I know the sound of despondency. I hear a lot of it in confession. People come to acknowledge their sins, but, as their story unfolds, they can’t help but to express a dejected soul, one wounded over some intractable relationship. It’s always a relationship. Despondency would seem to make more sense with a diagnosis, but health doesn’t make any promises, which is why it torments us less than relationships. Failing a miracle, a terminal illness moves on ineluctably. We pray for the best, but, with a little time, we brace ourselves for the worst.
But relationships torment precisely because hope holds us tight. We can’t help but to wonder why the heart of the one we love won’t change, because obviously it could. It’s the knowledge that it can, coupled to the surety that it won’t, that tortures us. Hence the despondency: hope tells us that it could be different, but hope has lied too long. Why won’t it take pity and depart?
Sitting on the other side of the screen, I know that I cannot truly appreciate the other’s desperation. Sometimes, though not often, I will ask, “But have you talked to your spouse? Your son? Your daughter?” The very question seems to afflict the suffering soul. Don’t I understand? The other won’t listen. The other can’t hear.
One cannot, in a few minutes of conversation, suggest that someone’s suffering is self-inflicted. I don’t know that, and to suggest it would be to heap shame onto sorrow. One can’t impose insight.
So there we are, the suffering soul and I. Jonah has come to chide God about a heart that won’t be moved. One might think that I would side with God, but I have been Jonah too many times myself to be so callow. I get it. If the heart of the one we love won’t change, can’t change, then the maker of hearts should be made to answer. Or is God heartless as well?
And Jesus owes us an answer. Where is the kingdom he promised? Again, it’s a relationship that torments. Jesus told us that the universe cared about us. He addressed it as “Father” and taught us to do so as well. A heartless world wouldn’t hurt so much if hope hadn’t been kindled by Christ. It’s the hope that makes us despondent.
But Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). We’re despondent because the kingdom doesn’t come. Is it possible that the kingdom only comes to the desperate? Must the spirit spend itself, become truly poor, before it is ready to receive the kingdom?
Origen, an early Christian theologian—perhaps the greatest of the patristic age—thought so. He suggested that when we pray for the kingdom to come, we’re really asking for it to break into our own hearts. He wasn’t denying the existence of the kingdom outside ourselves, only noting where it first breaks into the world.
Is Origen right? Are we the ones who stand in the way of the kingdom? And is it such a narrow way that leads to it? Must our spirit be impoverished before the kingdom comes?
Christ came proclaiming the kingdom of God, but all of that was only promise, until his own heart broke open on the cross. In utter darkness, in the tearing of the human heart of Jesus, the kingdom of God broke into this world.
Jonah weeps on the other side of the screen, and I realize how hard it is to be “a fisher of men” (Mk 1: 17). It means preaching the good news and then watching hearts break, in hope of it. But they break open, and that is what must occur. The kingdom of God breaks into the world through the heart.
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 Mark 1: 14-20