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The Slippery Side of Hope

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Hope deferred makes the heart sick. (Proverbs 13:12)

Depression, despair, feelings of disquiet and emptiness are common complaints we hear in the counseling office. Standard treatments of care for depressed persons notwithstanding, in this post I’d like to single out one specific aspect of the diagnostic picture as well as treatment plan that Christian counselors often fail to see but are uniquely equipped to address.

Depression is a physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and relational response to something that’s wrong. The million dollar question we must ask is our clients is “what’s wrong?” (Vernick, 2005).  What we do know is that there is not one single cause or simple answer and that depression is often triggered or exasperated by loss.

When listening to our client’s story of loss our response as therapists is to validate and empathize. Whether it’s the loss of a job, the loss of a spouse through divorce or death, the loss of a friendship, or the loss of a dream, we know that grieving is a painful process and that it can’t be rushed. But when grief becomes despair and mourning moves to depression, we must be willing and prepared to look for a deeper problem going on (often unrecognized) within the heart of the depressed person.

Let me share a brief case example: Marsha came to counseling complaining of recurring depression. Her third episode brought her to see me. She was an attractive woman, reportedly happily married, mother of 3 children but lived her life striving to be perfect.  In her words, “I try so hard. ”  Initially depression was a gift to her because she no longer had the physical, mental, and emotional energy to do it all, make everyone happy and pretend everything was fine or like something when she did not. 

But once her antidepressant medication started working and she felt better, Marsha soon returned to her people pleasing, perfectionist frenzy, hoping this time she’d succeed. As she sensed her frustration and despair returning once again, we began to dig deeper as to what was driving Marsha. I asked her what she wanted and what she hoped for?   

Marsha’s response wasn’t atypical of this kind of person. She hoped to make everyone happy and hoped she could someday be strong enough to erase all her weaknesses. She hoped she could, with God’s help of course, become the person she thought she should be. But the times when Marsha felt angry, couldn’t keep up, gained a few pounds, didn’t make everyone happy, despair loomed large. She failed, she couldn’t do it. Her hopes were dashed once again. 

There could be a variety of ways to tackle this clinically, but one lens to look at this problem is through the lens of idolatry. Marsha was hoping for something that indeed was hopeless. Marsha could never make everyone happy all of the time nor would she ever transcend personal weakness. To anchor oneself to such a false hope was to invite despair. Counseling helped Marsha become more aware of her idolatry and invited her to repentance. It was only when she transferred her hope to God would she have any deeper success battling her recurrent depressive episodes.

The Bible tells us that Elijah struggled with despair soon after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Throughout his ministry, Elijah saw his prayers answered in many miraculous ways. After the heavenly fire licked up the sacrifice on the drenched altar, the people of Israel acknowledged that the LORD was indeed God. The prophets of Baal were silenced and the clouds grew dark and the long awaited rain fell. Yet, Elijah despaired.  Why?

Subtly, unconsciously, even while serving God, Elijah began to put his hope in something other than God. He hoped that Israel’s leaders would come to their senses and repent. But right after the confrontation on Mount Carmel, Ahab and Jezebel were more determined than ever to kill Elijah.

What Elijah hoped for was a good thing, but when it became the preeminent driving force of his life’s story and it didn’t happen, he despaired. Miserable, he said, “I’ve had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 18,19). 

Hope goes awry whenever we put something in God’s place in our life. Even when we hope in good things like meaningful ministry, a loving and intimate marriage, and answered prayer, these things can become idols when we need them for our source of joy, love, and well-being.

Most of the time we (or our clients) don’t even notice that we’ve shifted our hope unless we lose what we hoped in or for, and then our responses show us that we have been leaning on a false god. 

The psalmist asked himself the question, “Why are you downcast O my soul?” He never wrote the reason why he was depressed but I suspect false hope had something to do with it because his response to himself was, “Put your hope in God” (Psalm 42:5).

Hope is an essential ingredient in good mental and spiritual health. However, we must help our client’s to put their hope in God and not merely in what they hope God will give them or do for them.

Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Let’s dialogue:  How has disordered hope played a disconcerting role in your own emotional well-being as well as in your clients?


Vernick, L. (2005) Defeating Depression: Real Hope for Life-Changing Wholeness, Eugene, OR: Harvest House.


Posted on September 9, 2013