I’m at My Wits’ End!

We’ve all been there at one time or another. We’re out of options, we’re out of ideas, we’re out of patience, we don’t know what to say or what to do. We’re at our wits’ end. English is an endlessly fascinating language loaded with vivid idioms, phrases that have a meaning that cannot be easily deduced from its words. At our wits’ end is just one of them. Many of these idioms, like this one, originate in the Bible—the King James Bible in particular.

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The Expression

To be at your wits’ end is to have attempted and exhausted every possible means to solve a problem. It is a common phrase and a quick search of recent news headlines turned up hundreds of hits. An awful child abuse case gaining national attention in Canada centers around a child whose father tortured him. The father, though, portrays himself as the victim, explaining “he thought his boy was possessed. At his wit’s end, he said he started confining his son and rationing his meals.” A resident of a small town in Prince Edward Island owns a property that is constantly used for illegally dumping waste and says “I don’t know whether to keep the woods, or to sell it, I’m at my wit’s end.” People who live in the province of Ontario know that many of us are at our wits’ end when it comes to soaring hydro prices. (That’s soaring electricity prices for you Americans.) One reporter declares, “The people of Ontario are at their wit’s end. In all my years as a columnist, I’ve never had a response like this.” In every case the phrase conveys exasperation, attempts to solve a problem that were frustratingly ineffective.

And while we’re talking about the phrase, let’s address that apostrophe. Many people put it here: wit’s. But it should be here: wits’. Why? Because wits is plural. We are not at the end of our one wit but at the end of our many wits. Hence, we are at our wits’ end.

The Origin

The phrase originates in Psalm 107:27-30 where the psalmist speaks of God’s deliverance of those who are helpless and hopeless:

They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.

These sad people could do nothing to help themselves—the Hebrew says “their wisdom was swallowed up.” Everything they tried failed. It was only when they looked outside of themselves, when they despaired of their own wisdom and wits, only when they cried out to the Lord, that they found deliverance. And then, of course, it was God’s delight to calm the storm, to bring salvation. No wonder, then, that the psalmist soon says, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!”

The Application

The people the psalmist writes about needed to come to their wits’ end, for it was only then that they would find deliverance. The same is true of us. We are saved only when we despair of our feeble efforts to save ourselves. I don’t often depend upon extended quotes, but I’ll make an exception here for John Piper’s powerful application.

If you read Psalm 107 you’ll notice that it talks about God rescuing people who are in trouble. You’ll also notice that a number of them are in trouble because of their own sin. Nevertheless, God comes to them when they cry out to him, and he rescues them over and over again. So whether you’ve wrecked your life with drugs, abortion, wrong divorce, multiple marriages, illicit sex, lying, or fraud, you can see from this psalm that those things do not disqualify you from God’s rescue. The people in the psalm got themselves into their situations by their own stupidity—rather than someone else’s persecution against them—yet God still hears their cry and saves them.

And when you go to the cross you see what it is that makes this kind of mercy possible. The fact that Jesus died in our place, covered all our sin, took all our guilt, removed all our condemnation, and has provided us with a perfection and a righteousness which we could never perform on our own—this is the ground upon which everyone who trusts in him can claim the same mercy from Psalm 107 for themselves. Because of the cross we can know that their own situation right now does not rule us out of God’s blessing, favor, and care.

The final verse of the psalm says, “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD” (43). And having considered these things, we are duty-bound to obey the psalm’s opening line: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

To do so, you may like to sing. Perhaps sing “Grace and Peace” to celebrate what God has done in bringing calm to your soul: “You have said, that our judgment is death / For all eternity Without hope, without rest / Oh, what an amazing mystery / What an amazing mystery / That Your grace has come to me.”

Or why not listen to Flame celebrate God’s deliverance of needy, helpless people like you and me (and, of course, like him) in “Start Over“: “Jesus came for the sick / Jesus came for the weak / Jesus came to give good news and have set the captives free / Jesus came for the poor / Jesus came with the keys / Jesus came to remove the chains so the prisoners are released.”

More in Idioms:

  1. A Drop in the Bucket
  2. By the Skin of My Teeth!
  3. Give Up the Ghost
  4. Fall From Grace
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