We are perplexed, but we do not despair. 2 Corinthians 4:8
Nearly 1800 years before Kierkegaard penned A Sickness Unto Death, bridging the idea of sin and psychological disorder, Paul offered a cryptic and psychological message of hope to a fledgling Christian community which found itself assailed on every side and threatening it with the temptation to give into the greatest of sins.
In two thousand years nothing has changed. It is true Christianity enjoys a prominence it did not have in Paul’s time, but for the Christian and all people, there is still the temptation to despair.
As is often the case, it is important to explain what a thing is by saying what it is not. This is particularly true of that great sin despair. Despair is not sadness and it is not the plethora of diagnosis that exist to explain the likes of depression, even though we do know depression is often the product of despair.
What Paul speaks of is much more unnerving. It is the sinful state of being beyond hope and decision. To illustrate we can point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “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.” (CCC Art. 2091)
The Catechism shows the clear and religious sinful nature of despair as it relates to salvation, but God’s good pleasure for humans extends beyond the state of their souls and understanding this gets us back to Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians shows himself to be none less than a personality psychologist.
To get at this we must look at that which can deliver the individual to despair. The word Paul uses is aporoumenoi, or perplexity. It is a word used only twice in Scripture. The Greek implies that perplexity is not a mere confused state, but rather that place where one does not know the way to go. In depth psychology it would when those things we would otherwise repress come to the surface and force decision (or discernment if you prefer a word more religious in nature.)
It is not difficult to illustrate the point. We repress all the time. Some of that is healthy as it allows us not to over think the small things. One hardly needs a forced and critical self evaluation when deciding on a movie to see. But there are the other things like what to do with the likes of love or hate or one of those better than a thousand things that make us delve deep into our experiences and who we are so that we may come to a place of decision. In such matters we are clearly thrust into the world of discerning and an encounter with not only ourselves, but the divine.
This is the crux of the matter. Perplexity is about what to do when an answer is not obvious. It is also about meeting God in that answer. That is what Paul was driving at, for where there is God, there is no despair. There can be sadness or regret, but there is not despair.
And to say God is present is not to say there wouldn’t be bad decisions or such things as abortion, divorce, war, or economic inequality. It is to say our decisions would be informed in a way that takes seriously that our discernment involves the work of a loving God and to ignore this is that which drives us down the route of despair by refusing the clarity which perplexity demands.
In seeing such clarity, we can also know that perplexity can be a gift for perplexity becomes that thing that can drive us into the arms of God even if the encounter is one that can give us some fear for tied to the discernment perplexity demands is the virtue of fortitude.
No person ever faces a big decision without a certain fear that arises from perplexity. This fear is not to be confused with being afraid, rather it is the fear we call anxiety. After all, perplexity is not for the timid. In every good and noble decision, there is to be found a fortitude that sees a perplexity that refuses to become despair.
And though no one, save God, is in the position to make judgments about the decisions of others, the virtue of fortitude is lost on anyone who can’t see courage is required in the most noble of decisions. And just as the decision to see ourselves as worthy of God’s mercy as expressed in the Catechism defies despair, so does the likes of marriage, family life, peace, working for a better world, and the striving for justice, all of which are things we are not strong enough to do without the presence of that which is greater than we are, for where there are the beautiful and terrifying decisions to be made and right action to be had, we may be perplexed, but we need not despair for we can be sure we are not alone.
Image: “What If Not Him” by Alex Vera Creative Commons license