Sibbes here makes an interesting observation: without some restraint which is greater than our soul, we will fall into a drowning despair. He states this positively, as something which one who claims to knowing God must claim:
Moreover we see that a godly man can cast a restraint upon himself, as David here stays himself in falling. There is a principle of grace, that stops the heart, and pulls in the reins again when the affections are loose. A carnal man, when he begins to be cast down, sinks lower and lower, until he sinks into despair, as lead sinks into the bottom of the sea.
David Foster Wallace in his essay “Shipping Out”, makes this point in nearly the same language as Sibbes (which is all the more painful, in light of his own eventual suicide):
Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, A 16 – year – old mail did a half gainer off the upper deck of a Megaship. The news version of the suicide was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, I shipboard romance gone bad. But I think part if it was something no new story could cover. There’s something about a mass– Market luxury cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad thing is, it seems incredibly elusive and complex and its causes yet simple in its effect: onboard the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair. The word “despair” is overused and banalized now, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people called to read or angst, but it’s not these things, quite it’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard (Harper’s Magazine, January 1996, p. 350)
‘They sunk, they sunk, like lead in the mighty waters,’ Exod. 15:5. A carnal man sinks as a heavy body to the centre of the earth, and stays not if it be not stopped: there is nothing in him to stay him in falling, as we see in Ahithophel and Saul, 2 Sam. 17:23, who, wanting a support, found no other stay but the sword’s point. And the greater their parts and places are, the more they entangle themselves; and no wonder, for they are to encounter with God and his deputy, conscience, who is King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Thus, despair should not strike us as a strange thing; rather we must understand that such despair is the default setting which shows itself as soon as our stays and distractions fail. Yet such must not be the default of one who claims to know Christ, “Therefore as we would have any good evidence that we have a better spirit in us than our own, greater than the flesh or the world, let us, in all troubles we meet with, gather up ourselves, that the stream of our own affections carry us not away too far.”
The weight of this despair comes not merely from the trouble itself, but from trying to carry a weight which is beyond our ability. Wallace writes of knowing “I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die.” Realizing our frailty and our troubles will easily crush us. Thus, it is precisely at this point that we must turn our frailty to advantage and bring the trouble to one who can bear the weight. In Matthew 11:28, the Lord calls, “Come to me all you labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Sibbes explains the mechanism for how we increase our sorrow by bearing a burden which should never have been ours:
There is an art or skill of bearing troubles, if we could learn it, without overmuch troubling of ourselves, as in bearing of a burden there is a way so to poise it that it weigheth not over heavy: if it hangs all on one side, it poises the body down. The greater part of our troubles we pull upon ourselves, by not parting our care so, as to take upon us only the care of duty, and leave the rest to God; and by mingling our passions with our crosses, and like a foolish patient, chewing the pills which we should swallow down. We dwell too much upon the grief, when we should remove the soul higher. We are nearest neighbours unto ourselves. When we suffer grief, like a canker, to eat into the soul, and like a fire in the bones, to consume the marrow and drink up the spirits, we are accessory to the wrong done both to our bodies and souls: we waste our own candle, and put out our light.
The previous post in this series may be found