One of things that causes me a bit of angst as a pastor is how infrequently we get to gather together as a community (once a week), and how infrequently I get to see everyone (not everyone comes every week… duh). And then when we DO gather, we have this formality called “putting on a service” that has to happen, which often doesn’t give very much space for our joy and pain, our hope and grief… in short, our humanness, our very lives, to come through. There are times when I just want to throw the whole “service” thing to the dogs and just have an honest discussion about how we’re all doing. Are you joyful? Frustrated? Experiencing strength? Suffering immensely? HOW THE HECK ARE YOU DOING?
Needless to say, this past week I was having one of those angsty, pastoral “how the heck are you doing?” times. My sense was (is) that a good deal of our people are walking through some VERY dark and difficult seasons right now, and it seemed good to address it, which I did last night.
If you spend enough time around what I’ve often called “pop” Christianity, you’ll get the impression that following Jesus is supposed to make life more wonderful and, in general, more pain-free than it would have been otherwise. Relationships will get better, you’ll be more successful at your job, you’ll get married and enjoy a blissful marriage existence, your body will be healthy, people will like you more, and on and on and on. Jesus will give you the life you’ve always wanted… right now… in 5 easy steps.
I have come to believe that this is, to put it baldly, a lie. True, God is always the Genesis God who brings beautiful order out of the chaos of our lives, yet it has been my experience that the kind of order he brings and the way that he brings it are not always what we would expect. In short, the path from chaos to order is not as linear as we’d like it to be. It is full of fits and starts, progressions and seeming regressions, and is almost never without deep difficulty and struggle. There are times when following God leads us into deeper and darker pits and valleys than we would have experienced otherwise. “You guide me in paths of righteousness”, yes, but also, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” God “with” and God “guiding” all the way. And enacting his purposes for us and through us for the world all the way.
Truth is, following God is rarely pain-free, struggle-free, and without periods of a sense of deep inner desolation and abandonment. Recall Elijah, “Take away my life Lord…” Recall David, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me…” Recall the Psalmist, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me, the darkness is my closest friend…” Recall Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised…” Recall Paul, “We despaired even of life…” Recall Jesus, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…”
Even in our own time, many modern saints have gone through deep periods of inward desolation. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memoirs depict a character who, despite all his obvious public strength, often struggled deeply with a bleakness of soul. Henri Nouwen, whose works like The Wounded Healer, The Return of the Prodigal Son and In the Name of Jesus have touched so many lives, battled depression, inward loneliness, and a sense of isolation for much of his adult life. And of course there is the now well-documented extended period of inward darkness that Mother Teresa experienced for years and years… a darkness and sense of abandonment so deep that she came to refer to Jesus in her journal as simply “The Absent One.”
I wish someone had been more frank with me about the role such seasons played in the life of faith when I was just getting started. I wish I had been given more theological “space” for making sense of why those things happened, where God was in the middle of them, and what he was trying to do. When my first “Dark Night of the Soul” occurred (a term coined by the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross) in late high school and early college, I was completely at a loss to know what was happening to me and what I should (and shouldn’t) be doing while I was in the middle of it. The sense of isolation and God-where-are-you despair, especially as this season (which lasted for several years) came hard on the heels of a year of profound sweetness with God, were nearly more than I could bear. Would to God that I had had even ONE person in my life wise enough to let me know that not only are such seasons normal and to be expected, but also that they were integral to my growth.
Now, nearly 15 years on the other side of that first “dark night”, and having gone through many more since, experiences both inward and outward that were hard, stressful, frustrating, and deeply disorienting, it is clear to me those seasons serve at least four crucial functions:
- They make me stronger. They really do. The Bible says that “suffering produces perseverance.” To take a lickin’, as they say, and keep on tickin… The tension produces strength. I am stronger, MUCH stronger, for what I have been through, and as such am capable of being a strength in a much more profound way for others.
- They teach me virtue. The great philosophers have always taught that virtue isn’t just doing the right thing, it’s doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. Truth is, most of us do what’s right because it “works” or it is “convenient.” But when you’re walking, to the best of your knowledge, in what is right and good and it STOPS “WORKING”… that’s when you have to dig down deep and figure out why the heck you do what’s good, what your reasons are.
- They teach me to love and stay devoted to God for God’s sake, not because of how it makes me feel or what it does for me (this is closely related to #2). The reality is that most people say they love God, but they really love how God makes them feel. There is a difference. And if loving God and being devoted to God stopped “profiting” them in some way, they wouldn’t have anything left to hold on to. This the book of Job in a nutshell. Can human beings love God “for nothing”? The Adversary thinks not. Yahweh thinks otherwise. The testing of Job will prove this out… In my own life I have found that this is not an automatic thing. I need to be tested on this. Naked I came, naked I will depart, God is my portion in this life and the next… do I believe that?
- They make me wiser. I find that on the other side of such experiences, my ability to “see” the world as it really is gets sharper, more nuanced, more complex, and hence, more likely to be helpful to people. St. John of the Cross used to talk about how the “dark night” for us is in some ways like a blind man whose eyes, having been opened for the first time, experiences the light at first like a searing pain. But if he can go through the pain, he will emerge with stronger eyes, with new sight. He lets go of an old way of grasping the world (through mere smells and touch and sound, etc), in order to reach out towards a new way of grasping the world (through sight), and as such, his ability to navigate reality is better. So it is with us. If we’ll let them, the periods of testing and trying will make us far wiser than we ever would have been otherwise.
…which is why these periods of having the lights go out (however those periods come, whether they’re just inward experiences of desolation or whether they’re triggered by some outward difficulty) are so pivotal. I SHOULD ADD, for the record, that I don’t think its just as simple as saying, “God sends them.” If the book of Job teaches us anything, to the extent that “seen” realities (the cosmos) are beyond our comprehension, the “unseen” is SO MUCH MORE beyond our comprehension. As one preacher said, “When the Bible asks, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?’, its not expecting any of us to raise our hands.” That is to say that in my opinion every tragedy or difficult season in our life is not directly sum-uppable with “God did it.” Reality is more complex than that, and God is not the only power at work in the universe, even if his power is ultimate…
NEVERTHELESS, in his infinite wisdom, I think that God intends never to waste opportunities to sanctify our lives and lead us into greater union with him… so that no difficult family situation, no season of depression, no illness or loss of a family member, no gross injustice done to us, is beyond him making use of for our growth. It is for this reason that James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various kinds of trials, BECAUSE YOU KNOW that the testing of your faith” leads to all kinds of good growth (James 1).
Having said all of that, I wanted to make sure to give our folks a short list of things to do – and avoid – when they find themselves in seasons of difficulty and darkness, and so in closing I give them also to you, hopefully for your benefit (I’d also recommend listening to the podcast if you get some time… more content there than here):
- You’re okay. Something about suffering makes us feel like freaks. You’re not a freak. Suffering is normal. And God is with you, despite how you feel, so…
- Keep on walking. Don’t opt out of the process, don’t “turn your heart back to Egypt”, back from where you came. God intends neither to take you back to the past NOR leave you in the midst of the “falling apart.” He intends to take you right on through to the other side. You might not know what “the other side” looks like, but take you there he will, in this life or the next.
- Don’t try to “manage” the process. Let it be what it is, and don’t think that if you just change this or that it will all magically be over. I’ve sometimes found that my impulse in darkness is to say, “Aha! I’ve figured out WHY God is allowing all of this, and now if I just stop doing X and Y activity (or starting doing A and B activity) I will have ‘passed the test’ and it will all be over.” How ironic that we should turn something that God wants to use to push us to surrender as yet one more opportunity to stay in the driver’s seat.
- Surround yourself with a couple wise people who know how to keep what I’ll call “appropriate silence.” Remember Job’s friends? Everything was fine until these well-meaning fellas opened their mouths and tried to “sum up” Job’s experience. Wise people will sit with you in the suffering, not rush the process, refuse to reduce your situation to a few simple life lessons, and will in so doing help create for you “space” in which the Spirit can do his work.
- Lament, because God loves you and is not put out by (in fact he welcomes) the cries of his children. BUT…
- Don’t get defiant. Job was on pretty good ground when he was saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away…”, scraping himself with pottery and lamenting his situation. But when he started demanding a trial with the Almighty in order to vindicate himself, he went awry, and God had to put him back in his place. Remember, creature, who you are.
- Stick to what you know that you know. I have found that such seasons of darkness often push me back towards a deepening of my confidence in certain “core” realities about God. Like, “God is a good God” and “The earth is full of his unfailing love”, even if I don’t feel it, even if everything in the universe seems to be screaming contrariwise. I will believe it. And in so doing, a certain unassailability of faith will begin to emerge in me.
- Remember, the future is better. “If we endure, we will reign with him” said Paul. Truth is, some seasons of darkness last longer than we’d like. Mother Teresa’s apparently lasted until the end of her life. The promise is those who persevere will inherit the kingdom. Sometimes that “inheriting” happens in this life. We taste glimmers of the glory that will be ours. But often it doesn’t. Paul said that while we are in these “tents” (our bodies), we “groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Cor 5). To expect that we will never groan is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of reality and distort the way the Scriptures present salvation history. We are living “between the times”, awaiting our redemption. So stick it out. The future is better. ALWAYS.
Much mercy upon you… You are loved.