By Rick Booye
But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
Life in this age can feel utterly devoid of purpose, hopeless, grievous, and empty. There are times when all the color drains out, all the taste withers, all the joy dissipates, leaving us wondering why God has ordained that we continue to use up oxygen. In this verse, nestled in the second of Isaiah’s famous Suffering Servant Songs, we hear the heart of the Lord Jesus himself prophetically expressing the despondency that touches us all sooner or later. He feels like a failure. What a completely and universally human emotion! The words “no purpose,” “vain,” and “for nothing” in the original clearly describe the sense of hopeless uselessness that descends on the human soul in times of desert and darkness.
It shocks us to see a prediction that the ultimately victorious Lord Jesus should experience such low moods as this. Yet, it’s true. On more than one occasion in his earthly life the Lord expressed grief and frustration in the face of the overwhelming devastation of sin and death. And in the garden on his last night he is so torn up by the prospect of what lies ahead that he sweats blood. He asks his closest friends plaintively, “will you not watch with me one hour?” By the following afternoon he is crying out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!” This sharing of human misery under sin is why the author of Hebrews reminds us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb.4:15). Apparently despair is not a sin.
But despair was not the last word at the cross, and it is not the last word here. Despondency is no sin, but neither is it a permanent condition. Jesus did cry out to God in desolation, but the last thing he said was, “It is finished.” Something deeper than his feeling of despondency was happening and he trusted God in that. In the second half of our Isaiah verse he reveals what keeps him from utter and final darkness and points him toward hope—his faith in the Father’s goodness, favor, and fairness toward him despite his human feelings of failure and rejection. He counters his internal sense of failure with this true statement: “What is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” (See also Paul’s attitude in 1 Cor.4:1-5). That means he trusts the validation that God brings by grace rather than the self-sourced confidence we so often crave. This knowledge does not make his despondency disappear instantly, but it gives a perspective that makes it bearable. This is true and honest faith.
The bottom line here is this: Feelings of grief, darkness, hopelessness, emptiness and futility often coexist in the heart of a believer with the deeper truth of God’s free and complete validation, grace and goodness. In other words, faith in the Lord and his plan (Rom.8:28) lives side by side in our hearts with depression and despondency brought on by the hardness of this age and even by our own terrible choices. We don’t need to be “happy” all the time to be faithful. We can trust God completely and be thoroughly bummed out—simultaneously. This is better news than it sounds at first. How so?
The fact is that he loves you, Christian friend, whether you’re depressed or not. He does not source his love and grace toward his people in their attractiveness, their hard work, their ability to obey, their “stiff upper lip,” or their cheerful attitude. The source of his love is his love itself (God is the eternal source of his own life at every level), permanently and graciously bestowed on depressed sinners who throw themselves on his mercy at the cross. Oddly, one of the best ways out of despondency is to embrace it, to admit it and let it be, while at the same time letting God’s word continue to remind you that he loves you anyway and will do what is good and right for you forever by shear personal grace no matter how you feel at the moment. The despondency we Christians may experience is real, but it is temporary. The “happiness” that the world synthesizes in various ways to anesthetize itself is also real, but it too is temporary. If I must choose, I’d rather be a depressed Christian than a happy pagan.