Overcoming the Pit of Despair – Finding God in Video Games

As both a gamer and a parent, there is a special joy found in watching your child pick up a controller for the very first time… seeing their eyes grow with wonder and their curiosity transform into capability as they learn that the buttons they are pressing on the joypad are creating a corresponding action on the screen is a milestone moment like no other. Sure, learning to eat on their own or recognize shapes are pretty important skills, too… but there is just something about that first time when those little hands make Mario jump on purpose that warms a gamer’s heart. As they grow older, they progress from merely being happy to hold a controller (that isn’t turned on) to wanting to play games of higher difficulty, and while my daughter is rapidly becoming a skilled gamer in her own right, this increase in challenge comes with something she has never had to experience before… losing. And, well… she is not a fan.

While the little toddler games she has played so far (like Peppa Pig or PJ Masks) have offered very forgiving challenges and contained very few points of frustration, she has graduated to more difficult titles like Kirby or Mario that contain actual consequences to missing a jump. While we always play games cooperatively so I can minimize most of the hardest portions and carry her through many of these bitter battles, there are still areas that require her to enter specific inputs… and when those parts don’t go according to plan, the fun and joy we were sharing can come to a full stop pretty quickly. Now for a preschool-age child, she exhibits pretty high patience… at first. But after repeated attempts at the same problem end unsuccessfully, her tenacity transforms to more than just disappointment… she is ready to give up and do something else. As she sees nothing changing in the game, and all her best efforts continue to achieve the same losing outcome over and over again, there is only one rational decision left to make… quit playing the game. And as my heart breaks for her tiny little face because “the bad guys aren’t being nice”, I realize that I recognize that look… it’s the same look of despair that I have stared at in the mirror more times than I can count. Not because some video game wasn’t playing fair (although that still happens, too), but because many times in this journey of life the game just seemed rigged towards losing… and my previous feelings of hope and joy were slowly replaced by a dark cloud of hopelessness and even resentment towards an adventure that turned out to be much more difficult than I had planned on.

Despair is kind of a scary word to write… it implies a lack of faith that anything is going to get better. But if we are being honest with ourselves, even as followers of Christ there are plenty of times that despair shows up in our lives and we simply let it crash in the couch… sometimes we even cook it breakfast. Despair takes many forms beyond deciding a game is so unbeatable that we hide it behind other games on the shelf so we can forget about it… it’s that voice that convinces us to give up because our eventual failure is “in our genes” or “this is just the way it is”. It’s the lurking presence behind every diet we’ve ever quit, every new skill we decided we don’t have time to cultivate, and every dream we have ever buried. Despair is more than the fear of failure… it’s the absence of hope. It’s the bitter acceptance that losing outcomes are all that remain in front of us, convincing us that all of our choices boil down to the same inevitable ending… losing. And the most ironic thing about despair is that it can find its way into the heart of even the most committed believer if we aren’t careful… it can even exist in the very presence of the Son of God Himself. Sound hard to swallow? Take a walk with me down a possibly familiar road and see for yourself.

Luke 24:13-21 Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.

Now let’s set the stage a little here… the last three days these believers experienced were among the most traumatic any follower of Christ could possibly endure. Just days after a massive parade proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, those who believed in Christ had their worlds completely rocked by His stunning arrest and execution. Sure, we all know how this story ends, but at the time this was not clearly understood… and in the mess that Jesus’s unanticipated crucifixion left, nothing made sense anymore. His disciples had scattered, and now these two believers were left trying to make sense of what they believed in their hearts while being forced to confront the reality in front of their eyes. Their beloved Jesus was dead, and as they walked down that lonely road, they weren’t just accepting His death… they were giving up on the idea that there was anything left to hope for. If they thought He was going to come back, they probably would have hung out and waited… but these poor souls couldn’t see a reason to stick around. And even in the very presence of the answer to their deepest prayers, they couldn’t recognize Him because despair had blinded them to anything other than their sorrow.

As I consider these two broken-hearted believers who believed they had lost it all even as they stood next to the very King of Kings, I see the familiar face of my own despair staring back at me. The same despair that convinces my daughter that there simply isn’t a way to land that jump in her game… the same despair that doesn’t just convince me to give up and accept this bitter loss, but to stay there and let it consume me. Just like these two believers on Emmaus Road, despair blinds us to the active presence of Christ in our current problems simply because He didn’t show up the way we we wanted or expected Him to… so we think He didn’t show up at all. So what is the solution to escaping the “pit of despair”? Well, let’s see what Jesus did…

Luke 24:25-32 Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!  Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?”  And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?”

Christ didn’t just snap His fingers in front of their eyes and say, “HEY! It’s ME!!” No, He took them into the Scriptures so they would understand that while these tribulations and setbacks were part of the plan, so was His absolute victory over them. As a matter of fact, these trials were the ONLY way the plan could be fulfilled… He HAD to suffer these things. And once they were able to see their current heartbreak and struggle in the context of the larger story being told, their eyes were finally opened so they could fully see the very Savior they were mourning standing right in front of them. And what they saw was a victorious Savior, proudly wearing the scars of this painful experience as an eternal reminder that He took the devil’s best shot… and it was little more than a flesh wound.

I wish I could say I have been battling despair… but the truth is that I haven’t been “battling” it at all. In the broken season I have been enduring in my life, it wasn’t even a fight… I invited despair in, gave it some pillows, and told it to make itself at home. I never lost an ounce of my love for the Lord or belief in Him… like these two believers, I simply gave myself over to a grief that blinded me to His presence in my storm and accepted that this was “as good as it was gonna get”. Hoping is hard, because it hurts when our hopes are crushed… it’s far easier to simply remain in a permanent state of low expectations, hanging out with despair and blindly accepting our new reality. But as we wrap this up, I need to get back to my daughter’s gaming frustration one last time.

I love this little girl more than words can express… and while I know that she will need to grow her gaming skills over the years if she wants to keep playing these increasingly more difficult games, I also play all of these games cooperatively with her to help her through them. And while I am not the most skilled gamer on the planet by any means, I will tell you this… as long as I have a controller in my hands, there isn’t a Koopa or Bowser on this planet that’s going to steal my daughter’s joy. I’ve been sending that villain and his like to their endgame for decades… and when I see that despair start to set in, that’s when I tell her, “Here… let Daddy help you with this part.” And then I see her face change to anticipation, her frustration replaced with hope as she realizes she is NOT alone, she DOESN’T have to do it by herself, and she WILL make it to the other side of this battle. This isn’t my first “World 8-4”, after all.

There IS a path out of the pit of despair, and it starts with allowing ourselves to truly read the Scriptures and see more than just the epic victories and triumphant endings… it’s seeing the hand of the Lord just as clearly in Joseph’s prison experience as his princely position. It’s seeing the Lord wrap Ruth up in the shelter of His wings while she was still homeless and hopeless, not just when Boaz shows up to sweep her off her feet. It’s finding Him just as lovingly present with Paul in his shipwrecks as He is in Paul’s successes. It’s hearing Him as the still, small voice to an Elijah on the run, not just when the fire is being miraculously called down from the sky. It’s the whole reason He is called “God with us”… while despair tries to conceal His presence in the very situation we are enduring, hope allows us to see Him through the storm even when we can’t see anything right now BUT the storm. It’s not asking Jesus to “take the wheel”… it’s finally realizing that He never let go of it, even when we thought we were the ones who were driving.

Despair can be a difficult roommate to kick out, but it’s time for us to take back the guest room and make room for hope. Despair tells us nothing in our situation is going to change, while hope reminds us that it is our Lord who never changes… and He breaks every chain (Hebrews 13:8, Psalm 107:14). Despair reminds us that we have tried and failed too many times before, while hope encourages us that we can fight through and endure all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13). Despair encourages us to stay here where it is safe, keeping our expectations low… hope compels us to walk out on the water and find Him already standing there (Matthew 14:28-29). Despair shows us the dreams we have already given up on and buried, while hope shows us an empty tomb that defies rational explanation and tells us that we are MORE than conquerors through Christ (Romans 8:31-39).

Yes, it may have been a brutal, difficult, and challenging broken season that we have endured… and there are more challenges on the horizon. But Christ has more for us than merely surviving the enemy’s onslaught… His nail-scarred hands are reaching out for the controller. It’s time to place more than just our trust in Him… it’s time to place our hope in Him again and allow Him to restore the joy of our salvation. Not an uninformed hope that tries to make Him show up how, when, and where we would prefer… but a hope that trusts in His invisible hands even when we feel like we are free-falling. After all, flying is just falling with wings… so let’s put our hope in His incomparable wingspan today and enjoy the flight.

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