The Despair of Unbelief

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I am gradually learning things that I have not known before – or only suspected. Posting occasionally as I have on the subject of atheism, and receiving occasional reponses from atheists, is an education in itself. There is atheism as I imagine it to be (I suppose what it would look like were I one) and there is atheism as it has historically expressed itself (in such writers as Nietsche or Sartre) and there is what I would dub “neo-atheism” if only because it seems to differ from its predecessors.

The major difference is this – there is a classic despair in early continental atheism and something of a search for a meaning that would replace the overarching themes of Christianity. And there’s the phenomenon as I am seeing it, particularly among younger people today. If I had to describe what I’ve been reading (and I’ve been surfing around a bit to test my theories) it would be an atheism that has jettisoned despair, or, rather, a way of human living in which hope (in a transcendent sense) is not a major issue. Thus it is not a “living large” but learning to “live small.”

I encounter elements of Buddhism (some forms of Buddhism are strictly agnostic or atheist in belief), elements of an existentialism, and primarily a defining of life in terms which do not require what atheism cannot supply.

Despair, if given its proper meaning, simply means “to have no hope.” For some this is also synonymous with depression and the like. But for others, it simply means something that is not part of their lifestyle. Hope is shrunk to more immediate concerns, metaphysics having been jettisoned.

Doubtless, the hypocrisy and failures of Christianity have done nothing to turn aside such an epiphenomenon. Indeed, they have probably contributed to its creation. The broad array of Christian denominationalism (how do you choose?), coupled with a growing crass materialism masked as Christianity (the heresy of the prosperity gospel that clogs the airwaves) almost beg young people to bow out. “No thanks,” might be the kind refusal of those surveying the Christian scene.

From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity none of this should come as a surprise. Defective Christianity is not the antidote to non-belief. Nor is Orthodox Christianity when it is practiced in a defective form. Thus Christ asks the question, “…when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b).

Always a primary question for those who profess the Orthodox faith is “am I living the Faith?” In my efforts to do mission, I have stressed that the only way to do mission is to first be sure that there is actually a living Orthodox Church to which we may bring people. And so we pray, we fast, we give alms, we beg God of His mercy to give us the grace needed to become what we cannot become without Him.

Apparently, the despair that I project and expect of an atheist is not a given – or more to the point – it is a gift. To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth. Modern Orthodox writers who have spoken about despair or even standing at the edge of the abyss (despair, hell, etc.) in order to pray for the whole world (this is an image that occurs in both Fr. Sophrony’s writings as well as in the life of St. Silouan) are not speaking of a place that we reach naturally, but that we reach supernaturally (that is by grace).

That gracious despair can also be accompanied (paradoxical though it may be) with great joy. Orthodoxy is full of references to “Joyful Sorrow.” And it is here that my experience of the world goes somewhere that atheism cannot take you. The encounter of the lives of the saints – where those who seem to be the most awake are also those believe the most deeply. I am overwhelmed with the goodness of a Mother Theresa – or a St. Seraphim of Sarov – and I do not see this goodness among those who do not believe. How do you stand in the slums of Calcutta and serve with joy the poorest of the poor without belief in God? Romanticism can only carry you so far – it cannot fill a lifetime.

And it is this encounter with a Goodness that is unexplainable apart from God that shatters despair (or reveals it). I know the sorrows of this world, I’ve seen plenty of death and the darkness of the human heart. This holds no mystery to me. But it’s the goodness that cannot be accounted for with no reference beyond the world as we know it that staggers me. How do we explain St. Seraphim, or St. Xenia of Petersburg, or St. Matrona of Moscow, St. Nectarios of Aegina (only to begin the list)? All of which is merely a prelude to the great question, “How do we explain Christ?”

The gospels are too rich, the New Testament too layered in nuance and multivalency to be but the fiction of a few. There is an event which occasioned their writing and which occasioned an irruption of goodness and mercy unknown at any prior time on earth. That same goodness, transcendent in aspect, continues to erupt. It is not necessarily evidenced on a daily basis in every parish church – though there is more there than many people know – but these irruptions (as I choose to call them) point beyond themselves and beneath themselves to what cannot be contained, cannot be accounted for within the closed universe.

Towards the ending of history, rays appear on the summits of the Church; hardly discernible at first, they belong to the Day without Ending, the Day of the Age to come. – Fr. Pavel Florensky

These are the saints and martyrs, ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ They tell me that despair – even the honest despair that refuses to look away from the suffering of this world – is not the final word. There is indeed a hope beyond the despair – a hope that took flesh and walked among us, and continues to illumine us if we care to see.

23 comments:

  1. Re: “a defining of life in terms which do not require what atheism cannot supply”

    Father, I think you’re on to something her, though I would add that much of contemporary Christianity actually embraces with the atheist this narrowing of life’s breadth and depth. In fact, it’s not simply that the atheist reacts against the thinness of contemporary Christianity, it’s that the pedestrian nature of such Christianity actually sanctions his constriction of life and hope.

    My teacher, Allan Bloom, intended to entitle what would become his 1987 bestseller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” “Souls Without Longing.” Such was his diagnosis of the souls of contemporary American youth. For Bloom, such absence of longing was not restricted to the avowedly secular but had become the distinctive feature of the farthest reaches of late 20th-century American life, including religious life. Although disputed recently by such a notable observer as Peter Augustine Lawler, I think that Bloom had it — continues to have it — right. In the broadest sense of the word, we live in an un-erotic age. Bloom was by no means a religious, much less a Christian, but his analysis continues to stand as a severe indictment of contemporary religious life. If our Christianity is not suffused with longing for the crucified and resurrected Christ, we have no business calling ourselves Christians. Such longing is indeed the sine qua non of a properly evangelical Christian witness, both to the atheist and to the non-Orthodox Christian world.

  2. Apparently, the despair that I project and expect of an atheist is not a given – or more to the point – it is a gift. To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth.

    I can tell I’ll be mulling that over all day. This is very insightful. Funny how despair can itself be a form of hope, or a seed of it.

    Love that Florensky quote as well. Thanks, Fr Stephen.

  3. Thank you Ian. I thought a lot about that and read some as well. I think we sometimes mistakenly think that grace only works pleasant things in us – but a read through St. Silouan’s life clears that up. Anytime someones sees things for what they actually are, it must be a work of grace. We usually live in a state of delusion. (Are those red or blue states?)

  4. The difference is subtle, but the former connotes bursting into or within something, while the latter suggests bursting out or away. As you say above the Gospel is proof of the startling intrusion into our world of a goodness and mercy beyond measure; hence irruption. Forgive the suggestion, it’s only that it’s such a good word but one that is rarely used. Thanks for using it, Father!

  5. “To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth. Modern Orthodox writers who have spoken about despair or even standing at the edge of the abyss (despair, hell, etc.) in order to pray for the whole world ….”

    Thank you for your essay. I have never seen this expressed this way before. Dispair is not necessarily the antithesis of Faith.

  6. Coroebus: Thank you – I love the language including its subtlties. When I think of despair I cannot help but remember an image that the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer used: that of two lovers lying on the left bank of the Seine, crying because they did not believe in love.

    Someone once suggested that we parachute many French philosophers into the middle east – after a time no one would believe in anything enough to fight. Bad joke.

  7. Fr. Stephen, Thank you for posting this very thoughtful essay. It is a conclusion that God had led me to, and probably will continue to lead me to throughout my life here on earth: “Anytime someone sees things for what they actually are, it must be a work of grace,” as you state in your above response. Despair is one of these “things”. This is one thing that God used to help me recognize His Truth in the Orthodox Church, I recognized the teaching of God through all circumstances was taken as a practiced belief.

    (Personally I can not hold the thought of despair in mind for long without thinking of Giant Despair in his Doubting Castle where John Bunyan’s Christian laid until he realized — with his friend Hopeful — that he (Christian) had the way out with him all the time!)

  8. It’s all well and good to view all non-Christian metaphysical systems as despairing. Only the Christian metaphysic provides for the survival of the whole person in a better form than it appears in this world.

    The only problem with this view is that it assumes too much. Without evidence, Christian hope becomes a vain hope. Christ or nothing? Show me the rationality!

    The most visible forms of Christianity–Latinism and Protestantism–are spiritually and intellectually laughable. Is nonsense superior to meaninglessness?

  9. I’m an Atheist and I do not despair or hold despair. Indeed, I hold great hope that humankind will continue to go on to better and bigger things as time progresses. You simply do not need a higher power for hope.

  10. I’m not sure I said that all non-Christian metaphysical systems lead to despair.

    I can’t speak for Latinism or Protestantism – I certainly have my disagreements with both.

    There certainly has to be a hope – though I’m not sure my final hope would be in rationality, per se. Though I believe that accepting the historical evidence of Christ’s resurrection is not an irrational choice. I think it is one of many aggregate things.

    I add to that historical evidence (though I’m sure some one could reject that evidence – there’s no irrefutable historical evidence of anything 2000 years ago. But I add to that evidence the testimony of the martyrs and saints who have professed assurance of Christ’s resurrection.

    Last of all, I have to add my own inner evidence of my life in Christ – my knowledge of the risen Lord (admittedly that’s a form of evidence that is mystical rather than rational).

    I do not believe that our Christian hope is in vain.

    I also find other metaphysics, particularly the materialist metaphysics of modern atheism to be unconvincing. It does not make sense of my experience.

    But if someone wants more rationality than I have offered (I’m not a philosopher) I would recommend Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God (I understand he is now an Orthodox Christian). I might also suggest Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Or any number of Christian works that take such an approach.

    I think that Orthodoxy finally rests on the continuing reality of the risen Christ in His Church who manifests Himself to us as He promised.

  11. Matt,

    Your statement is indeed what I described in the beginning of this article. I find atheism without despair less surprising, as I have reflected on it, and stated that despair could itself be a gift of God, since it reveals something true about the world apart from God. So, I should not necessarily expect despair from an atheist, unless it was granted to him by God.

    I would suggest, for the sake of argument, that your hope is not very well borne out by the facts. The more things go on, the more ways we find to kill each other and poison ourselves. Star Trek is a TV show but it’s not reality. Reality, it seems to me, is headed in another direction.

    The Christian expectation of hope is hope in God but not hope in man. Indeed, I think the Christian take on the future of man in this world is somewhat pessimistic.

    But its a discussion that we all only have to wait a while to see who’s right. If you’re right, it won’t matter to me. If I’m right it will matter to everyone.

    But the concluding blessing in virtually every Orthodox service is “for He is a good God and He loves mankind.” If I’m right then all will face a merciful loving God. The purpose, I believe of the Orthodox Christian faith, is to unite us to the good God who loves mankind, and to change us so that we will be like Him (now and in the age to come).

    I accept this hope because I trust the witness of those who encountered Christ in His resurrection and the witness of those who have continued to encounter Him and my own experience of Christ as Savior and God.

    Fortunately, He loves us all, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. He is not our enemy.

  12. Yeah, I have to agree with Matt: I don’t despair much though I’m an atheist. I think atheists are confronted with a different kind of despair at certain points in time: for example, when my father passed away, the rest of my family found some kind of therapeutic effect from speaking of his continued presence, something I just didn’t sense or experience though I did experience a powerful longing for his continued presence. The believer has to reconcile himself or herself to believing in something weird and unprovable like an afterlife, while the atheist has to find consolation in whatever beauty and decency came within life, and in cherished memory.

    But in general, I don’t despair at a universe in which there is no God. It’s not a factor for me any more than I despair at a universe in which there are no more unicorns (for example, or trilobites): it would make no sense for me to despair at the absence of one being that I believe is imagined and mythical, so why would I despair at the absence of the other?

    My answer is that, if one was brought up pressured to believe in one of those things, coming to terms with one’s sense that it’s not true is a struggle. To be honest, I think the despair many intelligent young people feel when they come to terms with their atheism is the feeling of moving beyond the pale of familial and community boundaries. Church being so bound up with the community and family makes it painful and difficult to stand up and say no. In my house, growing up, I simply wasn’t allowed to reject the idea of God. If I attempted to do so, it was interpreted as a moral failing, as a lazy wish to skip out on Sunday church services, and so on. I’m not criticizing my parents, since that’s the environment they grew up in too — though my mother stopped going to Church not many years after I did — but I am saying that by coopting a place in family and in community religious groups sometimes make it extremely difficult and painful to move away from the religion one happens to be born into. And that most certainly is a source of despair for young people struggling to come to terms with their own atheism.

    Certainly, that was my own experience. I despaired because I knew the expectations of my parents, certain of my friends, and of my whole social environment (in the Catholic school system) was that I would be theist. I felt pain because I was held in place against my deepest beliefs and will for several years on end.

    If you want to understand the bitterness of some atheists, I think that would be a good place to look, too.

    As for your comments to Matt: well, I suspect that your view of historyis bounded too close to the present. If you look at the history of humanity over the very long term, we’re more efficient at genocide now — nothing to brag about — but we’re less prone to break into it; women in many places have a much better place in society now than they did even in Biblical times; we have ethical systems suggesting inborn rights for humans and other beings, and legal systems which, even if they’re not perfectly enforced — and they aren’t — do some of the work.

    I’m somewhere between you and Matt: I don’t have that much faith in Matt, but I think we’re all we’ve got, and I think that reason and science are the best hope for us to understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do. And, of course, that ethics and philosophy, good education, and a better schooling in human compassion can do the work we need to improve ourselves. But I think we don’t need religions, let alone one religion, to do that work.

    I agree, though, that Christian thought is, in terms of the prospects of humanity, pessimistic — unwarrantedly extreme in its pessimism, in fact. It reminds me of the plastic surgery industry here in Korea: cosmetic surgeons seem to have everyone convinced that everyone needs plastic surgery, because, hey, what better way to ensure a market for themselves? Likewise, what better way to keep people faithful than to paint humanity’s prospects alone as utterly hopeless? Yet humans have achieved all kinds of amazing things, and we don’t need divine intervention to explain any of them.

    I do wonder, though, what it means to have an “experience of Christ as Savior and God.” This certainly isn’t the kind of use of “experience” we normally use in daily life, is it? Are there concrete experiences you can describe, or is it just a way of feeling generally? I’ve always been a little curious about that.

  13. Gordsellar,

    Thank you for a very thoughtful reply. Our experiences are indeed different. I was not brought up in a religious home, and I do not now belong to the religion of my larger family. Most of them would find Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be quite foreign and breaking many of the rules they would think important.

    How and why people may experience despair differs. There are many classical atheists who more or less looked at the universe, concluded there was no God, and experienced despair, more or less under the heading, “Is that all there is?” And of course there is a difference between God and a unicorn. The loss of dragons or unicorns changes the universe slightly – the absence of a God changes everything.

    But many of the things that make you hopeful are not non-religious. The ethics, and philosophy, schooling, etc., are not unrelated to Judaeo-Christian underpinnings. The West, which has plenty of flaws, is still the product of a religious world-view. Remove that world view and the ethics may (indeed will) shift, and not necessarily for the better.

    The experience of God, and more particularly Christ as Savior and God, is sui generis, it belongs to its own category of experience. It may begin at any point (I’ve heard many stories) and just suddenly be there – unbidden and unlooked for. It could still certainly be rejected.

    The tragedy is that many who grow up in a religious atmosphere, are not offered genuine faith, but a sad caricature – which serves mostly the purpose of an innoculation for some. God is here and He is good. I belive that goodness is made manifest primarily in the raising of Christ from the dead and the forgiveness of all.

    I will think more about your note. Thanks.

  14. I find the idea interesting — but suspect — that the removal of the Christian worldview would shift, not necessarily for the better. My impression is that most of the Christians I know tend to act as they act; some are constrained by the ethics preached to them (or which they preach) but mostly they benefit from the chance at forgiveness.

    Yet at the same time, I can see how Christianity does help some people. I struggled with that, because when I escaped the chains which religion became when it was imposed on me, I could not look upon believers without incredulity. Actually, even now I find many of the supernatural assertions of the faithful totally bizarre. I can’t understand how someone can actually believe in the resurrection of the dead. Wanting to believe in it, I can understand, but not believing in it. Yet perhaps it takes such claims as that to win the belief of some class of people, and to get them to consider ethics.

    Maybe.

    Then again, where I live, in South Korea, Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, is an alien thing. It’s intertwined with politics here, especially right-wing politics (the same political wing that was more often complicit with the Japanese when they colonized here). It’s wholly sexist, usually fundamentalist, and even the Presbyterians are aggressively evangelical. There are dozens of churches in each neighborhood, and they tend to look upon even members of the same denomination who attend a different specific church group with at least a little suspicion. Protestant Christians here are so extreme that some groups have made a hobby of burning down Buddhist temples and of course Christian nationalism never embraces forgiving — let alone getting over — what the Japanese did here during the colonial era.

    And here’s the thing: the most crooked politicians, the most mediocre bosses, the most exploitative businesspeople here are not only stereotypically but in the experience of almost everyone I know, consistently Protestant Christians. I’ve never been screwed out of money by a Buddhist, and neither has anyone else I’ve discussed this with. But Korean Protestants, man, they’ll sell you out for a nickel. Maybe it’s true that Christian morality helps people to be less vicious — as C.S. Lewis argued, you don’t know what that person would be like without Christianity in his or her life — but I’m not sure in this case it has that much effect… or, in many cases, it results in a clannish effect where the local Christian group is the in-group you treat like humans, and everyone else is subhuman.

    It’s quite a pedestrian experience here, too. (To the point where lots of people I know don’t want to work for Protestants because they know they’ll get screwed in ways that Buddhists and Catholics and atheists here are unlikely to think up.)

    That brings me to the real reason I’m replying, which is that you wrote:

    The experience of God, and more particularly Christ as Savior and God, is sui generis, it belongs to its own category of experience. It may begin at any point (I’ve heard many stories) and just suddenly be there – unbidden and unlooked for. It could still certainly be rejected.

    I don’t think an experience of Christ or God can come into being unlooked for. I don’t mean that some people don’t suddenly find themselves embracing these ideas without a plan to, because of course they do… but someone planned it for them, just as Koreans did not go out seeking Christ, but Westerners did come seeking to convert them. Someone had it in mind to get them to believe, to put the idea in their heads. Nobody in Korea, before contact with a foreign Christian, spontaneously began to believe in Christ. It doesn’t happen like that, right?

    I say this because living in a culture where Christianity has been transmitted in a pretty specific set of forms (first Catholicism, which I find much more respectable here, and then vaguely American-style Christian fundamentalism, which is far more widespread), I’ve become very conscious of the kind of “transmission of ideas” involved in religious conversion. As well as the political, aesthetic, and economic basis for that goal of conversion — it’s not like these things aren’t always in the picture in the evangelization of foreign societies, after all — and the kinds of strategic alterations of Christian thought made to induce conversion by people in absolutely foreign cultures.

    That transmission of ideas is interesting even for an atheist like me. For example, Western Christianity’s traditional institutional sexism and Confucianism’s traditional sexism mutually reinforce one another; Confucian family relationships are mapped onto Korean constructions of faith in interesting ways. Or, for that matter, the aforementioned clannishness of Korean Christians, which fits the earlier literal clan- and kin-relation governed society that existed in the past. Or even the fascinating construction of Korean Catholicism among the Korean Catholics I know. They perceive Korean Catholicism as a distinct form of Catholicism, and issues of papacy and of the power of the Vatican, as “foreign” issues that don’t really apply to Korean Catholicism. Or, so’s my perception from discussions with people, including my own (Korean Catholic) fiancee.

  15. Gordsellar,

    Most of what you have encountered, I would posit, is that Protestant Christinity has made Koreans into Americans (hence they will cheat you where a Buddhist will not). I cannot begin to lay out my thesis here, but most American Protestant mission work has also been a work at Americanizing as much as anything.

    It is also not a form of Christianity I would be interested in defending in the least. It’s experience and teachings differ radically from that of Orthodox Christianity. Nor can I speak for Catholicism.

    The encounter with God I mentioned has not planned for, though it may be longed for, etc. But if it comes at human machinations it is not God but just another manufactured emotional experience. I do not mean this at all. But there is a true encounter with God that is something quite different. Of this I could and do speak but cannot speak of whether it is found among the protestants you know – and rather doubt it.

    Will the Korean Catholic Church allow its members to marry an atheist? I do not know much about Catholicism. Orthodox Christianity generally would not. I’m glad to hear from you again. The experience of Korean culture must be interesting indeed. Especially Christianity as found there. But I would suggest that much of what you see is the vanguard of America on the march. There are several books around on the subject of American Protestant missionary history. The general tenor of the books is that American Protestant Evangelism has always mirrored American foreign policy (this was true in the study I made of American Episcopal Missionary Efforts). A very shocking story to see Christians coopted so thoroughly by the state.

  16. Hi,

    Well, some Koreans would agree with you but I do not think that Western Christianity has made Koreans into Americans… and of course, Buddhist clerics are not all free from corruption either. (My fiancee is a doctor and she has, in her time, told me of local “celibate” monks who had to come to the hospital because they’d come down with STDs, and drove up in their fancy expensive cars, followed by hangers-on who of course were unaware of the diagnosis and treatment.) Honestly, though, what I see is a Koreanization of Christianity, since all those traits it seems to bring out are traits that seem to me part of the traditional spectrum in Korea. (And anywhere else.)

    I agree about how appalling it is that religion can be coopted by the State, and found Harold Bloom’s idea of an “American Religion” interesting for that reason: it always seemed to me that most religious Americans have two religions: first is Nation, the second is their particular church or whatever.

    I do have to wonder about how any religious experience can come without someone else attempting to bring it about? After all, someone (or many someones) saturate culture with reference to religion; religionists bring it up, whether evangelizing or just chatting; hell, even the apostles went out evangelizing. I don’t just mean something that you call with the sinister word “machinations.” I mean that for people to join a religion, they have to get invited, and someone has to explain the religion a little — usually in the best possible light. So how do we know that it isn’t all manufactured experience? This is the stumbling block I run into when I speak to religionists about this: they say, “Oh, but I know!” And then, when we pass by a Raelian or some other cult member, they say, “Ah, she thinks she knows, but she doesn’t.” How can one be so sure that one’s experience is authentic when it’s so obvious how many other people credulously buy into manufactured experiences as somehow genuine and authentic?

    By the way, I don’t know whether the Korean Catholic Church would approve of members marrying atheists any more or less than any other Korean Church, though I suspect they’d discourage it but have to accept it, just as in the Catholic Church in the West. (Though, in fact, since I’m divorced, we cannot marry in the Church anyway; that means the Church cannot force me to sign a paper agreeing to raise our kids Catholic, too, as they did to my Presbyterian father when he married my Catholic mother.)

    I think Korean Catholics are more tolerant than other Christian groups in Korea, though: I’ve accompanied Catholics — even a priest — to the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations at temples (with beautiful lanterns lighting up the night) but some of the Protestants I’ve heard discussing it denounced it as evil to go to such events. I also think the Catholics here are more tolerant of marriage outside the race than Protestants: in fact, a lot of Protestant families would primarily object to her marrying a white foreigner.

    She’s also critical enough of the Church to know that human organizations, no matter whom they claim to represent, should not be dictating her life decisions to her.

  17. Just one thing really – Orthodox Faith is unlike any other.
    It has to be experienced, like anything in life, to know that this is that Faith God gave to us through Jesus and through the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
    Like my Aunt said many years ago when I was firing questions about God, Faith Jesus etc. at her “if you want to know – ASK HIM!”
    That was 20 years ago – and it has passed so quickly – but I’m not on earthly time now – we’re in Eternity!
    Love to All!

  18. Dear Father, Thanks for the words of hope. Today is a down day for me but as always it comes from the misplacement of hopes. I found your essay googling “religious experience” and despair. There is no boast to be had here, it was not pleasant and it was to my condemnation, but almost two years ago now I had what could only be called a religious experience, and your wise words synch with what I experienced then, a wrenching opening up of the heart after a season of despair, despair because I had put my hopes in the things of this world. Grace is not necessarily pleasant, and the associated joy can be hard won. God bless you and keep you.

  19. Thank you for this, too. The unmistakable leitmotif of Lent this year for me has been the wonder of Silouan and the message entrusted to us for discipleship “Keep your mind in hell – and despair not”

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