Despair and Presumption


"O Israel, hope in the Lord, now and forever more" (Ps 131:3). The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as  "the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment" (CCC 2090). Most of us are familiar with despair and presumption as two sins against hope; presumption claims to have already laid hold of something that we do not yet fully possess, while despair leads us to believe it is impossible to ever possess it. The object of hope is a good which is difficult but possible to obtain - in our case, eternal life. Despair sins against hope by making impossible something possible, while presumption sins against hope by making certain what is merely possible. Let us look at each of these sins in greater detail, using the golden wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas to find our way 

The Sin of Despair According to St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas defines despair as essentially an appetitive movement in the soul corresponding to a wrong or evil opinion about God; namely, that He will not forgive repentant sinners (II-II. Q. 20 art. 1). Further, he teaches that despair is the most grievous of all sins, because by despairing of ever partaking in God's goodness, the sinner, in a certain manner, damns himself while he is yet living. Hence, though admitting that other sins may be objectively more grievous (such as unbelief and hatred of God), Aquinas says that from a subjective viewpoint, no sin is more deadly to us than despair: 

"From our point of view, then despair is more dangerous, since hope withdraws us from evils and induces us to seek for good things, so that when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works" (II-II, Q. 20, art. 3).

This is why traditionally despair is considered the unforgivable sin, a sin against the Holy Ghost, in that refusing to admit God's mercy, the sinner makes it impossible for grace to work in him. This is why it is so dangerous.

St. Thomas also teaches that despair commonly arises from spiritual sloth (although interestingly enough, he also says lust can lead to despair). This is because despair sees the effort needed to attain the good as too arduous, too difficult to attain, and hence ends up denying that its attainment is possible. Because it is based in seeing spiritual effort as too arduous, it is based on spiritual sloth.

It follows, then, that the best remedy of despair is the contrary virtue of diligence, by which we demonstrate zeal, integrity and effort in our spiritual undertakings.

The Sin of Presumption According to St. Thomas Aquinas

Presumption is related to despair in that, as despair despises the Divine Mercy, so presumption despises the Divine Justice (II-II, Q. 21, art. 1). Like despair, it is also a sin against the Holy Ghost. St. Thomas says:

"As to the hope whereby a man relies on the power of God, there may be presumption through immoderation, in the fact that a man tends to some good as though it were possible by the power and mercy of God, whereas it is not possible, for instance, if a man hope to obtain pardon without repenting, or glory without merits. This presumption is, properly, the sin against the Holy Ghost, because, to wit, by presuming thus a man removes or despises the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whereby he is withdrawn from sin" (ibid). 

Thus presumption is a sin by being an immoderate excess of hope by which a man presumes to possess eternal salvation prematurely. While noting its relation to despair, St. Thomas also teaches it is not as grave as despair, because of His infinite goodness it is more proper to God to have mercy and spare than it is to punish. In that the sin of despair denies God's fundamental attribute of mercy, it is a greater offense against Him than presumption, which merely takes the attribute of mercy to an immoderate degree (II-II, Q. 21, art. 2).

While despair arises from sloth, presumption arises from vainglory, inasmuch as it is prideful to assume that God would never punish or exclude us regardless of our sins. Thus the way to combat presumption is by exercising humility.

Identifying Attacks of Despair and Presumption

It is not sufficient to simply be able to define these sins. The devil, our adversary, is not only cunning at what temptations he attacks us with, but he is very cunning as to when he deploys certain attacks.

For example, common sense tells us that when we are doing well in our spiritual lives, we should be extraordinarily humble, lest we begin to attribute our success to our own efforts or fail to rely on God's grace. Knowing this, the devil is very keen to tempt us with thoughts of presumption when we are in a state of grace. "I had good prayer time last night; I don't need to do it tonight." "My spiritual life has really been going good lately; I'm going to go easy on myself for Lent." "I just went to Mass the other day; I'm going to sleep in today." "It's only a venial sin; you can't go to hell for venial sin." And...right before we commit a sin, "I'll just go to Confession on Saturday..."

The attacks can be very subtle, often mixing truth with falsehood. But the crux of the matter is this: It is precisely when we should be practicing humility that the devil will tempt us with presumption - and this is when we are in a state of grace.

If the devil's attack works, we commit a serious sin. He wins. But that is only part of the strategy. Having gotten us to sin, the attacks now change. Whereas when we were in grace we had immoderate confidence in God's mercy, now in a state of sin the devil wants us to despair of His mercy. "You did that again!" "You will never get over this sin. You'll struggle with it till the day you die." "God will never forgive you for that. God wants to damn you to hell." Just when we should be having the greatest confidence in God's mercy, the devil wants us to despair of it.

And if he can get us to despair, he wins and our soul is lost. Now we see why, though despair and presumption are both sins against hope, despair is worse. Presumption is used as a tactic simply to get us to the point of despair; but despair in the end game, because one who has given way to despair has damned himself even while he lives. That is how the devil wins.

But "we are not ignorant of his devices" (2. Cor. 2:11). When we are doing well, or in a state of grace, let us remember to dispose our souls and minds in humility. Perhaps we are doing good. It is by God's grace, and if we have not fallen, let us not be reckless, but remember how many times we have fallen in the past. How many good resolutions have come to naught! How many promising beginnings derailed! Therefore, apply yourself with humble diligence to the things of the Spirit and remember that people - and angels - more spiritually advanced than you have fallen. "Do not be decieved; God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that also shall he reap" (Gal. 6:7). Remember that God is just.

But if you do fall - if you do commit grave sin - then is the time to throw yourself upon God's mercy. God's mercy is infinite. It endures forever, as the Psalmist says (cf. Ps 136). God knows your frailties. He knows your struggles, and if you turn to Him in repentance and with a sincere desire to amend, He will extend mercy to you, forgive you, and restore you. "If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness" (1 John 1:9). Remember that God is merciful.

Satan's attack is a fundamental inversion of how our dispositions ought to be at given times. If we practice humility at all times and remember to throw ourselves on God's mercy when we fall, we can insulate ourselves against the deadly attacks of the evil one.

+Ad Majoram Dei Gloriam+