Between Presumption and Despair

Human beings are funny creatures.

We often find ourselves heading to one extreme or the opposite. For example, take the sins against salvation: presumption and despair.

Presumption is the belief that no matter what I do, I am going to Heaven. Every once in a while, you may encounter someone of this mindset. Usually it is something that is unconcsiously implied by behavior. Many of us just assume we are going to Heaven because we haven’t commited any attrocious sin. “I’m not going to Hell,” they may say to themsevels. “Hell is for the murderers and criminals. Not me. I haven’t murdered anybody. I haven’t stolen anything.”

In CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce, there is a soul that will not go into Heaven because he does not understand why a repentant murderer is allowed in Heaven, but not himself. He says:

“I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights… I only want my rights.”

This soul thought Heaven was something owed to him because he didn’t live out his perception of evil. But this is the sin of presumption.

Sometimes this sin is very explicit in the “Once saved, always saved mentality.” Not everyone who believes in salvation through faith is like this. But there are some who think that their faith in Christ will cover all of their sins. As a result, no matter how they lie, cheat, and steal, they believe they will go to Heaven because they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

However, Christ warns us against thinking this way in the Gospel of Matthew. He says, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,* but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you.* Depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matt 7:21-23)

It is important to not fall into the opposite sin: despair. This is a sin where I believe that no matter what I do, God will not save me.

People who fall into despair are crushed by the weight of their sins and think that there is no possible way that they can be granted forgiveness.

I remember my first year as a teacher. From my first days until now, I always tell students that they should think about becoming a priest or a religious sister. I am only half-joking, since I sincerely wish to cultivate vocations. Normally the reaction is a little nervous laughter and the suggestion is brushed off quickly. But I remember that first year saying to one of my students that she should become a nun. But instead of laughing and shrugging, she became very grave and said, “Oh no. God wouldn’t want me after the things I’ve done.”

My heart broke for her. In her mind, she considered herself damaged goods. She was sullied and worthless and God wouldn’t want her. That is a demonic lie that Satan uses to drive us from the Mercy of God. Despair is a sin because it presumes that our offenses are so great that God could not forgive them. This shows an amazing lack of faith in His goodness and His power.

But doesn’t St. Paul says that we should “work out your salvation with fear and trembling[?]” Philippians 2:12.

Yes, but not to the point of despair. And nor should we fall into presumption.

Instead, we should live in hope.

Hope is a virtue where you place your trust in God and not yourself.

Hope understands that I cannot earn my own salvation. I do not have it by right. It also understands that my salvation is not necessarily lost.

If I were to die tonight and God the Father said to me that I was condemned to hell because of my sins, my only honest response would be: “You are just, Oh Lord.”

I know I don’t deserve Heaven. I will never be good enough for the gift Jesus bought for me with the cross. But I do not despair. Instead, I say to God:

“Lord, you would be just in condemning me. But I know that you are loving and merciful. And that your mercy knows now limits. I am truly sorry for my sins and I throw myself on your mercy.” And while I live in this world, working to live the way God wants, I do not fall into presumption or despair.

Instead I live in hope.

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson.

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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