Men and Despair
10 Common Characteristics of the Despairing Man
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Despair is not something that men alone struggle with, but I see men in abject despair regularly.
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon, but it seems more prevalent and exacerbated in our overly connected digital age.
And as I’ve paid attention to this common struggle I have at the same time noticed some common traits amongst these same men and I thought I would share the traits here because I think many men that read this will perhaps find that much of what I write here rings true. In other words, this is not an uncommon struggle and these traits are not uncommon traits. And I hope in writing this, that many men who struggle with habitual despair will see that they aren’t alone and in turn, will be motivated to walk in repentance and faith. While I seek to be descriptive of the despairing man in this short article, you will find prescriptions throughout to help you come out of the crashing waves of despair.
Furthermore, not all men struggling with despair have all these characteristics. Also— think of these characteristics as operating on a dimmer switch of sorts. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, but I think it will hit home for some.
I was reminded in a recent conversation with my Dad that when we zoom out and evaluate our circumstances, we often come face to face with this reality—our circumstances either drive us to Christ or despair. There is no middle ground.
A despairing man often has a strong sense of injustice in the world.
Many men who struggle with despair look at what is going on in our society and mourn it. They rightly observe that our nation is headed in the wrong direction and has been for some time. They see all types of evil indulged in and celebrated and force-fed to the public at a national level. They see the harm inflicted upon fellow image-bearers and they perceive that there is a lack of accountability.
These men stay up to date with every injustice, every tragedy, every political power grab. They are always watching the news or intaking it in some form. They talk about it at work and with their family. They talk about it at church. They seemingly never disengage.
However, at the same time, they give little consideration to Cosmic justice, or perhaps that feels too distant or intangible to them. They want some version of justice now and they forget that God does not bow to their timetable or to their type of justice. Because of this, they grow frustrated, bitter, and angry and their overindulgence in the woes of society means they feast little on Christ. The result of this is big problems and a small god.
A despairing man has little self-control over his appetites.
These men who rightfully mourn the sins of society oftentimes tolerate sins in their own lives even though their sin makes them miserable. The lack of self-control often manifests itself in inward lusts and desires that aren’t mortified. It manifests itself in pornography and other types of sexual sin. Men who do not mortify sinful desires, men who look at pornography are despairing men—every one of them.
It can also manifest itself in overindulging in food or drink. Despairing men may be prone to binge eating or binge drinking as a means by which they “self-medicate” or escape despair.
It can manifest itself in an addiction to T.V. or video games. Often, men go to these places to “decompress”. They come home from work, bypass the family, and head off to “unwind” by taking dominion in a world that doesn’t exist.
It can manifest itself in phone addiction—podcasts that serve as echo chambers, unhealthy social media engagement which leads to contentious arguments which lead to contentious relationships.
A despairing man is a bitter man.
Despairing men are often bitter men—they are self-loathing and that provides fertile soil for bitterness. They are the types of men you walk on eggshells around. The bitter man is bitter at God for allowing things to be the way that they are. This usually and primarily relates to the man’s own character not changing. He knows what a virtuous man looks like, he may even have examples propped up to him at church and in culture, and he knows he isn’t that.
Yet the examples only frustrate him more. He doesn’t realize that the reason he isn’t changing is because bitterness and anger aren’t a driver for repentance, only Jesus is. And sadly he bristles at anyone who is kind enough to be truthful with him and seeks to hold him accountable including his wife and children.
A despairing man is a reactor.
By “reacting” I mean, there isn’t much strategy or forethought given to his actions. And I’ve seen despairing men react usually in one of two ways when facing a hardship: He either (a) reacts passively or (b) reacts in a domineering way (in an attempt to course correct). Let me explain.
Many despairing men default to passivity. They delegate responsibilities that they should never delegate. I see this in the husband/wife relationship often. Now our wives are wonderful helpers and we would be foolish not to take the advice of godly women, but despairing men end up delegating things to their wives (through their passivity) that God has called them alone to do. In other words, they attempt to delegate biblical headship. Now, a lot of times these same men may have strong, vocal wives so it can be easy for them to forsake their role in the home, but they will be miserable as they do because they aren’t authorized to delegate their God-given responsibilities.
Sometimes the despairing man tries to course correct this in his own strength (instead of through the strength of God’s might) and this always ends poorly. The man usually explodes in anger, makes arbitrary rules, and sets a tone similar to that of a dictator—this is a domineering reaction. Both passivity and domineering are sinful. You don’t repent of being passive by becoming domineering.
A despairing man does not meditate on Scripture.
By “meditate” I don’t simply mean read the Scripture. I’ve seen plenty of despairing men read Scripture regularly. What I have in view is thinking, pondering, internalizing, and being warmed by the Word of God according to the power of the Spirit of God. To meditate is to mine the treasures that are God’s Word and to bring them to bear on your life. Men that are warmed by the Scriptures—Men that are filled with the Scriptures are men that do not despair (Psalm 1). They are humble men who are increasingly mindful of their sin, but at the same time see that Christ died for their particular sins. This brings freedom, joy, and genuine repentance.
Despairing men do not pray rightly.
They may do an act that they think is prayer, but it is often full of embittered accusations toward God, others, and self. The “prayers” are usually self-serving and many times are angry and accusatory. They take the shape of “God why won’t you change me?” yet they fail to avail themselves of any of the means the Lord has provided to change them. The Psalmists are great tutors on this. They teach us that we can bring complaints before God, but that we do so in faith. We do so in humility.
Despairing men are isolated men.
They live outside of true accountability. They don’t submit to anyone. They attempt to shepherd themselves. They may be around people, they may gather with the church each Lord’s Day they may give the appearance of not being isolated, but they don’t live truthfully. They hide their struggles. Or, if they do end up sharing their struggles, they do so not to do the hard work of change, but rather to clear their conscience. The problem is that confession without repentance is neither confession nor repentance.
Despairing men are dismissive of the power of the ordinary means of grace (Word, Prayer Sacrament)
These men usually scoff or bristle when they receive counsel regarding their need to engage the ordinary means of grace with faith. God does use the public preaching of the Word to change you. God does hear the prayers of his people when we gather. The Lord does grow us and remind us of cosmically significant things and is spiritually present with us through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, the despairing man often engages with these means in a rote, faithless manner.
Despairing men delay obedience and blame it on their circumstances.
They know what they need to do, but they never do it because the time isn’t right. They often describe the circumstances needed to walk in obedience and they deceive themselves to think that if their circumstances were different, they would obey. This is simply not true.
I think of Elisabeth Elliot’s quote regarding this: “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances” (Elliot, Keep a Quiet Heart).
Despairing men function as if they are saved by grace and kept by works.
Many men who live in abject despair wrestle with their salvation. It is true that living in sin robs us of our joy—robs us of our assurance of salvation. However, in my experience, I’ve found that men complicate this further by believing functionally that they can improve their right standing with God. They give lip service to being saved by the person and work of Christ alone. They give lip service to their righteousness being a foreign one—one that comes outside of them. But they live as if they aren’t eternally secure. They live as if they are seeking to keep their salvation instead of working out the salvation that Christ alone has accomplished and the Holy Spirit has applied (Philippians 2:12-13).
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