Struggle against my personal demons is exponentially more rigorous than against the maliciousness of others. God has reminded me of this recently as I have been reflecting on the past year. It has been a year of struggling with hopelessness.
Jürgen Moltmann speaks of hopelessness as assuming two forms: “it can be presumption and it can be despair…Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope. They rebel against the patience in which hope trusts in the God of the promise.”
I have had my share of battles through the years. Often these struggles were in work situations in which I was being mistreated. These were difficult and took a toll throughout the years—physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The conflicts were political in nature–not against the whole of the institutions, but only a handful of individuals who have a love for power. The opposition was clear and although not easy, it did focus my energies. And my faithful God did not leave me alone. The grace I received through these encounters was a deepening relationship with God. I learned to cling to God and receive sustenance through time with God. I would repeat these experiences again for this end!
But there are times in my life when the foe is within. This is the struggle of hopelessness—a more severe struggle. The challenge is with the darkness in my heart. This hopelessness can take many forms—discouragement, despair, worry, anxiety, depression, pride, arrogance, a critical nature—in essence, a negative lens grips me and pushes out the light. I find that in these occasions, my clinging to God is more difficult. I am content in the understanding that God loves me, but my mind plays with the way I want this love to manifest itself. I push away and operate independently of God.
As Moltmann suggests, hopelessness is tied to presumption or despair. My tendency is to have a high view of my abilities. I assume I will learn on the go as I take on a new venture. When I am at my best; i.e., centered on God, I lean into God and operate as God’s instrument. However, there are times God is not in the center of my thinking. I might succeed in a new venture and forget to recognize the source of the outcome. Everything is going well, so my thoughts drift away from God. I congratulate myself on my amazing talents and abilities. This is the hopelessness of presumption. What need have I of God? My hope lies in my abilities, not in God.
There are also times when I experience the hopelessness of despair. I am knocked down repeatedly before I realize that I may not have the abilities or training to fulfill the task. The pattern of my response is familiar although I do not tend to see it when I am in the middle of it. The pattern is that I do not want to admit defeat, so I think, “If I just try harder, I’ll succeed.” I renew my effort and pour myself into it again. After a few times of picking myself up, it dawns on me that I actually am not able to fulfill the task before me.
I don’t like this! How inconsiderate of God to open my eyes to my limitations! I want to succeed and I want to do so immediately! I am being facetious, but this is in essence what I am thinking. The despair I experience is a statement of disbelief in God’s ability to hold the world, and specifically my wellbeing, in God’s hands. This happens to me again and again. When my plans do not come to fruition, I wonder at God’s absence. I become discouraged that I cannot “succeed.” Yet it is not God who is absent, it is I who has distanced myself. I have forgotten that it is God’s plan that is essential. I have removed myself from my source of strength.
As the New Year dawns, I want to remember each moment to place my hope in God. This would be a daunting task if not for the reality that it is not based on my effort alone. God is with me! My task is to make myself available—to schedule into my busy life the time that I need to be attentive to God’s voice.
I close with a thought on this practice by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott as follows:
Most of the discussion of prayer I had ever heard centered on whether God answers prayer and how we can know that he does. But during the past decade I have come to believe that prayer is not a matter of my calling in an attempt to get God’s attention, but of my finally listening to the call of God, which has been constant, patient, and consistent in my inner being. In relationship to God, I am not the seeker, the initiator, the one who loves more greatly. In prayer, as in the whole salvation story unfolded by Scripture, God is reaching out to me, speaking to me, and it is up to me to learn to be polite enough to pay attention. When I do have something to say to God, I am rendering a response to the divine initiative. So the questions of whether or not and how God answers prayer now seem to me bogus questions. God speaks, all right. The big question is do I answer, do I respond, to an invitation that is always open.
Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 1st Fortress Press ed edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 23.
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Catherine Barry, Views from the Intersection: Poems and Meditations (New York: Crossroad Pub Co, 1984).