I lie awake at night restless. I reach over to press the button on my phone. The glowing screen responds, “1:13 AM”. My wife fell asleep hours ago. Her restfulness is a foil to my tossing and turning.
There is a cloud over my head, thundering oppressive thoughts down. The serpentine destroyer slithered into my room uninvited and unannounced. His whispers have become my thoughts. I do not initially perceive the hidden hiss behind the words.
My head is swirling with a venomous mixture of condemnation and fear.
My guilt weighs down upon my soul, dragging me into despair. I am feeble; I am failing; I am sinful. Will I ever be better? Is there any release to this burden of guilt?
Furthermore, the circumstances, both present and potential, seem to knock me off my feet as I struggle to find any sure footing. What if this, that, or the other happens? How will this circumstance ever get better? The twin-headed dragon of condemnation and circumstance grips my soul. I am sinking into an endless ocean weighed down by the burden of guilt and fear.
This night is another dark night of despair.
Where can we find relief in such times as this? Do we look inward? Do we come up with ways we can do better? Do we make an action plan for self-improvement? Do we put our hope in strategies that have solutions for every circumstance? Do we try to ignore these thoughts and hope the despair disappears?
There is only one source of light to pierce the darkness, only one source of comfort to alleviate the despair.
Our only hope is for us to look outside ourselves. There is only one who can conquer the twin-headed dragon of despair. Christ is the only conquering savior king who can slay the towering dragon.
Luther understood what it was like to experience the condemning accusations of the enemy and knew how to respond. He writes:
“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this, ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is there I shall be also!’”
When faced with despair from condemnation, the Christian can respond the same way. “Yes, I am feeble, I am failing, I am sinful. But I am united to Christ, who is strong, who succeeds, and is righteous. He is my righteousness; he is my hope.” There is no condemnation for those in him (Rom 8:1). The person, united to Christ through faith, has had their sins nailed to the cross in Christ. The person, united to Christ through faith, has Christ’s perfect righteousness in their account (2 Cor 5:21). God is not surprised with your sin, dear Christian. He has dealt with it in Christ and is dealing with it by his Spirit. He will finish the good work he started in you (Phil 1:6). He is faithful to his Word. You can confess your deep and dark guilt and take refuge in the finished work of Christ. The burden is lifted because Christ bore it for you. But what of circumstances? How do we turn despair to comfort amid circumstances? We remember the sovereignty and goodness of our Lord Christ Jesus. The one who sovereignly saved us, the one who has shown us such rich grace and mercy, the one who has ordained our circumstances. He rules over the present and has ordained the future. Despair over circumstances should cause us to look to Christ. He has planned every circumstance for the good of his people and the glory of his name (Rom 8:28; 11:36). All things are happening according to the counsel of his good and perfect will (Eph 1:11). He has ordained every minute detail for ultimate good. Nothing frustrates his plans. The cross testifies to the Christian that God ordained even the worst evil in our world for good and glorious purposes. He is sovereign and good. He is a firm foundation. No one desires the dark night of despair, but when the Christian turns to the reality of Christ and what he has done and what he is doing, something happens. The Christian can have comfort and security in Christ even when despair seems to attack from every angle. In the dark night of despair, the Christian has opportunity to grow in love for the only true source of hope.
As the serpent tries to bring the Christian down into the pit, he makes a foolish move. His forked tongue of attack strikes back against himself. Why? Because the more the serpent accuses the Christian of guilt and weakness, the more the Christian is inclined to cling to Christ. The more the serpent accuses the Christian of guilt and weakness, the more the serpent inadvertently proclaims the glorious grace and power of God.
In conclusion, the Heidelberg Catechism provides a helpful summation of these precious truths in its first question and answer:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Stephen Duarte (ME, National University; working on MATS, Reformed Baptist Seminary) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Debbie and father of two. You can follow him on Twitter @stephencduarte.
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