There is a strange though consistent message throughout the Bible. We are told time and again that the way forward will feel like we’re going backward.

The Psalms tell us that those whose hearts are breaking and who feel crushed by life are the people God is closest to (Ps. 34:18). Proverbs tells us it is to the low and the destitute that God shows favor (Prov. 3:34). In Isaiah we are surprised to learn that God dwells in two places: way up high, in the glory of heaven, and way down low, with those void of self-confidence and empty of themselves (Isa. 57:15; 66:1–2). Jesus tells us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). He tells us that the way to greatness is service and the way to be first is to be everyone’s slave (Mark 10:43–44). James has the audacity to instruct us, “Let your laughter be turned to mourning” (James 4:9).

Why does the Bible do this? Does God want us always feeling bad about ourselves? Is he eager to chop us down to size, to lower the ceiling on our joy lest we be too happy?

Not at all. It is because of God’s very desire that we be joyously happy, filled to overflowing with the uproarious cheer of heaven itself, that he says these things. For he is sending us down into honesty and sanity. He wants us to see our sickness so we can run to the doctor. He wants us to get healed.

Fallen human beings enter into joy only through the door of despair. Fullness can be had only through emptiness. That happens decisively at conversion, as we confess our hopelessly sinful predicament for the first time and collapse into the arms of Jesus, and then remains an ongoing rhythm throughout the Christian life. If you are not growing in Christ, one reason may be that you have drifted out of the salutary and healthy discipline of self-despair.

Martin Luther, as much as anyone in the history of the church, understood this. In The Bondage of the Will he wrote:

God has assuredly promised his grace to the humble, that is, to those who lament and despair of themselves. But no man can be thoroughly humbled until he knows that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone. For as long as he is persuaded that he himself can do even the least thing toward his salvation, he retains some self-confidence and does not altogether despair of himself, and therefore he is not humbled before God, but presumes that there is—or at least hopes or desires that there may be—some place, time, and work for him, by which he may at length attain to salvation. But when a man has no doubt that everything depends on the will of God, then he completely despairs of himself and chooses nothing for himself, but waits for God to work; then he has come close to grace.

And Luther understood, as is evident throughout his writings, that this despair is not a one-time experience, only for conversion. Christian growth is, among other things, growth in sensing just how impoverished and powerless we are in our own strength—that is, just how hollow and futile our efforts to grow spiritually are on our own steam.

Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, ed. Michael Reeves, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 16–19.


We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. Deeper is our Bible Study based on Dane Ortlund’s book by the same name. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.