Our Faith by Emil Brunner
Emil Brunner is one of the great systematic theologians of the early twentieth century. Our Faith was translated by John W. Rilling, and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1954. This book prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 20: Faith or Despair
"It is enough to drive one to despair!" We have all uttered these words when we have waited vainly for the success of a cherished project, when great and repeated exertions have not caused our work to prosper, when our high expectations of another person have not been fulfilled. Fortunately these dismal moods do not come every day, for if they did we should indeed be driven to despair.
There are people, however, who have the feeling of despair, not now and then but constantly, and when we observe carefully we realize that there are more such folk than we are apt at first to think. We are often desperate without noting it or knowing why. Why do we despair, really? We are driven to despair when there is apparently no way out, no goal in view. But do we see the way out, the goal? One goal we certainly see -- death. We must all go hence, is that not enough to drive us to despair? If death terminates all -- can there be anything more desperate than that? No other goal, no way out, no sense to anything, everything in vain, if the close of all things is always the one vast empty nothing. Death -- the great chasm into which all must eventually fall, the beautiful along with the dissolute, the good along with the bad, the valuable and the valueless alike. When a lad in the first grade has taken great pains with his drawing only to have the teacher snatch it roughly out of his hand, tear it to bits and throw the pieces into the wastebasket -- isn't that enough to drive the poor little lad to 'despair? But are we not all such poor little fellows, whose teacher is death, casting into the great chasm with his rough hand all that we have created, all that we have tended and built up with loving care? Does that not make us desperate?
There is only one thing more fearful than the thought that death ends all: that one is in such dreadful condition that he hopes that death ends all, because he is fearful of what is to come afterward. When a bad conscience troubles a man so that he must think: I will be punished for what I have done; there will come a day when all things will appear in the light of day, the great unavoidable reckoning. When one is so desperate that death -- I mean death as the ultimate -- seems a way out, a goal to be desired -- that is the ultimate desolation. Whether or not we give this most fearful thing the name Hell is of no significance; the name does not matter. This thought, in any case, leads one to despair. And who has never had such a thought? Have you so lived that you can be sure it does not await you? Are you certain this is not your goal? Death and Hell as a goal is indeed enough to drive one to despair, and who or what can free us from utter dejection? No one, nothing can do it. For no one can avert death, and no one can take away my guilt. All the lovely, charming, and powerful things of life cannot master this despair. Who is master over death and the fear of Hell? You can determine not to think about it -- draw the curtains of your soul. You can plunge into work, to forget it, you can drown your sorrow in drink, plunge into society and gossip in order to drown out these voices of despair -- but it is useless. When children at play try to stop the flow of a spring by placing their hands over the overflow pipe, the water spurts out from under their fingers. So, too, with the resolution not to think about our despair. We become ill and nervous, sleep badly, discover desires unknown before, in short our despair works within the deep and dark places of our being like a sinister and destructive spirit. To dismiss conscious thoughts of our despair is not to cure it. How, how shall we come to terms with this thing?
There is but one word strong enough to conquer despair -- and that is faith. Either we despair -- or we believe. Nothing but faith is able to swallow up despair, there is no other alternative. That is the great either-or in life, more important than any other. Ether despair -- or faith. That means that either everything will come out all right, or everything will come out all wrong. Either death and Hell in the end, or the end is God. Faith means with all things end in God. "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory......" So to speak is the work of faith. Only he who believes in God wins the victory over despair.
Who can speak that way: ". . . who hath given us the victory?" Who is able to say, We have the victory? Death and Hell are overcome for us? Who has spoken this glorious word and how could he do it? Listen to the rest of the quotation: "Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." That is the victory; Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the Word with which God robs death and Hell of their power to make us despair. God in Christ has closed the chasm of death and quenched the flames of Hell -- for every one that believes on Him. For: "he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." "For I am persuaded, that neither death nor life, nor principalities, nor powers.....(nothing) shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Hence we must constantly keep Jesus Christ before us. Because he is the Victory, because in him God forgives our guilt, and because in him God promises us eternal life. Faith means to hear Jesus as God's Word to us, and see him as God's victory; and that alone means the end of despair.