John 20 Leadership and Despair Resurrection Easter

You have just celebrated Easter, a time of hope and promise, yet there is a lingering feeling of despair. You hear and read about the news reports that suggest the new day you have just announced has not yet dawned. You are surrounded with people with different points of view on just about everything and you wonder if there is anyone who really cares about the truth of God’s love and the power of new life. 

Even with the hope of the resurrection and your faith rooted in God through Jesus, you know that lump-in-the-throat, knot-in-the-stomach feeling of anxiety. At your best, there are times you feel everyone wants something from you. And at your worst, even an act of kindness seems like a veiled attempt to manipulate you. How do you keep yourself healthy? How do you live with and lead through despair? 

Addressing Despair

Despair is not a word we associate with leadership. But you and I both know, all too well, that as a leader you face despair every day in some form. Ari Weinzweig, in his book Dealing With Despair in Day-to-Day Leadership, writes, “Despair comes quietly in our heads, hearts, and bodies, but if we don’t handle it well, it can have negative impacts…”  In other words, if you don’t name, face, and deal with your own despair, you will not be able to care for and lead others in and through despair. 

Everyone has dealt with despair at some time in their lives. It can be caused by deep loss, seemingly impossible financial circumstances, paths forward blocked by systemic unfairness or the unexpected departure of a partner. Sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above. When it hits, even with all the advantages you have going for you, despair is hard to handle. 

So, let’s take a look at one of the resurrection stories to name, face, and deal with despair so you can and will lead with courage and effectiveness. 

Again, let’s use the pattern of read, reflect, respond, and return as a way of examining this story of Mary visiting the tomb of Jesus.   

Read John 20:1-18

Focus on John 20: 11-18 in italics below

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her. 


Mary stands weeping at the tomb. The body she was expecting to find is gone. But there are two angels there. Angels are messengers of life and good news. They ask Mary about her tears. In her hopelessness and despair she answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 

Then she mistakes Jesus for the gardener. As we have seen in past studies of John’s gospel, John writes on two levels. On one level Mary’s lack of perception might have been that she was overcome by grief or blinded by tears. But on another level, she was facing the wrong direction. She couldn’t take her eyes off the tomb. In her grief and despair, she literally had her back to Jesus. So, she experiences him as a stranger. 

Whom are you seeking?

Jesus asks, “Whom are you seeking?” He does not ask “What are you seeking” but “Whom are you seeking?” Mary, assuming that this stranger might have been involved in moving Jesus’ body, asks if she might have the body to care for it. She loved Jesus. This is her way of showing her love, even after he is gone. She is still acting in grief and despair. 

It is then that Jesus, the risen Christ, speaks her name, “Mary.” It is the shepherd calling one of his sheep, and Mary recognizes the voice of her shepherd. It is at this point that she turns to him. She changes direction. She turns from focused on despair to focusing on hope. And in adoration and wonder, she falls at his feet and utters, “Rabboni.” 

Holding On

She attempts to hold on to him, which for John is an association with holding onto the past. Without recognizing it or naming it, she wants things to go back to normal, the way they were before the crucifixion. But Jesus insists that she cannot continue to hold on to him in that way. 

Mary is the first to see Jesus. She is now a messenger of his resurrection and ascension. Rather than allowing her to cling to him, Jesus sends her on a mission to tell the others what she has seen and heard. 

Like Mary, we are sent forth to announce that the body is not in the tomb. We can face our despair and turn toward hope. The hope found in God’s love we see and experience in Jesus. God’s love has not come to end. 

Name the Despair

So, what can we learn from this story? First, Mary names her despair. It is real. “They have taken away my Lord, and I now know where they have laid him.” 

David Whyte writes: “Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away. We give up hope when certain particular wishes are no longer able to come true and despair is the time in which we both endure and heal, even when we have not yet found the new form of hope.” 

What we know is that denial, pretending to yourself and to others that you don’t feel despair makes your situation worse and your life miserable. Brené Brown reminds us, “Without understanding how our feelings, thoughts and behaviors work together, it’s almost impossible to find our way back to ourselves and each other.” So, Mary names her despair. 

Mary Faces Her Despair

Second, Mary faces her despair. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing he was the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” 

Facing despair requires trust. Trust is fundamental to relationships. It requires vulnerability as well as authenticity and integrity. Look at Peter’s vision in Acts 10. To trust means you have to let go of your suspicious feelings and imagine that people around you have your best interest at heart. I know that is not always the reality, but without trust you will never face your despair. 

I also know that it is not easy to trust when your trust has been violated.  But distrust leads to isolation. So, take the risk and start trusting. By modeling trust with the people you are leading, you will actually build a movement of trust. People who encounter a trusting leader want to be trustworthy. Mary trusted the gardener. 

Mary Offers Hope

And third, Mary offers hope. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.” Despair comes when hope goes dark. But when you decide to turn from the darkness and step into the light, despair begins to grow into hope. 

Although it’s difficult to remember when you are in the middle of it, despair when acknowledged and faced, can lead to positive and creative outcomes. Psychologist Mary Pipher says: “What despair often does is crack open your heart. When your heart cracks open, it begins to feel joy again. You wake up. You start feeling pain first. You feel the pain first, but then you feel the joy.” 

Trust Your Relationships

After you have acknowledged your despair and faced it, then trust the relationships you have developed. Mary went back to her community, the disciples, to tell them what she had experienced. 

Community emerges from those with whom you associate. It is built upon the relationships you develop at home, work, or play. Wherever it does, it is critical to find hope in the midst of despair. Just as isolation is a breeding ground for despair, healthy relationships are the protection against despair. When you have people close to you, you have a connection to something more important than yourself. You can be yourself as well as share yourself. It is in giving to and sharing with others that you will find the greatest joy. 

Mary’s despair was transformed when she began to share her hope with those closest to her. 


It is not easy to acknowledge and face your despair. But there is evidence that understanding hope and making it a daily practice makes a difference in overcoming despair. If you practice hope in good times, you are more able to see possible solutions and new ideas in challenging times. There are several ways to practice hope in leadership. 

Look for Hope

Focus on the positive and not the negative. Just as Mary in the story, when she focused on the tomb and what she did not have, she had her back to Jesus, the one whom she was seeking.  Practice looking for Jesus in everyday situations and relationships. You will experience him in unexpected places at unexpected times.

Make Hope Happen

Become familiar with the Hope Cycle and promote hope and a hopeful view.

  • Know your context. Where you are.
  • Know your goal. Where you are going.
  • Navigate the barriers. The path to get you to where you are going.
  • Claim the agency to move forward. Know what you can do. And ask for help along the way. 

Be Grateful. 

Pay attention to the positives when the problems feel overwhelming. Sam Keen writes, “Make a ritual of pausing to appreciate and be thankful. The more you become a connoisseur of gratitude, the less you are the victim of resentment, depression, and despair. Gratitude will gradually dissolve the hard shell of your need to possess and control and transform you into a generous being. The sense of gratitude produces true spiritual transformation. And for no particular reason, despair is replaced with an undefinable sense of hope, and enthusiasm returns.” 


Give God thanks for the people you met today. Regardless of how small, what hope did you experience?

  • How did you offer hope to others? 
  • Who is helping you name, face, and transform despair?
  • Ask God to give you the power to love others as God has loved you. What will you do differently tomorrow as a leader? 
  • Ask God to give you the power to turn despair into hope.
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