The "Backward" Wisdom of God

Hope through Despair

Teaching t12602


Review series topic and key points from the first teaching:

Key biblical truths often seem backward, counter-intuitive, contrary to common sense—even crazy. Sometimes this is because they are stated in paradoxical ways (e.g., Matt.16:25)—but even when they are stated in a straightforward way they still strike us this way (e.g., Gal.5:13). If biblical teaching has never struck you this way, you have probably not looked at it very carefully.

Why is this? According to the Bible, God’s truth seems “backward” to us because our own thinking is so backward! Like the people in “The Matrix,” we are deeply brainwashed and are in desperate need of deprogramming and reprogramming in our perspective on most major areas of life. The “jolt” caused by God’s “backward” wisdom is God’s loving call to immerse ourselves in His Word, asking Him to expose our brainwashed thinking and illuminate our minds.

This morning, we’re going to explore a key piece of this “backward” wisdom—hope through despair. We normally think of despair and hope as opposites, and indeed they are opposite states of heart (e.g., over the possibility of a romantic relationship). But God says that the path to true hope in Him involves coming to despair in ourselves. This paradoxical truth is revealed in many places in the Bible, as we will see, but it is most clearly taught in 2Cor.1. Paul and his team have just gone through some kind of intense suffering (probably persecution – maybe mob violence). He relates not only what happened, but (more importantly) what he learned from it in 1:8-10 (read).

Especially important is the phrase “so that” in 1:9. On the one hand, God obviously did not initiate this persecution – it was initiated by human opponents of Christianity, and ultimately by Satan (Rev.2:10; 12:4,9). On the other hand, God was sovereignly working through this persecution to do something redemptive in Paul.

Notice the pattern (“U” CHART): Paul experienced suffering that went beyond his coping strength (1:8a). This broke his self-trust and brought him to despair about his ability to rescue his life (1:8b,9a). This despair led to deepened his trust in God to deliver him (1:9b), and this deepened trust in God resulted in deeper hope in God (1:10). . If Paul the 20-year, mature Christian leader still had to go through this process, how much more do all of us! (This is why Paul is relating this incident to the Corinthians.)

This implies something radically wrong with all of us: we are so deeply (even subconsciously) committed to self-trust that only through painful breaking are we able to trust God and truly “set our hope” on Him.

Recognizing this “backward” wisdom at work in your life

How can we recognize this paradoxical truth in our own lives? It is operative both in coming to faith in Christ and in growing toward maturity in Christ. Here are four common ways God works through this “backward” wisdom...

COMING TO FAITH IN CHRIST: two common applications

We must despair of our own righteousness before we set our hope on Christ’s mercy.

This is why the people who readily entrusted themselves to Jesus during His public ministry were the “sinners” – the people who already knew that they had blown it so badly morally that they couldn’t earn God’s acceptance. This is why Jesus said Matt.5:3 (quote) – the “poor in spirit” are those who know and acknowledge their absolute spiritual destitution and need for charity.

But many in Jesus’ day – and many of us – instinctively believe that we can be good enough/self-reform to merit God’s acceptance. So God, out of His great love for us, painfully exposes our failures to keep His Law. He does this to break us from our self-righteousness, so that we humbly cast ourselves on Him alone for forgiveness and right-standing with God.

This is why Jesus related as He did to the rich young ruler. By his initial question (Mk.10:17), it is clear that this man believed he could be good enough to inherit God’s kingdom by his own righteousness. So Jesus reminded him of the standard (10:18,19). But when this is not enough (10:20), Jesus out of love said 10:21 – exposing the man’s violation of the most basic commandment to worship God alone. The man was saddened by Jesus’ word (10:22), but not yet broken/despairing. But that was Jesus’ loving intent – to break him of his self-righteousness so that he cried out like the tax-collector in Lk.18: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

It should not surprise us that those who have been key spokespersons for God’s grace have gone through this process very deeply. Martin Luther went through months of agony and hatred of God’s righteousness, until he utterly despaired of his own righteousness. Only then was he able to comprehend God’s gift of right standing with Him faith in Christ. John Wesley and George Whitefield were both committed to be righteous. Wesley endured profound moral failure, and Whitefield underwent deep despondency about his own sinfulness before they could lay hold of God’s gift of total forgiveness. Charles Spurgeon underwent the same experience for over a year.

What about you? Do you view yourself as a good person, as someone who thinks: “If there is a heaven, I deserve a place in it?” God in His love is seeking to expose your guilt before Him, to break your self-righteousness, so that you will appreciate and receive His charity. Is that time now?

We must despair of our own hopes for life apart from Christ before we set our hope on Christ as the Source of life.

For others of us, the key area of self-trust in not in our own righteousness, but in the finite things we think will give us security, approval, or significance. We instinctively believe that we can find this from people and/or things (EXAMPLES).

So God (out of love) engineers and/or works through the failure of these hopes (to attain them &/or their inability to satisfy) to break us so that we turn to Christ.

This is why Jesus related as he did to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn.4). He offers her “living water” if she will only ask for it (4:10,14) – a love relationship with God. But she doesn’t see her need for His gift. So out of love He exposes the emptiness of her “water” – the failure of her romantic relationships (4:16-18). It is this painful exposure that convinces her to ask Him for the gift that He wanted her to have all along.

This is how Jesus reached me. I had put all my hopes in a relationship with an idealized relationship with a girl – and then she dumped me brutally and out of the blue. It took this agonizing blow for me to admit my need for Jesus. This is how Jesus reached Charles Colson. He had put all his hopes in attaining political power. It took the scandal of Watergate and his own humiliating fall from power to prison to admit his need for Jesus.

What about you? Have you suffered a shattering failure in a relationship, your career, your health, etc. God may be working through this to break you of your insistence on finding life through other “water,” so that you will finally see your need to receive Christ as the only sufficient Source of life. Will you receive Him – or go back for another “drink?”

GROWING TOWARD MATURITY IN CHRIST: two common applications

We must despair of our ability to reform ourselves before we set our hope on Christ’s ability to transform us.

Even after we have despaired of earning God’s acceptance, we still instinctively believe that we can reform ourselves from our bad habits. We may indeed be able to do this with more superficial habits (e.g., diet; cursing; sleeping in; being late; etc.) – but not with deeper “habits of the heart” (e.g., porn; anger outbursts; comparison to/envy of others; man-leasing avoidance; etc.).

So God (out of love) allows us to fail miserably in these areas, so that we may come to the end of our moral self-confidence and begin to depend on His power to deliver us. (God also often has other goals in mind for this painful process, like deeper humility, compassion for others, etc.)

This is what Paul describes in his battle with coveting in Rom.7. As a long-time Christian leader, he still had a deep-seated addiction to wanting something from other people that did not rightfully belong to him ( human praise for ministry accomplishments?). The point is that all of his moral will-power to beat this problem ended in failure (read 7:15,19,22,23) and the cry of despair uttered in 7:24 (read). Yet this cry of despair turns into a cry of victory (read 7:25) because through this process Paul has come to depend on the power of God’s Spirit to gradually overcome this besetting sin (read 8:2,4).

This is what I have had to go through in many areas of my life: addiction to romantic infatuation, comparison to and competition with other ministry colleagues; self-protective avoidance of difficult conversations, etc. God has exposed problems like these and then let me “twist in the wind” for long periods of time. It has taken this for me to truly despair of my ability to reform myself, and to instead relax in the confidence that the Holy Spirit to change me in His ways and timing as I simply feed myself spiritually and present myself to Him day by day. Can you relate to this?

We must despair of our own “Christian” happiness projects before we set our hope in Christ alone as our happiness.

Even after we receive Christ as the Source of life, we still want temporal blessings more than we want Him. So we want to learn God’s “rules” related to what we want out of this life, believing that by keeping them we can ensure that we will get what we want (e.g., marriage >> easy marriage; children >> compliant children; ministry >> ministry success; etc.). Larry Crabb calls this the “Law of Linearity.” These are indeed good things – it isn’t wrong to want them. And God does give us principles that are related to these good outcomes (e.g., Proverbs). But the whole project is profoundly wrong. Although this is often unconscious, we may be using Christ as our Genie to facilitate our own selfish happiness-projects.

So out of love, God allows many of these hopes to be dashed (ABOVE FAILURES). This often leads to frustration and anger toward God because He hasn’t “fulfilled His promises” (i.e., cooperated with our good plans). Through this painful process, God wants us to despair of our happiness projects so that we truly begin to find our happiness in Him – by drawing near to Him in this life and by looking forward to being with Him in heaven.

This is the point of the story of Jacob in Genesis 26-33. Jacob was a true believer in the Lord and gave lip-service to God – but he was deeply committed to manipulating people to get what he wanted out of life (material prosperity and security from human danger). Out of love, God allowed him to be manipulated by his father-in-law (Laban). Then he painted Jacob into a corner of radical insecurity with his brother (Esau). At this point, God engaged Jacob in a “wrestling match” to show Jacob that he had been wrestling with God in the above way, and that this would never work. Jacob was thus “broken” of this way of life, and began to genuinely trust God and find his security and wealth from relating to God.

The importance of our response

“U” CHART – All Christians go through this process recurrently (SPIRAL STAIRCASE). We can learn some things vicariously, but we all have areas of self-trust that run so deep that only this can break them.

The important thing is to respond properly – to let God teach you deeper self-mistrust and deeper trust in Him so that He can give you deeper hope. This is not automatic. You can respond in other unhelpful ways.

You can decide to redouble your efforts at self-reform. You can decide to adjust your recipe for this-life happiness. These responses only prolong the process.

Over time, you can become cynical toward God. Instead of allowing Him to break your self-trust, you protect yourself by deciding that real, deep hope in Christ is unreal. This spiritual cynicism manifests itself in a number of ways: judging Christians who are zealous and hopeful, being aversive to God’s promises for fear of being disappointed again, avoiding honest wrestling with God over these matters, etc. Spiritual cynicism is very dangerous because it rejects God’s wisdom and goodness, and because it sentences you to a life without true hope.

What is the proper response? To simply cling to God (like Jacob) – telling Him that you will not let go of Him, and that you want Him to do whatever is needed to bring about the deep heart-change that only He can give you. This is the response that leads eventually to deeper trust and hope in Him!


NEXT WEEK: The Paradoxical Way to True Happiness

FOR DISCUSSION: Repeat the four ways this wisdom operates. Can you recognize it in operation in you in the past? right now? in others? What other questions does this raise for you?

Larry Crabb, The Pressure’s Off (Waterbrook Press, 2002).

Paul’s use of the subjunctive mood in 2Cor.1:9 (“so that we would not...”) emphasizes this point.