In spite of his triumph over the prophets of Baal, Elijah fell into deep despair (1 Kings 19:4).
After confidently proclaiming his faithfulness to Jesus (Matthew 26:33-35), Peter denied Him with curses and wept bitterly (Mark 14:66-72)
Paul “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8), and agonized over his helplessness when struggling against the “flesh” (Romans 7:18-24).
Though God accomplished great things through each of these people, as persons of faith they experienced their worlds spinning out of control.
These examples from the Bible make it clear that believers often face trials that are unexpected and have no discernable purpose. Trials like these overwhelm our efforts to understand and rationalize them. But these biblical examples of great people of faith illustrate that experiences of stress and despair can be times of greatest spiritual growth.
A story about the Victorian poet/hymn writer William Cowper illustrates how dramatically God’s grace can interact with our despair. Anyone knowing his history would understand why Cowper was given to long periods of depression. On one occasion, convinced he had committed the unpardonable sin, he left his home on a foggy London night and walked toward the Thames River, determined to commit suicide by drowning. As he walked, the fog grew thicker and he lost his way. After several hours of blind wandering, he found himself back at his doorstep. Astonished at God’s intervention, he wrote a poem that later became a beloved hymn:
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace;
behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain;
God is His own Interpreter, and He will make it plain.
Job’s story provides a framework for understanding the common elements of experiences that make believers feel they are abandoned in a hostile and meaningless world. God allowed Satan to test Job (Job 1), just as our accuser tests the faith of everyone driven to despair. Every believer has a personal enemy, Satan, who consciously seeks to make him or her feel their faith is empty (1 Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:10-12). But just as God set limits to what Satan could do to Job (Job 1:12), He sets limits to what Satan can do to us (1 Corinthians 10:13; Luke 22:31-32). Even more importantly, if we are faithful the Creator is able to change our despairing experiences into good. God uses satanically induced despair to strengthen and refine us in our love for Him and each other.
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV).