There are many times in our lives where fatigue, suffering, disease, and sorrow weigh down on us unrelentingly. We shake our heads and wonder if going on like this makes any real sense. Why not just throw our responsibilities to the wind and go out on a bender?
These feelings coupled to the slow draw toward truly giving up are what the Church means by the vice of despair. Despair robs us of the confidence that St. Paul promised us in Romans 8, that no matter what the circumstances we endure, if we maintain our love for God, if we persevere, if we stand fast, then God will work his goodness into us. The cure for despair is accordingly the natural moral virtue of courage tied to the theological virtue of hope. What faith is to the intellect and charity is to the will, so hope is to our aspirations, our imaginations, and our emotions. In God’s infinite love we find an enormous emotional and aspirational motivation never to give up, to continue to press on in the war against evil and in the glory of the gift of divine love. But, sometimes, events in our lives pile on top of us, whether those events be mortal or immortal. Occasionally, the immortal gods of darkness—we now call them demons—conspire to inflict us with their despair. Perhaps, much more often, it is the mortal losses of our own world which render our confidence vain. Grief from betrayal, death, disease, failure, and devastation can erode the hope that God provides us.
Of course, it’s not that God fails. Rather, our hope is built upon something else, something that despair targets in order to erode both hope and charity, namely our faith. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that while charity is the greatest in the order of perfection, faith is the greatest in the order of generation. He means that faith is the beginning, just as its sacrament, baptism, is the beginning of our lives as children of God. When hope suffers erosion—when despair begins to cloud our hearts—we must return to this foundation upon which all is built: faith.
How? Faith is a firm belief that what God has revealed is true. It is because God will accomplish all that he promised that our hope isn’t mere wishful thinking. Everything in this world is subject to reversal, but not God. What he says, He will do. It doesn’t matter that we don’t feel this. When despair threatens, you feel depressed, you experience heartache, and you can lose all sense of purpose. But faith isn’t a feeling. We cannot rely on our feelings. Faith is a choice, a choice to believe and trust God even when you don’t feel it at all. Why? Because while your life descends into mortal or immortal chaos, God is still God. He continues to draw you toward that end for which he created you, namely to become a lover fit for himself. No matter what happens to us in this life—and many awful things can definitely happen—God still loves us. But his love is divine love, not mere mortal love. It’s a love that can place all on the altar of the supreme end he has in mind for us. Miraculous rescues from terrible situations seem to be rather rare—maybe we will find out otherwise on the other side. But in the midst of these terrors which threaten our hope and, with its loss, the possibility of our charity, God asks us to believe him.
Here’s the truly incredible thing: nothing mortal nor immortal can pose a barrier to this choice. Our free will is indeed free. In the midst of horror, we can still stand up with Job and echo his words, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” God knows what he is doing. We do not. So, we must put our trust in the One who knows rather than in our desperation for escape or comfort. We must choose. We can choose. When that choice is made—to trust God through all—then hope is rekindled and despair ebbs. Mortal depression and grief will remain, because these are our natural reactions to the troubles in our lives. But only despair is the sin, because despair is the choice to reject hope in God by refusing faith in God.
With faith infused ever deeper in our character through trials in life, hope springs anew, and with it, charity. How else do we explain Jesus’ prayer in John 17? There he was in the garden struggling with the Passion so soon to engulf him. The other gospel writers record his anguish over that cup. But St. John records the other side of Jesus, what Jesus said once he accepted the cup, once he put his faith in God. Jesus prayed for his disciples and then for all those who would follow in their footsteps, i.e., you and me. Faith in God propelled Jesus through the agony toward a hope that directed him to charity. The writer of Hebrews says that it was for the sake of the joy set before him that Jesus endured that cross. It wasn’t a joy he experienced in the garden nor on the cross, but a joy that he believed in throughout his passion. That is faith.
So, never give up. You are never out of the fight, not while mortal breath still moves through your lungs. St. Paul tells us again and again to be watchful, to wake up, to stand alert, to ready ourselves because the war between good and evil can reappear with frightening intensity at any moment. We mustn’t quit. It’s not an option for a soldier. The battle is over when God says it is, when you are dead. And you aren’t dead. Until then, you fight.