Utter Despair ... As a Good Thing?
I don't know about you, but there have been times in my life where something that I was so certain about suddenly came crashing down. And in its place, there was some new, deeper truth - surprising, unexpected, but nevertheless true. In these paragraphs from Romans, the apostle Paul takes aim at some "certainties" about how to get right with God, and then dismantles them so that we can see a much deeper and more beautiful truth.
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth- 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
I love courtroom dramas. Films like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Few Good Men build up to a stunning, climactic speech that reveals some truth that most people couldn't see - but once the speech is given, people can't help but see. In A Few Good Men, for instance, no one can believe the testimony of a couple lowly soldiers against the powerful Colonel Jessup until a spellbinding speech by Lieutenant Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, jolts the courtroom into seeing the improbable truth, that the soldiers are innocent and the colonel is guilty.
In this paragraph from Romans 2, Paul is like a prosecutor overwhelming his witness. Paul, himself a Jew, makes the astonishing case to his fellow Jews that they will never be able to please God by obeying God's law. In fact, anyone who tries to please God this way is doomed to fail.
The charges are severe: though the Jews had been given the law in order to reflect God's character to the Gentiles (verses 18-20), instead they have been scandalously guilty of breaking that very law (verses 21-29). Paul mentions some notorious sins - adultery, robbing temples, and so on - as examples of how the nation has collectively violated the law that they profess to care so much about. If the Jews think they will be saved for keeping the law, Paul reminds them how flagrantly and how repeatedly they have failed to live up to that standard.
And then Paul takes aim at the law's chief symbol, circumcision. He is striking at the very heart of the Jewish identity. The law and circumcision are the two things that make Jews Jewish - the essence of what they boast in (verse 17) - but Paul says that they have 'no value' because of their hypocrisy and disobedience. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of this indictment. Without these identity factors, the Jews wouldn't know who they are.
Which makes the relentlessness of Paul's argument all the more striking. Why is he so critical of the law and circumcision? Why so fierce toward his own people? Why can't he just let this go?
The reason is this: Paul knows that there is ultimately no security for the Jews in trying to fulfill the law on their own steam. Down that path - the path of trying to prove ourselves to God by earning his favor - lies only false assurance (if they foolishly think they can live up to the law) or paralyzing fear (if they recognize that they cannot).
Instead, they need to find a different path to life with God. This alternate path is surprising, even paradoxical. It's what theologian Gerhard Forde calls 'utter despair.' It's a kind of spiritual sobriety that rescues us from delusions about ourselves:
The 'utter despair of one's own ability' ... is preparation to receive the grace of Christ. Indeed, we can say, utter despair of our own ability is not something we achieve on our own. ... [We] are those from whom all support other than the cross has simply been torn away ... We operate on the premise that faith in the crucified and risen One is all that we have going for us.
To think in this way - of my utter inability to save myself and my utter need for Christ - is to take on a new identity and new security. Jesus makes this call to his followers bluntly, 'Anyone who seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever gives up his life for my sake will find it' (Luke 9:24). Only by dying to our old identities, despairing of all our attempts to save ourselves, can we find our new identity in Christ.
And so, for all of Paul's pointed questions and dire warnings, he is really steering his Jewish brothers and sisters in a life-giving direction. Like a ruthless prosecutor, he is slamming every door of escape. He doesn't want anyone, Jew or otherwise, to fall for the false security of trying to earn God's favor. Instead, God's favor comes as sheer gift, through the forgiveness that is available through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We can apply Paul's argument by asking a few questions: What are the things that are crucial to my security? Where do I find my deepest sense of worth and significance and peace? What are the things that, if they were taken away from me, I could not live without?
For the Jews, it was their historic identity as expressed by the law and circumcision. For many today, it is their children, or career, or wealth, or status, or pleasures, or political views. But however successful we may be in any of these areas, none of them are the path by which we get right with God. For all of these things are finite; all of them will eventually be taken from us; and looking to them for our worth and security and peace in this life will only lead to anxiety.
The gospel offers a better path with real security. Despair of your ability to save yourself so that God can save you. Get out of the way his plan of redemption. Say no to yourself so you can say yes to God's offer of forgiveness and eternal life. For the true hope for the human race lies not in 'praise from man, but from God' (verse 29).