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Against Despair

by Eberhard Juengel Monday, Jun. 02, 2008 at 2:09 AM

Faith and Bonhoeffer's distinction of faith and religion can keep us from despair. The human handshake can be a metaphor of God's strong hand. God keeps us from falling, not from stumbling. Parallel, plural worlds exist beyond fault-finding and fear-mongering.


By Eberhard Juengel

[This sermon on Psalm 73,23f was presented on 3/16/2008 in Berlin. Eberhard Juengel is an emeritus professor of systematic theology in Tubingen and author of “God as the Mystery of the World.” Other sermons and addresses of professor Juengel are available at and]

Dear Community, Sisters and Brothers!

Grace be with you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We have prayed verses 23 and 24 from Psalm 73:

“You hold my right hand and afterwards will receive me to glory (honor).”

The sermon series on the “sin register” ends with this sermon. Thanks be to God, the sin register is at an end!

Here I am in the minority. “Sin register” has a boom season everywhere. When we hear of the Levites, when sermons are preached “against sin,” we usually think of the sins of others: the sins of the wicked neighbor or the sins of those at the top with great economic and political power (to name two examples), those who don’t pay their fair tax or do the opposite after the election to what they promised before the election. When told of the Levites, ears perk up and we are somehow filled with deep satisfaction, if not malicious joy.

I am not without sin or sinless as Jesus Christ was according to the testimony of the New Testament. No, I am also a sinner. The “old Adam” is also alive and at work in me. However my aberrations and my sins concern no one but myself.

Two words should be added: my sins concern no one but myself and God. Offenses against other persons, violations of the law and serious crimes involve others: state prosecutors, judges and assessors, for example – and above all the victims. But I see my own misconduct, my own inaction, my own crimes against God’s holy will as sins that only concern God and me. Then I am alone with my concern, alone before God.

For this reason, confession in the Christian church is a mystery. When I confess my own sins to a pastor or another Christian, this person represents God. The human ear becomes God’s own ear. What God hears really only concern God and me. Woe to the pastor or Christian who babbles what the sinner confesses to him!

My own sins interest wicked neighbors and sometimes even good neighbors. The ears of the whole world may itch though the world is not involved. That is also true for the sins of the wicked neighbor and the sins of those on top. They don’t concern me. This distinguishes the church from the world. When sins are addressed in the church, forgiving sins is central, not exposing the sinner, so freed from guilt he or she can live rightly. Sins are forgiven in God’s name so “liberated from guilt and blemish we can live again with joy and pleasure now and in eternity.

Therefore a Christian church service is something other than reading aloud a “sin register.” “Sin registers” only have a meaning when they explain what sin is.

Everyone is then involved even those who turn their backs on the church – for whatever reasons. What is sin? This question concerns all persons unconditionally.

It is right and salutary to explain sin in this sermon series without preaching against sin as lethargy, envy, avarice, unchastity and pride. That sin is unbelief from Luther’s perspective is strangely not yet preached.

This sermon “Against Despair” concludes the series of the “sin register.”

Can one preach against the weather? When it rains, it rains. When a gale blows, it’s stormy outside. How can a pastor in the pulpit give a sermon “against bad weather”? One can ask for good weather, fro healthiness of the air. But one cannot give a sermon “against bad weather.” That would be sheer nonsense.

The question “What can the despairing one when he despairs and doesn’t love himself”” belongs in a tragedy, not in an opera. The answer is nothing. One cannot reproach the despairing for despair. This is important regarding what the Bible calls sin.

Boundless inertia, envy, avarice, unchastity and pride should be decried. I can criticize myself for each of these “capital sins” as they were once called. They belong to the church “register of sins.” Sin is always something, for which I reproach myself,

However I cannot reproach myself or another person for the despair that suddenly assails or slowly descends. This is not part of the church “sin register.” [1] Whoever denounces despair as sin mixes up something or brings things in confusion.

How easily everything can be mixed up! For example, think of doubt and despair.

I cannot dispute my doubt with another person. In disputes, my doubts could even be refuted. However despair can never be disputed. Doubts always involve this or that circumstance, this or that claim, sometimes even this or that person whom I mistrust. Despair seizes me completely. In my despair, I am completely alone with myself. Despair produces an unheard-of loneliness. Jean Paul described it this way: “I only have myself.” Otherwise there is nothing.

What does “nothing” mean here? The despairing one experiences this nothing. He experiences it as a bleak and barren nothingness that must be written with capital letters. It settles in me in all my life acts.

Even when I am happy – a rare phenomenon – the tinder that needs only a little spark to plunge me in the deepest despair is there in the midst of happiness. Soren Kierkegaard said “the dearest dwelling place of despair is happiness.” Only one “carelessly thrown word” is needed that slumbers in the innermost core of happiness. Despair is so strong that it seizes and draws me – like a whirlpool in a tranquilly flowing stream.

Then the dreariness of despair replaces the happiness sparkling in all colors. Then the faces of kindly persons so endearing in the past congeal to meaningless masks. Even the friendliest words of the good neighbor curdle into a monotonous litany that cannot say anything to me.

The despairing one has nothing more to say. Words stick in his throat. Even when a sigh or murmur can be heard from his mouth, it is only a last helpless word from one who has grown silent. That, dear community, is the worst part of despair. The completely despairing one cannot even complain any more.

A miracle must happen for the despairing to gain courage to at least complain. Only God has the power for miracles. Goethe reminds the despairing “When a person falls silent in his agony, God tells him what he suffers.”

The praying person of Psalm 73 declares he was embittered and pricked in his heart and couldn’t see any meaning in anything. He didn’t understand or appreciate the world, God or himself. “I was like a beast toward thee” (v.21ff). However this desperate person can still complain. God told this one who nearly fell silent in his despair what he suffers and how he suffers.

How does God do this? How does God give back language to one who falls silent in his sorrow so he can at least complain and say what and how he suffers?

The answer is somewhat surprising for us Protestants because it is very concrete. A very conscious contact, a contact of hand to hand, comes to the despairing psalmist, not a divine word. “You hold my right hand.”

The hand of another is beside me! I am not alone while everything else is nothing. As long as there is a handshake, there is another person beside me.

We experienced this in our childhood when despondency and great overwhelming nervousness assailed, not despair. I thankfully remember the strong hand of my mother whose strength was reflected in her care and her kindness.

When my mother brought me back into the parental home after the ordered evacuation toward the end of the Second World War, a bomb alarm surprised us just before reaching the station. We had to leave the train and stood jam-packed in the tunnel of the Magdeburg suburb train station. The bombs fell and my whole body trembled. While her heart also trembled, my mother took my right hand. I knew I was held. My mother’s loving care for the young boys made my mothers’ hand strong. Kindness and loving care, dear community, always produce strong hands. Care and kindness make limp hands strong.

Not only the hands of elders take the hands of the younger and support him. The younger can take the hand of the elder and give him support. In this cathedral there is a young man who knows what I am talking about.

This material contact of two human hands in which one gives support to another is a very expressive metaphor for God’s nearness that returns language to the one who falls silent in his despair. A human handshake coming from the heart can signal to me: God’s hand is also there. This hand takes the hand of the despairing. As his strong hand rescued Jesus of Nazareth crying desperately for God from death on the cross, it will save everyone in whom nothingness has lodged to make everything meaningless and desolate from this bleak nothingness.

Happy is the one who sees that God’s strong hand has long held our hand! He will hold us in his hand at the end and take us in his arms and “receive us in honor”!

Held by God’s hand, event he despairing can go forward toward eternal life. With our human handshake, we attest this. The whole eternity can be invested in such a human handshake. The eternity made possible in a human handshake picks up the despairing and advances him. When the despairing one makes progress, then we can advance others who are despondent and anxious but not desperate – toward eternal life.

We may reach this goal limping or stumbling but hardly in drill step or in “Nordic walking.” Yes, one can stumble again and again even when God holds our right hand. But one cannot fall. One who stumbles into eternal life also reaches the goal – to be accepted in honor despite or with all his faults. The highest honor that can come to us persons is to be taken in God’s arms.

Yes, dear community, God taking us in his arms is really imminent. Then reading aloud sin registers is over for ever. That is as certain as the “Amen” in church. Amen


Great God, loving heavenly Father! We admire the strength of your kind hand that holds us. We ask you to hold us and advance us and not let us go – until we reach our goal in your wide-opened arms and live together with you freed from sin and blemishes. Grant our prayer, we beseech thee.

Lord Jesus Christ, God of God, man among men, philanthropist! You were fatally despairing and in your despair cried to your heavenly Father. Your Father heard you and gave an unfathomable eternal meaning to your despair. Since then death is swallowed up in victory. We pray to you for all who are despairing and think they must live in vain. Intercede for them with your and our heavenly Father so he will be very near to them and hold their hand so they can stand upright and advance. Grant our prayer, we beseech thee!

O God, Holy Spirit, you strengthen what is exhausted. Strengthen our weak faith! Give your church the courage and power to testify effectively to the truth of the gospel. Give the separated churches the courage and strength to go to one another in the spirit of truth and love and then to advance together. Have mercy on the rowdies, the young and the old who think they are so strong and do such weak things. Help them see that only love at the end is stronger than all despair, despondency, fear and even death. We pray for all suffering persons, for the poor and all those in the greatest distress. Bring helpful persons to their sides that support them. We also pray for the powerful, clever and wise. Come so near to all of them that they may live and act responsibly in politics, culture, the economy and all areas of our society and not stand in the way of themselves or others. When they break down, comfort them and us for we need your comfort every morning. Grant us your comforting spirit, we beseech thee!


Translator’s note – Marc Batko

Faith and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction of faith and religion can keep us from despair. Faith is a different view of life and the world, an inclusive affirming and welcoming view that gives everyone a new beginning. The language of proclamation runs crossway to the language of time, to vulgar materialism, rampant apathy and normalized war. Feminist theology, “I feel enclosed in a greater being,” and “the spiral of the universe in a snail” are examples of liberating faith.

The human handshake can be a metaphor of God’s strong hand. God keeps us from falling, not from stumbling (Eberhard Juengel)

Parallel, plural worlds exist. Fault-finding and fear-mongering can be overcome as prejudice can be overcome as a stepping-stone to the event of understanding (Hans Georg Gadamar, “Truth and Method”).

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