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Hope and Resiliency:
Overcoming the Temptation to Despair

First Sunday of Advent •
December 2, 2018
Pastor Jeff Wells

Scripture Lesson: 1 Kings 19:1-5
(adapted from The Message)

There’s no getting around it. We are living through some really bad times – dangerous times, frightening times. In the midst of so much bad news, lies, corruption, violence, increased oppressive harm, and natural disasters brought on by climate change, there is a great temptation to fall into despair, to run away, to hide, to give up.

It seems that the prophet Elijah faced comparable challenges in the stories related in the Book of 1st Kings. The world seemed to be falling apart. Israel had split into Northern and a Southern kingdoms. Both were threatened by powerful, aggressive neighbors. Many of the people had abandoned God, destroying God’s holy places, and killing God’s prophets – they had broken their covenant. Although Elijah had remained faithful and succeeded in humiliating the priests of the false god, Baal, he felt abandoned and afraid. Because he had undermined, Jezebel, the unscrupulous leader of the North Kingdom, he had to run and hide. He was tired, hungry, and alone. Elijah fell into despair and gave up on his life. “Enough of this, God! Take my life – I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!”

We face similar temptations to despair as we are overwhelmed by the daily barrage of bad news, disturbing news, and fake news. Right-wing, authoritarian leaders have taken power from Hungary to Austria to Brazil to the U.S. There are growing fascist movements in many other countries as well. The post-World War II order seems to be collapsing and international conflicts are intensifying. At the same time, we are seeing massive die-offs of many species of insects, fish, and mammals. And the latest scientific reports predict dire consequences social, economic, and environmental consequences if we do not address climate change in a radical way in the next few decades. The last time the international political and social scene appeared so ominous was before World War II, when Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were ascendent and the Ku Klux Klan had millions of members in the U.S. and numerous elected officials in local, state, and federal governments. So what’s to keep us from sitting under a tree and giving up? How do we avoid losing hope and falling into despair? How do we maintain a sense of hope and resiliency?

In my early 20s, I became a revolutionary Marxist. I was enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospects for socialist revolution. Even when it seemed far off, it felt like the right thing to fight for. I joined a small, but committed and potent organization that was growing in influence. It had party organizations across the U.S. and around the globe and it seemed we were planting new organizations and gaining new supporters all the time. It had significant influence and impact. In 1982, a million people gathered in Central Park to protest nuclear weapons. The workers movement still had some vitality. Massive strikes and great social struggles were taking place across the globe in South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Europe, and elsewhere.

But by the early 1990s, much of that disappeared or declined. Ronald Reagan succeeded in firing 16,000 air traffic controllers as a warning to the labor movement. The Soviet Union collapsed and pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe fell, restoring 1/5th of the globe to the grip of capitalism. Workers, oppressed peoples, and leftist across the world became demoralized. Some gave up the fight. Many became only concerned with getting whatever they could for themselves.

Where we reside existentially on the spectrum that runs from despair to hope, depends much on the extent we maintain a sense of meaning, purpose, a vision beyond our current circumstances. Leo Tolstoy, the renowned 19th century Russian thinker and writer, fell into despair and hopelessness when he had an existential crisis at age 50. This is how Tolstoy described it:

“My question – that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide – was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man (sic) from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?’

“Differently expressed, the question is: ‘Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’”

This question of meaning is posed starkly as a matter of life and death in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s account of his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In the camps, where death was always a very present possibility and conditions were horrific, it was easy to give up and to lose the sense of one’s own integrity and value as a human being. Many lost hope. Yet, Frankl wrote, “Such people forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camps difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence… Life for such people became meaningless.”

Frankl wrote that those who were able to look to the future, to imagine a life beyond their current horrible existence – in other words, those who had something to live for – were much better able to survive the camps. Those who lost all sense of purpose were more likely to get sick or to stop working and stop caring, which made them targets of the foremen and the guards.

When Frankl found himself getting sucked into anxiety and depression over the brutality, daily abuse and indignities, and the constant struggle to survive, he began to envision himself in “a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room…giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp.” He wrote, “I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.”

Before his arrest, Frankl had written a book of his theories on psychotherapy, which he carried with him on the train that took him to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp near Prague. When he arrived, the SS guards tore the book from his grasp and threw it on a bonfire of personal belongings. This was an intentional part of the dehumanizing process. Yet, over the course of his imprisonment, Frankl wrote notes on every scrap of paper he could find, with the goal of reconstructing his manuscript. His desire to continue his vocation and his intellectual development gave him something to live for. He did this not only for himself, but because he believed it would benefit humanity.  

Frankl was also sustained by his unbounded love for his wife. She had been taken to another camp and for years he did not know whether she was alive or dead. He wrote that, “For the first time in my life…. I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of humanity is through love and in love.” [1]

I was adrift and felt a loss of meaning when I left revolutionary politics in the mid-1990s. Yet, slowly, I was able to find my way back to an vital embrace of hope and love – first through a commitment to building community, then through committing to a community of followers of Jesus, and finally through becoming a leader of communities of faith striving to offer Christ’s love to the world. I gained a new sense of meaning and purpose and through loving God and participating in the mutual love and support of such communities. I found hope and resiliency again. God did not hand me new meaning, but did help me to discover a new sense of meaning. And God has done so repeatedly at different points in my life.

God doesn’t demand that we go on. God won’t force us to find meaning in our lives, but God surely does her utmost to push us in that direction. The prophet Elijah had given up. But God was not about to let him that happen uncontested. In Elijah’s story, an angel of God woke him from his despairing sleep under the broom tree and said, “Get up and eat!” Later, he sensed God saying to him in a quiet whisper, “Elijah, what are you doing?... Go back the way you came.” God called Elijah to a new task – anoint new leaders, train a new prophet, and restore my people to their covenant faith. God helped Elijah to discover a new message, a new mission, a new sense of meaning for himself.

There are three threads that run through Viktor Frankl’s story, Elijah’s story, and my own. If we are going to maintain our hope and resiliency in the midst of challenging and even dire circumstances, we need three things:

  • We need to have something to live for – a purpose, a goal, a creative endeavor, a way to serve others.

  • We have to believe that things will not always be the way they are now.

  • And, we need to hold onto the truth that the most basic purpose of our lives is to love and be loved. That is what God created us for.

In our deep connectedness to God and our loving commitment to one another, we have a purpose that fundamental meaning to our lives. We have something to live for!

The truth, friends, is that there has been no time in the history of humanity when the vast majority of people did not have many reasons to fall into despair. When I look at what is happening right now, I see many parallels with the events that surrounded Jesus’ birth – nations suffering horribly under imperial domination, the slaughter of innocent children by puppet regimes, desperate people fleeing to a foreign lands to escape violence and persecution. Yet, despite these awful events, we see Advent as a season of hope! We have hope and we can remain resilient no matter what we face because God loves us unconditionally and is mightily working to move us toward a better future for all humanity. God continually helps us to discover new experiences of meaning in our lives. And God pours out continual and unconditional love and teaches us how to love one another. This is the God who came to live among us in Jesus, the Messiah. I thank God for reminding us, now and always, just how important and meaningful is each one of our lives.

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.

[1] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 57.