Despair is the complete loss of hope. Circumstances can press in around us to the extent that we cannot see a way out. When fear grips us, hopelessness is right behind. The apostle Paul knew firsthand what that was like. Yet he wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” Paul could suffer so many hardships yet not despair because his hope was not based on earthly circumstances. He held on to the knowledge that God was ultimately in control of it all (cf. Isaiah 55:8–9). He knew that, whether he lived or died (Philippians 1:23–24), whether he had plenty or had nothing (Philippians 4:12–13), God was in control and his sufferings would have meaning for all eternity (2 Corinthians 4:17).
To despair means we have turned our backs on hope. We have chosen to disbelieve God and His many promises to deliver and provide (Psalm 46:1; 50:15; 144:2; Proverbs 18:10; Philippians 4:19). Despair means we have fixed our gaze on this world and are looking to it for happiness. Jesus warned us not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). We may be exceedingly sorrowful, as Jesus was the night before His crucifixion (Matthew 26:38–39; Luke 22:42–43). But, as children of God, we cannot despair because we have hope in God. Our hope rests on eternity and not the few days we live on this earth (James 4:14). Like Abraham, we are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Psalm 43:5 gives us a model of how to talk to ourselves when tempted to despair: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” This psalm reminds us that, regardless of how desperate or frightened we may be at any moment, there is the hope that we will once again praise God and rejoice in His goodness. Hope is a gift of God and one of the “three things [that] will last forever” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT).