Classically, both in the world and in our churches, we have seen despair as the ultimate unforgivable sin. The simple notion was that neither God, nor anyone else, could save you if you simply gave up, despaired, made yourself impossible to reach. Most often in the popular mind this was applied to suicide. To die by your own hand was seen as despair, as putting yourself outside God’s mercy.

But understanding despair in this way is wrong and misguided, however sincere our intent. What is despair? How might it be understood?

The common dictionary definition invariably runs something like this: despair means to no longer have any hope or belief that a situation will improve or change. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which sees despair as a sin against the First Commandment, defines it this way: “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy.”

But there’s something absolutely critical to be distinguished here: there are two reasons why someone might cease to hope for personal salvation from God and give up hope in having his or her sins forgiven. It can be that the person doubts the goodness and mercy of God, or – and I believe that this is normally the case – the person is too crushed, too weak, too broken inside, to believe that he or she is lovable and redeemable.

But being so beaten and crushed in spirit so as to believe that nothing further can exist for you except pain and darkness is normally not an indication of sin, but more a symptom of having been fatally victimised by circumstance, of having to undergo, in the poignant words of Fantine in Les Misérables, storms that you cannot weather. And before positing such a person outside of God’s mercy, we need to ask ourselves: what kind of God would condemn a person who is so crushed by the circumstances of her life so as to be unable to believe that she is loveable? What kind of God would condemn someone for her brokenness?

Such a God would certainly be utterly foreign to Jesus, who incarnated and revealed God’s love as being preferential for the weak, the crushed, the broken-hearted, for those despairing of mercy. To believe and teach that God withholds mercy from those who are most broken in spirit betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature and mercy of God, who sends Jesus into the world not for the healthy but for those who need a physician.

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