The outer world is in a rather frightful state, with its wars, corruption, immorality, blasphemy, etc. The inner world of our minds and hearts may also be in rather serious disorder, at least at times. All of the inner and outer chaos is basically the result of sin, but we aren’t always aware, first of all, that there is a malevolent power trying to work out a plan for our ultimate ruin, and second, that we can do something about it.
If the devil had his way, he would lead us all along a progressive path that looks something like this: sin, despondency, despair, suicide. His ultimate goal is to lead us to despair of salvation, and then to seal our doom by forever cutting ourselves off from the Source of Mercy. This is a fairly long process in most cases, but the devil really doesn’t have anything else to do, so he can apply himself diligently over the long haul to gradually lure souls away from God and then, at the right moment, zero in for the kill.
The first element is sin, which, at least to some extent, is practically unavoidable for us, uh, sinners, but which sets us on the path to ultimate despair. Sin destroys, or at the very least harms, our relationship with God, depending on the gravity or habitual quality of it. It creates a dis-ease in our souls, a sense of guilt (if our conscience is still intact), which makes us want to hide from God as did our first parents in Eden when they lamentably introduced sin into the hitherto pristine creation. This hiding from God is the first indication that we are on the way to despair, and so the devil will eagerly encourage us to keep our distance from the Lord, for how could we now—says the enemy of our salvation—enter into the presence of the Holy One? Better to flee from his face.
Since, however, our hearts are made for God and they cannot rest until they rest in Him, our sin—if left unrepented due to our fearful withdrawal from God—will lead us to the next step, despondency. The guilt we feel over sin is not the culprit, because that is a natural and correct inner response to wrongdoing. If we are guilty, we should feel guilty! But the sense of shame or guilt is supposed to lead us to humility and repentance, so that we can be restored to God’s favor and blessing, which is precisely what He wants to do. There’s a bit of devilish pride that restrains us from humbling ourselves, and though it may not be a boastful arrogance, it is an inward-turning self-pity or perhaps even self-justification concerning our sin. But there is no healing in this; the dis-ease only increases and becomes despondency, a kind of chronic inner darkness and pessimism that resists any encroachment of joy or peace.
An element of this despondency may be the record of our past failures to shake free from sin or from some particular habitual fault. We may have perhaps, after a fall, promised God to avoid this sin henceforth. But once such a promise is broken, it may be that we resign ourselves to a (mistaken) conclusion that such promises simply cannot be kept—and therefore no one should expect us to!—and then of course the falls increase and hope diminishes accordingly. As hope recedes, despair approaches, and the devil gathers strength.
If we ever become convinced that we can’t change, can’t resist sin, can’t break out of the deadening cycle of sin and its increasingly harmful consequences, and therefore (and worst of all) can’t expect forgiveness, we are entering the pit of despair. If we have come to a point at which we convince ourselves that our lives are ruined and that therefore there is no hope for us or reason even to try to find mercy or deliverance, the devil will play his final card: suicide. Put an end to it, and flee forever from the Uncompromising Holy Almighty One who disapproves of your failed life anyway. Well, that’s literally going out of the frying pan and into the fire, for the devil will now taunt us for all eternity for stupidly throwing away our only hope, and now we have to serve him, which is a torment and humiliation far greater than anything we could experience in this life.
So what do we do? Ideally, of course, we ought to live in a constant state of grace, of lively faith, hope, and love for God, doing his will at all times. But since we are still likely to fall into sin, to some extent and at certain times, we have to make sure that it never gets past that first stage in devil’s design for our despair unto death eternal. If you fall you have to get up right away and repent, and if you fall again you have to get up again, quickly, without reflection on your woeful weakness and the likelihood that you’ll fall yet again. Run, don’t walk, to the Heart of Mercy and be reconciled with Him. He’s not going to grind your face in it or humiliate you. Rather, He will receive you with embraces like the father of the prodigal. When you experience the inexhaustible outpouring of mercy and love from the Lord, the happy consequence is that your healing has already begun and you will become (gradually at least) less likely to commit the sins that have caused you shame and the desire to hide from Him or give up hope altogether.
The devil must not be allowed to push the program any further. Once you allow yourself to get stuck in despondency, you’re already too far down that road. But even at that point you can easily be rescued if you just call for help and mercy. The Lord has cracked tougher nuts than you, but it’s still not a good idea to put Him to the test! You have to will your deliverance, your repentance, your reconciliation. This is important, because your emotions will fail you at this point, as will your natural physical and psychic energies. You have to choose to turn to the Lord; your decision is what will connect you to his grace and mercy (on his part, his love is already there, waiting).
No one inevitably ends up in despair after having sinned, even repeatedly. There is always hope, always mercy. It is up to us to be vigilant and to have our hearts turned toward the Lord as consistently as possible, so we don’t have to end up seeking deliverance from the sticky tentacles of despondency. Let us look for the signs early, so as not to give in to deceitful demonic reasoning about the sternness of God or the hopeless condition of our souls. “For with the Lord there is mercy and the fullness of redemption” (Ps. 129/130). So go ahead, ruin the devil’s day. Accept the Lord’s mercy and get up to serve Him once again!