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. We must be careful how we understand pious expressions such as, God never sends us more than we can handle.
The Psalms tell us that God is particularly close to those who are crushed in spirit and that God will save them. Jesus makes this central to his teaching and ministry. Not only does he have a special affection for those who are broken in spirit, he identifies his presence with their brokenness (Matthew 25) and assures us that they will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the rich, the strong, and the powerful. For Jesus, the broken are God’s specially loved little ones.
Given that truth, do we really believe that God will send someone to hell who dies crushed in spirit, seemingly without hope? Do we really believe that God would send Fantine to hell? What kind of God would do this? What kind of God would look at a person so crushed in life so as to lose all hope and see this as the ultimate insult to his love and mercy? What kind of God would look at a person crushed in spirit and see him or her as blaspheming the human condition? Certainly not the God that Jesus taught us to believe in.
The same holds true for how we need to look at this from the perspective of human understanding and empathy. What kind of person looks upon someone else’s brokenness and sees terrible sin and blasphemy? What kind of person places moral blame on someone who through a series of tragic circumstances lies dying in a sea of disappointment, pain, and broken dreams? What kind of person would watch Les Miserables and suspect that Fantine went to hell?
In Mark’s Gospel, just before he dies on the cross, Jesus cries out, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Then he hands over his spirit to his Father. In our classic understanding of this text, we generally explain what happened there in this way. Jesus was tempted towards despair, but he found the strength to resist and instead, in hope, surrendered himself to God’s mercy. I suspect that in the end this is what most people who die (seemingly having given up hope) also do, that is, crushed in spirit, they surrender to the unknown – which is God’s embrace.
We need to be far more understanding in the judgments we make vis-a-vis despair. There are storms we cannot weather!