By Paul Koch –
If you were to look up the statistic for mass shootings in this country, you would find that out of the top ten, five incidents have occurred within the last three years. Let that sink in for a moment. Five of the deadliest shootings in our history have occurred in just the last three years. It has become such a regular part of our experience, part of our cultural discussion, that when seventeen children and faculty at Stoneman Douglas Highschool in Florida were murdered this past Valentine’s Day, we just shook our heads in disgust and then went about our day as if nothing happened. Oh sure, people get mad and they are good at pointing fingers. There’s always room for our righteous indignation. Blaming the NRA or the FBI or violent video games or the broken family structure. They call for change, for stricter gun laws and more intentional care for mental health issues. But it all seems to fall flat. We almost know that within a few months it will all die down, we will just move on, and nothing substantive will get done. Perhaps we just try to mask the real fear that there is nothing substantive that we can do.
See, I think there is something far deeper that is wrong. It is something that cannot be fixed by legislation or even diligent policing. When I think of the shooting at a school in Florida, or in a concert in Las Vegas, or a church in Texas, I can’t help but wonder if this is the manifestation of a spiritual crisis, a violent outburst of despair and hopelessness that has gripped our nation and our children. To engage in such an act, to become such a monster, seems to be the act of one who rises against God himself. But God cannot be killed. God cannot be done away with, so instead they destroy what He has created. They kill what He has loved.
We are witnessing a life of suffering without hope. Look, we know that our life is marked by pain and suffering. We know that the world is not fair. The evil seems to prosper while the good are pressed down. Far too often it is the lowly and the weak that are continually burdened without any help in sight. A person can struggle day in and day out and face disappointment and failure along the way. But they work hard, they dig in deep just get their heads above water when it all comes crashing down again. And so, they fall into despair. If there is no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel, no promise of something more, something beyond this vail of tears, the response can be rage. Suffering without hope can explode into a powerful and destructive rage that consumes the life of others.
Spiritual despair is a real thing. It usually begins with your failures, with the frustration of the things you desire to do. Have you ever set out to create something, perhaps a drawing or a building project of some sort? In your head you have a clear idea of what you want it to look like, you can clearly see the good and wonderful result. But what you actually produce is far from it. Others may even like what you did, but you know that it is a failure. It isn’t what it was supposed to be. Now imagine that frustration when it is applied to spiritual things: to faithful deeds or faithful desires. You know how you are supposed to think and act, you know how a Christian is supposed to conduct their life, but you fail to do it. You fail to carry it out, to see it to completion. You always come up short. You always stumble before the finish line. Perhaps we imagine what sort of person you were going to be. You wanted to be that kind and gracious person who is a joy to be around, but when you are really honest, when you step back and look at your life, it is obvious that you are anything but that. You have sabotaged yourself and failed to be what you wanted to be.
The issue here is not that you don’t know what you want to be, or the type of person you want to become, or the sort of Christian you ought to be. The issue is that you can’t seem to accomplish any of it. Hardships in life, personal ego, selfishness, grudges, anger and envy, you know them all too well. You know what it is to fail spiritually. To fail spiritually is far worse than failing physically or creatively in life. This isn’t a problem of a certain talent or inadequate tools, there is something broken within you. And you can’t run from it, you can’t shake it, you can’t fix it. And if, in that moment when this despair settles on you, you have no hope, what happens next? If you have no way out of this, then what is left? What becomes your focus? What do you do?
To despair in your spirit is to come face to face with a monster within yourself. You are tempted to think that if you just had the right instruction, it would be ok. If you just had the encouragement from others, then it would fill in what is missing. But the answer is not found within. To be directed within is to be turned again into the darkness and away from the light, to hope in the inner spirit of humanity is to hope in what is bankrupt already. Just as legislation and policing won’t fix the problem, neither will moral wisdom.
No, the solution is in something radically different. The answer is not something we come about on our own, but something we receive. St. Paul says, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Ungodly: that is what sin entangled man is. Not just weak or slow or troubled, you were born ungodly. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-7) The solution to spiritual despair is the death of Christ for you. See, he didn’t come to die for the good, the moral, those who have solved the problem of the monster within. He died for sinners. He died for the ungodly. He died for you as you wallowed helpless in your sin.
The death of Christ for you has given you something profound, something that changes the daily struggle of your life. In his flesh he bore your sins. In his dying he faced the wrath you deserved. In his resurrection he gives you the promise of life. And this gives you profound hope. Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:10) This hope changes everything, this hope is what is missing in our age.
Listen to how Paul describes how this plays out for the faithful. He says that you have been justified by faith in Christ alone. And because of that gift, that gift that is freely given to you, even your suffering is transformed. He says that because of Christ we know that the inevitable suffering of our age will not lead to despair but produce endurance, and “endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 5:3-5)
The gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the gift of your baptism into his name, the gift of holy absolution that declares once again that you are saved, you are loved, and you will live even though you die, is a gift that produces hope. It is your hope in Christ that gives you the endurance and strength to press on, to bear your cross, to follow your Lord and cling to his Word.
The horrors of our world flow from a spiritual despair born of a life without hope. The desire to destroy comes from the monster within that no longer has purpose. But there is a word of hope. There is a promise that brings light to the darkness that can stop even the most horrid of monsters. It is why what we do here matters. It is why we need one another. This is our moment. It is our call to make the good confession to rally the troops and to let love and charity prevail. You have been justified by Christ alone, reconciled to God and so you have a bold and defiant hope. A hope that will not be shaken by the last gasp of a dying world. Come Lord Jesus, come. Amen.