Classically, both in the world and in our churches, we have seen despair as the ultimate, unforgivable sin. The simple notion was that neither God, nor anyone else, can save you if you simply give up, despair or make yourself impossible to reach. Most often in the popular mind this was applied to suicide. To die by your own hand was seen as despair, as putting yourself outside of God’s mercy.
But understanding despair in this way is wrong and misguided, however sincere our intent. What’s despair? How might it be understood?
The common dictionary definition invariably runs something like this: Despair means to no longer have any hope or belief that a situation will improve or change. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which sees despair as a sin against the First Commandment, defines it this way: “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice — for the Lord is faithful to his promises — and to his mercy.”
But there’s something absolutely critical to be distinguished here: There are two reasons why someone might cease to hope for personal salvation from God and give up hope in having his or her sins forgiven. It can be that the person doubts the goodness and mercy of God or, and I believe that this is normally the case, the person is too crushed, too weak, too broken inside, to believe that he or she is lovable and redeemable. But being so beaten and crushed in spirit so as to believe that nothing further can exist for you except pain and darkness is normally not an indication of sin, but more a symptom of having been fatally victimized by circumstance, of having to undergo — in the poignant words of Fantine in “Les Miserables” — storms that you cannot weather.
And before positing such a person outside of God’s mercy, we need to ask ourselves: What kind of God would condemn a person who is so crushed by the circumstances of her life so as to be unable to believe that she is loveable? What kind of God would condemn someone for her brokenness? Such a God would certainly be utterly foreign to Jesus, who incarnated and revealed God’s love as being preferential for the weak, the crushed, the brokenhearted, for those despairing of mercy. To believe and teach that God withholds mercy from those who are most broken in spirit betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature and mercy of God who sends Jesus into the world, not for the healthy but for those who need a physician.
Likewise, this, too, betrays a profound misunderstanding of human nature and the human heart. Why would a person deem herself so unlovable that she voluntarily and hopelessly excludes herself from the circle of life? It can only be because of a deep, profound wound to the soul (which, no doubt, is not self-inflicted). Obviously, unless it is a case of some clinical illness, this person has been deeply wounded and has never had an experience of unconditional love or indeed of faithful human love.
We are facile and naive when, because we ourselves have been undeservedly loved, we cannot understand how someone else can be so crushed and broken so as to believe himself or herself to be, in essence, unlovable. To paraphrase a painful question in the song, “The Rose,” are love and heaven really only for the lucky and strong? Our common understanding of despair, secular and religious, would seem to think so.
But, nobody goes to hell out of weakness, out of a broken heart, out of a crushed spirit, out of the misfortune and unfairness of never having had the sense of being truly loved. Hell is for the strong, for those with a spirit so arrogant that it cannot be crushed or broken and so is unable to surrender. Hell is never a bitter surprise waiting for a happy person, and neither is it the sad fulfillment of the expectation of someone who is too broken to believe that he or she is worthy to be part of the circle of life.
We owe it to God to be more empathic. We also owe this to those who are broken of heart and of spirit. Moreover, we have a Christian doctrine, expressed inside of our very creed that challenges us to know better: he descended into hell. What Jesus revealed in his life and in his death is that there’s no place inside of tragedy, brokenness, sadness or resignation, into which God cannot and will not descend and breathe out peace.
God is all-understanding. That’s why we’re assured that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” You can bet your life on that. You can bet your faith on that. And you can also live in deeper empathy and deeper consolation because of that.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.