Battling the Unbelief of Despondency

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By John Piper About Fear & Anxiety
Part of the series Battling Unbelief

Psalm 73:21-26
When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

(The following is a transcription of the sermon audio.)

I want you to focus on verse 26 for just a few minutes - "My flesh and my heart may fail" - because that’s the definition of despondency that I want us to work with. Do you see the three parts to that little phrase “my flesh and my heart may fail”?

"My flesh" - that means there’s a physical component to despondency. Isn't there? The body weakens, there’s fatigue, there’s a sense of listlessness and sluggishness.

Secondly, "and my heart" - that means there’s this emotional spiritual dimension to despondency. Our hearts are discouraged, dejected, gloomy, burned out.

Third, "fail." The word means come to an end, run out, be exhausted of resources. It’s like your life is a tank and in it is water that you need for refreshment. And somebody pulls the plug at the bottom and it just all runs out. And this word in Hebrew (Kalla) means come to an end, be exhausted, be depleted of resources to handle problems and life.

Is Sin the Source of Despondency?

Now the question is, Is unbelief the root of that experience of despondency? And with ten minutes to preach here I’m passing over a lot. The answer is yes and no.

In other words, it’s not simple. But I’m going to pick a simple sentence, one that comes from Scripture, because we need clear and simple things to live by. Here’s the sentence that I think is simple and true: Unbelief is the root of yielding to despondency.

I’ll pass over the issue of where despondency comes from, because it’s very complex. Wherever it comes from, unbelief is at the root of making peace with it, yielding to it, giving no spiritual warfare to fight it, being negligent in putting on the armour of God and so on. Now I want illustrate this briefly by looking at the Psalm and then looking at Jesus.

"But God..."

The Psalm 73:26 contains this truth, "My flesh and my heart may fail." Now literally it's just "fail," not "may fail." There’s no "may" implied in this Hebrew verb. Its just, "My flesh and my heart are failing, I am discouraged, I am despondent, I am at my wit's end." And then comes the spiritual counter attack in the next phrase: “but God.”

So here’s this man. The cork is pulled out at the bottom of his life. His heart and his flesh are just about depleted, and he says—perhaps with his last breath—"but God is the rock (or strength) of my weak, failing life and my portion forever."

So my point is wherever this despondency may come from it’s unbelief that doesn't say “but God.” It’s unbelief that puts up no resistance. It’s unbelief that doesn't take the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit and fight. That much I think we can say with clarity from Scripture. "My body is shot, my heart is almost dead, and for whatever reason I will not yield. I will trust to God though my strength is gone."

Psalm 19:7, "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul." The word of God is given to revive souls. The saints' souls need to be restored and revived. That means despondency comes and the Word of God is given to restore it.

Satan vs. the Son of God

Let’s go to Jesus. Turn with me to Matthew 26:36 and following. I want us to be with Jesus for a few minutes in Gethsemane. We’ve just celebrated the Lord’s Supper. A few hours later Jesus is in Gethsemane and what’s happening there is probably the greatest spiritual warfare in a human soul that’s ever happened or ever will happen.

Satan no doubt has drawn near. You remember when it said after Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, "He withdrew from him until an opportune time." When do you think that was? Right now, I think. And not only did he draw near. I’ll bet he gathered all of the most powerful members of his wicked army. You can be assured that the flaming darts that Paul mentions in Ephesians 6 were flying with volleys against the soul of the Son of God as he knelt there wrestling for his faithfulness.

Look at verse 36:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go yonder and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death."

Now what’s going on here, why is Jesus so distressed and troubled and sorrowful?

John 12:27 says "Now is my soul troubled. What shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, but for this purpose, I have come to this hour." Now I think that text tells us what the nature of the temptation was. Satan was firing volley after volley into the mind of Jesus Christ. And thoughts came into his mind from Satan, thoughts like, "This is a dead end street. Calvary is just a black hole. It’s going to hurt like nothing has ever hurt any human being ever before, and these rascals aren’t worth it, etc." These were coming out of Satan’s wicked heart into the mind of the Son of God.

Satan wants to produce in Jesus a spirit of despondency that sinks unopposed in resignation and says "It won’t work, there’s no point in pressing on anymore." Now I want us to think about this warfare for a minute and compare it to the disciples.

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

Jesus is a sinless man. According to Hebrews 4:15 and 2 Corinthians 5:20 he never sinned at all, neither in thought, emotion, or deed. He was sinless. This means that the emotional turmoil that he was experiencing at this moment was a fitting response to the kind of extraordinary temptation he was enduring. The demonic thought that Calvary is a black hole of meaninglessness and emptiness and purposelessness is so horrendous that it ought to cause a jarring, a shock, in the soul of the Son of God as well as yours and mine.

It’s like a bomb. Satan drops bombs on the peaceful sea of our lives. And if it’s an atomic bomb there is, as soon as it explodes, a massive shock wave that hits before the deadly rays begin to make there way over people’s lives. That’s what I would say in Jesus' life is not sin. The shock wave of a satanic temptation that the death of the Son of God would be pointless is so powerful that it rolls him, it knocks him.

Now the amazing thing about this is that the word used here that he was troubled is also used of the disciples. However Jesus says to the disciples, "Don’t be troubled." John 14:1, "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me."

Or John 14:27, "My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, not as the world gives to you. "Let not your hearts be troubled." When I read that yesterday I said to myself, "Now wait a minute. I got to figure this out here. I’m saying the sinless Son of God can be troubled—same word—and yet he tells the disciples don’t be troubled." It’s as though Satan drops this bomb, the same bomb, right in the experience of Jesus and the disciples.

They were about to be despondent because Jesus was going away and it looked to them like it was back to fishing. There’s no Kingdom here. This is a pointless thing. Nothing good has happened and now our best friend and, we thought, Lord is gone. And Jesus says, "No, don’t be troubled," and yet he was troubled.

Is this a contradiction? Is it okay for Jesus to be troubled and not okay for the disciples to be troubled? I don’t think there’s a contradiction. Here’s how I would put the two together.

On the part of the disciples Jesus is saying, "When the bomb drops in your life and Satan colors the shock wave of this experience with black hopelessness, don’t yield. Believe." In other words, he’s telling them, "Counter attack, let not your hearts be troubled, attack, believe in God, believe also in me." He’s not saying that this first shock wave that can knock you over or pull the plug out of your life won’t be there. He’s saying, "Counter attack, believe, take my peace, listen to what I’ve said, look at the word of God. I will show you the path of life."

Now with regard to Jesus, no one knew better than the Son of God that if he didn’t immediately counter attack the shock wave of Satan’s satanic temptation he’d be done for. And so in closing I want us to look very carefully at how Jesus responded to his troubled soul and the satanic attack on his peace with God. It’s right here—five steps.

Fight Unbelief Like Christ

As I mention these five steps in Matthew 26:37 and following I want you to fix in your mind what it is that threatens your tranquility most, what it is that causes despondency or disheartened feelings to rise most often in your own life. What’s the shell that Satan drops most frequently into your life? And then as I mention these five steps that the Lord Jesus took when the bomb dropped in his life, I want you to translate them immediately into your experience, because they're all relevant. Alright? There five of them.

  1. Jesus chose some close friends to be with him. Verse 37: "And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled." So he didn’t withdraw. He took the inner ring, his most precious and trusted friends, and he pulled aside with them.
  2. He opened his soul to them. Verse 38: "Then he said to them, 'My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.'" I can imagine their mouths dropping open, their King confessing his weakness. He opened his soul to them.
  3. He asked for their help in spiritual warfare. Verse 38, second half: "Remain here and watch with me." Another text says "pray," and another, "Don’t let yourself come into temptation; stay here and fight with me. Fight with me."
  4. He poured out his heart to the Father in prayer. Verse 39: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." It’s just fine to pray that the bombshell that has dropped into your life be taken away. That’s just right. Whatever it is that Satan fires at you, it's just fine to say, "Take it away Father. You’re stronger than he is."
  5. But finally, he rested his soul in the sovereign wisdom of God. Second half of verse 39: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt."

So here’s the lesson. When Satan drops a bombshell on the peace of your life the initial shock waves of emotional response are not necessarily sin. What is sin is not to do what Jesus did when the bomb fell in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sin is yielding to depression. Sin is not taking the armour of God. Sin is not waging spiritual warfare.

But Jesus shows us another way. It’s not painless, but it’s not passive either. And I want us to follow him in it.

A Picture and a Plan

Let me just sum it up as we close.

Find your trusted friends. Who are they? Who are your inner ring.

  1. Open your soul to them.
  2. Ask them to fight with you, to wage war with you, to support you, to watch with you and pray with you.
  3. Pour out your soul to the Father.
  4. And rest in the sovereignty of his wisdom, come what may. "But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

So I close with this image. Leave it in your mind. The lesson of Jesus' life and the lesson of the Psalms is this: every cave that you're in—wandering along, feeling the rocks, stumbling, stepping, bumping your head—every cave that you are in is a tunnel that opens into glory. It opens into a day like today in Heaven, with the sun shining, and the grass green, and the waters flowing—as long as you don’t sit down in the cave and blow out the candle of faith.

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