“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed“ 2 Corinthians 4:7–9

Despair never seems to come into your life alone. It always seems to have a willing accomplice. Gloom and despair, sickness and despair, trouble and despair, jealousy and despair, disappointment and despair, and especially unbelief and despair, are just some of the pairings that assault the citadel of joy in your heart. Even hymn writers make the pairing correlation: “Sin and despair like the sea waves cold, threaten the soul with infinite loss. Grace that is greater yes, grace untold, points to the refuge the mighty cross!”

Julia Johnston’s words in her hymn “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” aptly illustrate the inconsolable desperation of a sinner when confronted by his guilt before the bar of God’s holy justice. But her words do not begin to portray the finality of desperation washing over an unregenerate soul standing before the Great White Throne of God. That soul will hear his sentence, eternally served in the Lake of Fire.

The book of Revelation reveals several instances where despair befalls the ungodly. Revelation 9:6 says, “In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die and death will flee from them.” In 16:10f we read, “Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds.” Then in 20:11ff, the fate of eternal despair of the unsaved is spelled out in stark, dispassionate terms: “Then I saw a great white throne…and I saw small and great, standing before God, and books were opened…and the dead were judged…and anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the Lake of fire.”

If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, you will never experience any hint of the kind of paralyzing fear and despair that every unsaved soul will experience on the Day of Judgment. In fact, you will never have to stand in judgment before God because your sin was judged upon the cross of Calvary! Whatever you go through in your earthly pilgrimage will be as “child’s play,” as the saying goes, compared to the abject terror in store for the unsaved. The believer’s hope-inspiring promise is found in Romans 5:20f, “…where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

By definition, to despair is to give up all hope. It describes a hopeless state destitute of any expectations. It is actually a long step past any shade of discouragement. Our text from 1 Corinthians 4 is a case in point. Paul refers to his trials in ministry, physical and spiritual, each just as piercing as the other. He carefully chose words which help believers distinguish between discouragement and desperation. “Hard-pressed” is not as dire as “crushed.” “Perplexed” (meaning without resource) is not as final as “despair” (meaning without hope). “Persecuted” is not as bleak as “forsaken.” “Struck down” is not as devastating as “destroyed” (meaning lost).

Read chapter 1, verses 3f: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.” In verse 8 Paul reveals his testimony, “…we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.”

One obvious encouragement is the fact that there is a purpose to your life that reaches through and beyond your particular trials and desperate times culminating in Paul’s words in 4:7: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” The word excellence could be translated as strength, excess, or extraordinary quality and character.

When despair begins to close in around you and takes root in your heart, don’t forget that despair usually arrives with at least one partner. If you are in despair, look for despair’s helpmeet. Psalm 42:5 and 11 read, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” Certainly, your situation is not that of Cain (Genesis 4:13f) or Judas (Matthew 27:5). Despair will be muted when you come to grips with what else is assailing your spirit. With God’s help you will gain the victory, perhaps not according to your timeline, but certainly in God’s (James 1:2ff).

Never forget that His presence is with you in your dark times as well as in your joys, just as Paul learned that the Lord stood by him in Acts 23:11. “It will be worth it all, when we see Jesus!” A read through Isaiah 41:9b–13 will surely lift your spirits. Trust and obey.