Anxiety is the state of every soul who thinks the future rests in our hands and that the lasting meaning of our lives will be determined by the worth of our accomplishments. Hence paradoxically, despair is the beginning of hope. And disillusionment is the first step to overcoming anxiety. If we are to experience what Paul calls the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) and the “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), we must despair of every false hope and every illusory good. Not surprisingly, then, we find in the scriptures some statements that seem intent on driving us to despair. They evoke a kind of therapeutic despair. Working like a strong emetic, they provoke nausea to help us expel the poison of misplaced hope:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5)
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17-32).
To say that Arthur Schopenhauer had a nose for sniffing out false hopes would be an understatement! But he is no more pessimistic than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he makes the diagnosis below. He is simply describing what everyone sees if you clear your mind of optimistic theories:
“The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live…reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.
That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing” (from Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence”).
When you are young the future stretches before you and disappears over the horizon. It does not present itself as a finite series of evanescent moments but as a timeless, motionless whole. And though we know each present moment passes into oblivion before we can taste it, we experience a sense of continuity and stability in our memory of the past and anticipation of the future. This sense of time’s wholeness is reinforced by the appearance that objects around us possess stability, since they endure from one evanescent moment to the next. Youth views the immediate future as a time of becoming and building and the more distant future as a time of being and enjoying the enduring fruits of our labors. But as you get older, you see supposedly “enduring” objects age and disintegrate. Your accomplishments seem less significant in hindsight. The future no longer stretches out infinitely; the horizon continues to recede but the end of your time line appears short of the horizon. The excitement of becoming and the illusion of stable being are replaced by prospect of disintegration and nonbeing. The fragility of the moment spreads itself over all moments making it apparent that the wholeness and motionlessness of time is illusory. Nothing endures. Everything dies. All is forgotten.
I know the temptation of false hopes and the paralyzing anxiety caused by attempting the make my life significant by my labor. Have I done enough? Am I really making a lasting difference in the lives of my students? Will anyone read my books or “like” my blog posts? Will my labor be in vain? Will anyone remember or care? Will it last? Sometimes, when I get in this mood of despair I remember what I have always known and wonder how I could have forgotten: the answers to these questions are completely irrelevant because they are not the right questions to be asking. The right question is this: will my faithful creator take my work and with it accomplish his will and produce something that lasts, not for a day or a hundred or a thousand years, but for eternity? Will my God remember me? The answer I hear resounding in my ears is a clear yes! When I despair completely of my strength and put my hope in God, in God alone, my joy returns. I regain energy for my work. I do not have to see it. I know it, I feel it: My work will not be in vain!
At the end of his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul expresses the hope beyond the despair of human possibilities:
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
The Lord really does built the house and raise the dead!