Tag Archives: hope

Saved From Suicide

Recently I learned that 12% of current American college students admitted to having seriously considered suicide. I am not a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I am a professor, and I must walk into my classroom next Monday (August 27, 2018) to meet my new students. This statistic forces me to consider what silent despair may be hidden behind those youthful eyes. I teach about 100 students per year, and each one is a unique living, breathing human being, loved by God. Each is capable of so much good or evil, love or hate, hope or despair. And when I think that 12 of the 100 may be thinking seriously about taking their own lives I begin to seek for something to say that might replace their despair of life with hope.

As I said, I cannot speak as a psychologist, counsellor or sociologist. I can speak only as a fellow human being, from life experience and faith. I thought I would share with you what I think I would say to my students if I were to speak to them about suicide:

I know what it is to despair of life, to suffer inner pain and to feel that no one understands or can understand your suffering. I know what it’s like to be unable to think of a reason why I should expect tomorrow to be any different than today. When I was 17 years old, not much younger than you are today, I suffered such isolation and hopelessness that I concluded that it would be better had I never been born. I worked hard to hide my despair from others by an outward show of wittiness and from myself by staying busy. But when alone my thoughts would turn to my unhappiness, and my gaze only magnified my misery. I didn’t feel worth anything. I didn’t like myself, but felt unable to change or forget. And if I did not like myself how could I believe anyone else could? I saw no way forward and no way out. But I did not kill myself.

I said above that I saw no way out. And I didn’t. But I believed it was possible, though I could not imagine how. This slender thread of hope kept me from utter despair and suicide. Even in the depths of the pit I could still cry out to God and still believe he could save me, though I could not feel his presence or see his light. And he saved me. That little ray of light was God’s way of being present and of pointing toward the future he had planned for me. That period of near despair taught me two lessons I don’t think I could have learned any other way: (1) I am utterly dependent on God for my being, worth, meaning and hope. Without God I can do nothing. I have been in the pit. God was there. (2) I have great compassion for any one suffering from the despair I felt. I know what it’s like, and I know there is hope even when you cannot see it.

When I was in despair, as I said, (1) I felt alone and believed that no one could understand my pain, (2) I did not like myself and thought no one else could either, and (3) there is no reason to believe that the future will be better than the present. I was wrong on all three counts.

You are not alone. Many have suffered as you are, and there are many good and kind people who will listen as you express and deal with your fears and wounds. Don’t suffer in silence. I understand that the thought of letting someone else into your head and heart is terrifying. Please believe me, there are others who will understand; they will not gasp in horror or laugh in derision. Find them.

You are worthy of others’ love and respect. You are God’s creation, and God thinks you are worthy of life and joy. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what you have done. When I was in despair I was afraid to learn what other people thought of me because I suspected their thoughts would not be kind. I did not yet know the rule I have since learned: if you love others they will love you back, but if you determine only to get love from others they cannot love you in return. Love can’t be earned or forced but must be freely given. However little you feel it, however tiny that ray of hope may be, believe that you are loved already and are worthy of human love. Act on that faith and you will find it confirmed.

Things will get better! Even from a common sense point of view, things are always changing. The present is not fixed in concrete. Different stages of life bring different challenges and rewards. The weather changes! Moods change! Not all these changes can be bad. New opportunities arise. From the point of view of faith in God a wholly new perspective arises. God is in charge of the future. God may require hard things of us, but he will not ask us to face these challenges alone and unequipped. He will be there.

This life is not eternal sentence. This may seem strange advice to give to those tempted with despair of life. But listen. Life doesn’t always feel good. There is much evil in the world and many regrets and anxieties dog our paths. So, when you think of the troubles of life and the evil that seems to rule the world, remind yourself that it won’t last forever. There is a way out. I think I would go completely crazy if I thought I had to live forever in this world. Thankfully, we don’t! But let God make that decision. God is the only one capable of making the right decision at the right time.

 

WHEN THAT “NOTHING-REALLY-MATTERS” FEELING COMES OVER YOU

Everyone wants to feel their worth. Everyone hopes to become happy. And everyone longs for significance. But the universe is so big and we are so small. Ages have come and gone before we were born, and the timeline beyond our death stretches out to infinity. Billions of people lived and died before us and others will follow. And even now you and I live among billions of people. Whatever we do and become, most people will never know about it, and the few that do will forget and one day pass into the forgotten past.

Given everything that points to our insignificance are there good reasons to believe that we really are worth something, that our happiness is a real possibility, and that each of us really matters? Some people attempt to create their worth by their individual effort. In my last blog post (December 02, 2017), I wrote about the modern view of the self that sees human worth as the power of freedom to do and become what pleases us. As long as you are feeling this power in action you feel significant. But this strategy will not work in the long run because our wishes and desires are much greater than our powers. Despite our dreams of divinity we are finite, mortal, and small. We cannot make the universe acknowledge our worth or bend to our wills.

Another strategy for securing our significance is to identify with something greater than ourselves. We can forget about our individual smallness, mortality, and weakness by devoting ourselves to a great cause. The greatness of the cause becomes in our minds our own greatness. The great cause most people choose is the state, the most comprehensive and powerful human institution. Politics becomes their all-consuming passion because participating in the greatness of the state is the only way they can feel their worth or believe they matter or create happiness for themselves. But the state is no more divine than individuals are. States are also finite, mortal, and weak. They fail as surely individuals fail. Nor does the good of the state coincide with good of the individual within it. Even for democracies, an individual can be no more than a means to an end. The state’s “greatness” can never really become “my greatness.”

We’ve examined two failed gods, the individual and the state. Is there another way to secure our worth and significance in the face of our smallness, mortality, and weakness? First, we need to specify exactly what we want when we ask for worth, significance, and happiness. We are not satisfied with being worth a little, having limited significance, or experiencing temporary happiness. We want these goods without limit. There are only two possibilities for acquiring what we seek. Either we become God and possess them by nature or God gives them to us by grace. I rejected the first alternative when I rejected the modern view of the self as self-sufficient. And I rejected the state as a substitute God.

God alone can ground our worth, significance, and hope of happiness. God, who knows all things, knows each of us. The Creator of all things decided you should exist here and now. The One who works out his plan for all time and space has assigned you a significant part to play. It does not matter how big the universe is or how many people exist or how long it continues after your death. The infinite and eternal God does not relate to things as big or small or old or young—or even as dead or alive. Our worth to God is not relative to our size or lifespan. To our amazement, God wills us to share in his life and goodness. And if we have God we have all things. So, don’t try to measure your significance by how big a splash you can make in the universe. Measure it by how much love God has demonstrated for you in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Hope Or End-Times Fancies?

Christianity presents itself as more than an ideal of human life in this world, a vision of a harmonious and just human community. It offers more than inspired knowledge of the secrets of the divine world. And it is more than a way of dealing with guilt. These benefits may enhance wellbeing and happiness in this life, but they do not address ultimate human longings. We long for a quality of life, being, community, knowledge, joy, freedom, and love that we cannot attain in this world. Our longings reach further than our minds can conceptualize or our imaginations can picture.

What is the Christian hope, the final form of the salvation Christianity offers? What should we seek and expect? And what is the ground and assurance of this hope? In this and the upcoming essays I want to address these questions.

In my view, many discussions of the Christian hope are obscured by an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic imagery and eschatological timetables associated with the transition from the present order to the new order. People lose sight of the hope of eternal life in intimate closeness to the eternal God. Instead, they become engrossed in current events, looking for signs of the approaching end. They stockpile food and construct safe houses for the coming collapse of society. They treat the Book of Revelation like some people treat the works of Nostradamus, as obscure texts on which to impose their own fancies, good for entertainment but not for edification. Or, they make their views of eschatology into an orthodoxy that becomes a test of one’s Christian faith. The nature of the millennium becomes as important as the fact of Christ’s resurrection!

A sober treatment of the Christian hope must remain focused on its ultimate fulfillment and not let itself be distracted by the imagery of transitions. What then is that hope? As I indicated above, it is eternal life in intimate union with the eternal God. But what does this mean? Popular religion speaks vaguely of an “afterlife” or of survival beyond death. Some people want another life like they want another house or another car. But why think another life would make you any happier than this life does? Does eternal life mean simply living forever? But why would living unendingly be a good thing? One can imagine conditions under which immortality would be a curse that would make us long for death.

Paul sometimes uses apocalyptic imagery when speaking of the transition from this life to eternal life. But when he speaks of the ultimate state of salvation he speaks of eternal life and immortality. His favorite expression seems to be “being with the Lord.”

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:23-24)

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

John speaks with cautious confidence when he says this

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).

John keeps the focus on the hope of being like Christ and seeing him “as he is.” This hope does not encourage us to look for signs of the end or bury our end-time bunkers deep. Instead it motivates us to “purify” ourselves and live as Christ lived in the world. Nor does Paul connect apocalyptic imagery of transitions to speculation about times or seasons but to becoming like Christ in his sufferings and death.

The end of the story is being “with the Lord” and “like Christ.” And so is the beginning and middle of the story! At each stage our task is the same. Let God handle the times, seasons, and transitions.

Why WE Can’t “Make a Difference”

We often hear human idealism expressed in phrases like these: “I want to make the world a better place,” “I want to change the world,” or “I want to make a difference.” As noble and lofty as these expressions sound, they do not rise to the level of a Christian understanding of life. Not that our labor to improve living conditions or to advance science or to save the planet or promote social justice is of no value at all. It can be. But not in the humanistic way it is usually understood.

I want my life and work to make lasting difference. I am passionate about it! But I have come to realize that no matter hard I try I cannot accomplish this goal apart from one condition over which I have no control. The little word “lasting” in the phrase “to make a lasting difference” is all important. Who cares about making a difference that does not last! Who gets excited about making a temporary difference? But it is not within my power to make “a lasting” difference.

And here is why: One day—only God knows when—I’m going to die. Hence, nothing I do that presupposes that I am alive can have lasting value. Fame, pleasure, money, and professional success matter only if you are alive to enjoy them. They have no relevance beyond that point. One day—God alone knows when—the last person on earth who knew me will die. Nothing I accomplish that presupposes someone will remember it has value beyond that date.

One day—God knows when—the last remaining copy of anything I’ve written and every mention of my name will be destroyed. No one alive will have heard of me. Hence nothing I do for the purpose of being remembered by a living human being has lasting value. One day, given the natural course of things—God alone knows when—the last human being in the whole universe will draw her or his last breath. Hence nothing I can do that presupposes the continuing existence of human family possesses everlasting significance.

One day—only God knows when—our home Earth will be engulfed by our expanding Sun as it turns into a red giant. All remaining plants, animals, and even bacteria will be roasted in temperatures of 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. One day—God alone knows when—all the stars will die, the universe will be the same temperature in every place, so that nothing can happen. What then will become of all I have done?

If there is no God or anything like God, if there is no eternal mental or spiritual reality and mindless matter is the only thing that lasts forever, then neither our lives nor those we love have any lasting significance. Beauty, meaning, love and every quality or experience that makes life enjoyable is just a passing phase of the material world. Human beings are freaks and flukes of nature. Our wretchedness and greatness, our suffering and joy reveal nothing about the meaning of reality. Our lives will pass and there is no one to remember them. The work we have done to save the planet, to advance medical science, and to promote social justice will be forever lost.

My hope that I can do some lasting good, the driving force of my life, rests solely in my belief that there is a God who lives eternally and knows, understands, and remembers who I am, what I have suffered, and what I have done. My hope is that God does not wish to live forever without me, without you. I believe that by helping others on their journey toward God and by faithfully doing what God has assigned me to do I can do something lasting, even everlasting, something well worth my time. My life simply does not make sense to me otherwise.

Hence our labor to improve living conditions, to patch roofs, to advance science, to share a cup of cold water, to save the planet or promote social justice can be of lasting value…if God assigns it to be done, if we do it in service to Christ, and if God remembers it. Otherwise it will make no difference in the end.

The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

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.”

What do people gain from all their labors     at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,     but the earth remains forever. 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!

Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part Three)

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith is belief that God is, was and always will be alive, that God is, was and always will be the source of life for all living things. Faith is conviction that God is the giver of every good thing we now have or can hope to have. Faith clings to God as the ever-present, always-attentive sustainer of our lives, as the unchanging beginning of temporal movement, as the end toward which all things strive. Faith understands God as the eternal unity that embraces all creation and every moment, every feeling and thought, every act and all our sufferings into a meaningful whole. It looks to God as that transcendent still point that imparts peace to our fragmented and chaotic lives.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Christian faith does not view God as an anonymous, purely transcendent Good; it sees the character and plan of this transcendent Good in the face of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the transcendent source, the centering still point, the eternal unity has united creation to himself in the most intimate way possible. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth—and in him human nature and all creation—has been so united to God that human nature partakes in divine qualities without ceasing to be human; indeed, it becomes truly and fully human for the first time. In Jesus Christ, creation has reached its glorious fulfillment and God has achieved his eternal purpose. In faith, Christians look to Jesus Christ as the trustworthy basis of hope that we too will share in the glory of God.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. Augustine said truly, “The happy life is joy based on truth.” But everyone knows the difference between holding a statement to be true and experiencing the reality that makes the statement true. Only in living by faith, that is, by acting on faith, facing suffering in faith and even suffering for faith, may we experience the truth on which joy is based. When all other supports have failed, all other helpers have fled and the last human hope has faded into darkness, we find that God is there. God is there, has been there and will always be there. When God is all you’ve got you realize that God is all you’ve ever had.

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness. But how can we keep this realization alive? We are forgetful creatures, creatures of habit; and most of our habits pull us into the mesmerizing flow of ordinary life. The sights and sounds, the worries and responsibilities, and the desires and ambitions of life in the world distract us from our true joy. Because we are forgetful, habit-forming, and distractible beings our strategy for maintaining awareness must counteract these tendencies. We need to form habits and practices that remind us that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness.

I would like to suggest some ways we can keep vividly aware that we now have—and always have had— everything we need for happiness. These are suggestions only, designed to provoke thought; you may find other ways: (1) Since you will not always be consciously focused on God, surround yourself with reminders, with symbols and words. You might place the words I have been repeating in this essay (You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.) where you are sure to see them every day. Make connections between everyday activities and the memory of God. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said, “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe; indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing besides” (Or. 27.4). What if every time we noticed our breathing we remembered that God alone breathes into us the breath of life? (2) Make the unbreakable habit of meeting frequently with fellow believers to remind each other of who we are, on whom we depend and in whom we find our joy. Remember in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of the Lord. Remember your baptism.

(3) In your solitude, practice stripping away every finite good and every temporal joy. Be alone, be still and let it wash over you that you exist and are alive through no effort of your own. We are so busy in our striving to get ahead, make a living, make the grade or gain approval, that we become anxious and unhappy. We begin mistakenly to think that our existence and meaning and value depend on us; and, despairing of our strength to carry such a burden, we add unhappiness to our load, making it even heavier. Stop. Ask yourself this: what if I were dying alone in a ditch in a thunderstorm? In what could I find comfort and hope and joy?  In God alone. Even there you would have what you have always had: You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.

If we know this and can keep constantly aware of it, we can return to ordinary life with a new freedom and joy. We can enjoy and use the good things of this beautiful world as they were meant to be enjoyed and used. We can take joy in them as divine gifts that evoke gratitude and remind us of the goodness and joy of God. In these gifts we enjoy the Giver. If we know that God alone is our joy, we will be freed to use the good things of creation properly, that is, to sustain our lives and to share with others the bounty of creation so that they too may rejoice in God and that we may enjoy their joy in God. The circle of joy begun by the Creator spirals upward forever!

Remember! Burn it into your memory. Never forget it:

You now have—and always have had— everything you need for happiness.