Despair Deaths & the Death of Despair

There are two perennial truths that humans, try as we may, cannot avoid. One, this world cannot satisfy us. It was never meant to. Two, we can’t fix us. We were never meant to.

A recent study examines the increase of “deaths by despair,” a term used to describe alcohol and drug related deaths as well as death by suicide. Here’s a brief summary of the interpretation of the findings from the study:

Important public health successes, including HIV treatment and smoking cessation, have contributed to declining premature mortality in Hispanic individuals, black individuals, and Asians and Pacific Islanders. However, this progress has largely been negated in young and middle-aged (25–49 years) white individuals, and American Indians and Alaska Natives, primarily because of potentially avoidable causes such as drug poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. The magnitude of annual mortality increases in the USA is extremely unusual in high-income countries, and a rapid public health response is needed to avert further premature deaths.

As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter we are reminded of the death of despair itself, that Jesus died to defeat what Paul calls “God’s final enemy,” death. We cannot air brush or photoshop away the reality of living in a fallen world in broken bodies with misdirected appetites. We must not reduce the gospel to a narrative that is disconnected from the real world: from parents whose children have died from drug overdoses, from Christians who struggle with besetting sins, from those whose bout with depression paints a dark hue over all of life.

The beauty of the authentic gospel is that Jesus came to dine with sinners, to fellowship with the broken, to affiliate with the least of these. Jesus made real friendships. He shed real tears. And he came to do something about despair.

His commitment is evidenced by a trail of blood and tears leading up to Golgotha. Every step of the way, despising the shame, but for the glory that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross and faced the death we rightfully deserve. “Why have you forsaken me,” he cried to his Father, quoting from the Psalms, with his final breath.

Then quiet. Despair seemed to win the day. The disciples scattered. Hope seemed lost forever.

But on that first Easter Sunday, all the promises of the Old Testament converged in an empty Jerusalem tomb. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that despair has an expiration date. Jesus walked out of that borrowed tomb having delivered a mortal wound to despair. And one day he will return to finish the job.

For the time being, as the Apostle Paul says, we grieve. But we don’t grieve as those without hope. As we read studies like the one I referenced, we should indeed grieve. Like Jesus, we should at times weep. But our hope, as messy as it might seem at times, though seen through a veil of tears dimly, is the One who died a death of despair so that we that despair but die an eternal death. And now the just can live, by faith.