October 22, 2020

Looking Away From The Darkened Sun

Chuck Colson writes a riveting piece in Christianity Today on his own dark night of the soul. The key quote (my bold):

Exhausted from hospitals, two years of writing The Good Life, and an ugly situation with a disgruntled former employee, I found myself wrestling with the Prince of Darkness, who attacks us when we are weakest. I walked around at night, asking God why he would allow this. Alone, shaken, fearful, I longed for the closeness with God I had experienced even in the darkest days of prison….I’m not sure how well the contemporary evangelical world prepares us for this struggle, which I suspect many evangelicals experience but fear to admit because of the expectations we create. At such times, we can turn for strength to older and richer theological traditions probably unfamiliar to many writings by saints who endured agonies both physical and spiritual.

This is much the same insight as Michael Horton in his excellent essay, Singing The Blues With Jesus.

Often, before we can really feel the force and pain of sin and death, we are told to be happy and look on the bright side. One church-growth guru cheerfully announces that we have gone from having funerals to memorial services to “celebrations”, not realizing that this is a fatal index of our inability to face the music, whether we’re talking about the tragedy of sin itself or the suffering, death, and ultimate condemnation that it brings in its wake…Why is it that in our churches, in the preaching that avoids sin, suffering, the cross, and death, in the music that is always upbeat and seems so alien to the “blue note” that one finds in the Psalms, in the church growth that always targets the upwardly mobile suburbs, and in the “celebrations” that cannot seem to come to grips with the tragedy of death and the common curse that has invoked it, we seem to follow the world in refusing to face the music?

There is little doubt that the direction of modern evangelicalism is toward an appointment with mass disillusionment. Hundreds of thousands who are currently in the thrall of the seeker-sensitive, market driven, God-lit haze of church growth-ianity are going to one day find that the subtle messages of health, success and prosperity were complete misdirections.

When you find out that the “Ten Principles For Success In Life” and “Your Best Life Now Vol III” don’t work, you just might be a little bitter. When all of your pastors have been feeding you happy-clappy content and happy-clappy theology, you aren’t ready for times in life that aren’t very happy clappy.

The strength of Biblical faith is its deep incarnation into all that is our fallen, broken world, including our stories of disillusionment. It’s significant to me that Colson mentions Roman Catholic authors as those who most honestly map the terrain of the dark night of the soul. It’s hard to imagine the authers of “Purpose Driven” and “Best Life Now” theologies having much to say to us about the absence of God, existential doubt and struggling to maintain belief in God when it seems he is to blame for your torment and the pain of others.

Christians love to tell stories of physical healing, family reconciliation and financial success. We aren’t as good at telling how we continued to believe in a God who seemed to have us walking the plank.

This is the week the world is talking about C.S. Lewis. It was Lewis who, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, wrote notebooks full of his anger, doubt and pain, and later published them– under a pseudonym- so others could know that the experience of grief could be a faith-trying, even faith crushing, time.

Lewis didn’t lose his faith, but he walked through the dark night of the soul. He was changed by his loss of Joy, and his loss of his naive idea of what it would feel like to grieve as a believer. We need to know about that part of Lewis’s life, to prepare us for our own losses.

I have a theory that the human brain is wired to not comprehend its own death. Though death and suffering are certainties, the brain’s self-protective mechanisms keep us from looking at these realities straight on. It is the confessions of fellow pilgrims and the stories of doubting, struggling faith that will help us believe and keep believing in times when the darkness outweighs the light.

Comments

  1. Michael,

    I have walked through some challenging ministry valleys as well…in fact I’m only recently emerging from the disillusionment and frustration of the most significant trial of my life. And as Lewis explains, God can use, and is using all of this in my life for (1) His glory and (2)to move me beyone my naivete. He wants me to cling to Him more tightly.

    I truly ask, what good is a spiritual leader if they have not been taken through the furnace? I got the feeling that some of those who recently complained about your confessional writings must never go through dark days of the soul. How effective can they be?

  2. You remind me of one of my favorite bible passages:

    Jnh 2:1-7 “From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”

    It was in the deep as he faced his mortality that Jonah found out who he really was and, more importantly, who God really is. I don’t think we can really know God without sometimes sinking into the deep. And sometimes it is, in fact, God who throws us there.

  3. You know I don’t think anyone could ever convince another person that Christianity was all sunshine and roses… I mean Christ, who is to be our ultimate example, died for his beliefs and who he was… why should we be any different? Throughout my life the trials and tribulations in my life only made me stronger… made me closer to Christ. If I EVER EVER look like the rest of the world, and don’t suffer because of my faith, I will wonder exactly how close to God I am. Satan doesn’t waste his time with those who are of no challenge to him. Only those who are a threat are worth his time.

    I can totally see CSL having dark moments, because the knowledge and wisdom that God gave him was incredible, and other men and women of God who have similar giftings, have similar dark moments whether they admit it or not. For every person who claims to be gifted and have a perfect life, there will come a time when they fall, hopefully prostrate before God. Just ask Jim Bakker what comes with such a prideful way. The man now has been humbled. Humility is needed to serve God, to hear God, to be in his presence, and pride in self (thinking that you will never have a dark moment), will eventually cause your fall. Lets just hope it’s into the arms of Christ.

  4. Michael,

    This trial for Chuck is sounding similar to a “crisis of conscience” that I myself had less than six months ago. For weeks I was not myself as I fully faced my own sin, though the episode was used for God’s glory and good as I was deeply humbled, pentitent and driven to contrition before God. During this season I wrote this prayer that I think best conveys the darkness of this period:

    http://www.brokenmessenger.com/2005/06/my-prayer-today.html

    I praise God for that season. He forever changed me as I walked through that period where I was fully confronted by my sin.

  5. Michael,

    Oh, and wonderful article by the way. Thank you for bringing this subject up.

    Brad

  6. Michael:

    What a timely essay (for me anyway)!

    My wife and I went through a ten year
    “dark night” stuggling w/ depression.
    We both have had problems with it on
    and off. It wreaked havoc in our early
    marriage. Sometime during that dark period
    we found out our son had Aspergers syndrome,
    which can cause some very difficult behavior
    issues in some people.

    Some time late in our dark period, I had a
    “shouting match” (read as temper tantrum) with
    the Lord. I asked him why he thought two people who
    were battling depression needed a child like ours.

    The answer, looking back, was that the Lord allowed
    us to go through what we did with our son so that
    I would have to confront my own sickness and get the
    help I needed. (The kid needed me to be his father,
    not some great big mountain of depression and self pity.)

    I hesitate to say, “I’d do it all over again”, it really
    was painful for all of us. We learned so much, however,
    about God’s depth and wisdom by having to battle through
    what we did.

    I hope this wasn’t “too much information” for you or
    any other readers.

  7. I think this is wonderful. As a Catholic, I’m so happy to see so many protestants beginning to realize the beauty of respecting tradition and Tradition. Catholicism, the faith founded by Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls, has been around for 2,000 years and has been through it all. The wisdom found in the Catholic faith can be found nowhere else. Catholicism answers your deepest questions and longings where modern protestantism leaves you wanting.

    Come join the Church found by Jesus Christ– come join the Catholic Church!

  8. thanks for this michael! sometimes the little synchronicities of the kingdom amaze me. i brought this very issue up this week at my home group and witnessed the Lord minister powerfully to someone through it. then i visited here today and saw your post. God bless!

  9. Chuck gets it write in a well written piece when he notes that evangelicals could learn from the likes of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross when facing the internal struggles of faith and personal sorrow.

    Chuck does it poorly when, in the immediately subsequent paragraph, he seems to imply that these people evangelicals could learn from Puritans:

    “In the evangelical heritage, we could draw on spiritual forebears like the Puritans…”

    Unless I missed something both of these individuals he has highligthed were Roman Catholic. 🙂

    Owen
    thrive!

  10. However, I did it poorly myself. For the record Colson does not imply Teresa and John were Puritans; my bad reading of Chucks good grammar is the expanation. My apology for any angst or confusion caused by my duh comment.

    However, it is worth noting though that Colson refers to saints in the Protestant understanding and does not call these authors by title which their own writings carry; Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross nor does he say straight out that these people that are Catholic only that they are of “older and richer theological traditions.”

    Owen

  11. Obviously, only tribulation and trial will truly bring about the kind of long term faith that God truly desires…….or so it would seem.

    Will we put our trust in Him even if He fails to ‘deliver’ us?
    Or what if we wind up suffering at the hands of the ungodly in a communist prison because we’ve committed the crime of ‘sharing the gospel’?

    I hope my faith endures and it can be said of me in the end that I trusted God even when it didn’t seem to make sense.

  12. I really do encourage everyone to read (or read about) the great Catholic mystics’ explorations of inner desolation and the “dark night.”

    The contemplative life demands a heightened sensitivity and constant attention to the inner movements of one’s soul in relation to God. Ignatius of Loyola is a perfect starting-point for beginners in the life of contemplation: he talks about consolation (those moments when we feel moved with joy or tears because of a sense of God’s love for us), and desolation (those moments when God feels very distant and our spiritual lives feel empty). More importantly, he helps pray-ers distinguish between true consolation (consolation which comes from God), and false consolation (consolation used as trickery by the evil spirit to lead us astray).

    John of the Cross helps more mature pray-ers understand the Dark Night of the Soul, where we are called to surrender ourselves in complete abandonment to God, even if and when we do not find consolation.

    Of course, for all wishing to enter into a more contemplative prayer life, Teresa of Avila’s autobiography–the same one that made a convert of Edith Stein–is a must-read.

  13. I really do encourage everyone to read the great Catholic mystics’ explorations of inner desolation and the “dark night.”

    The contemplative life demands a heightened sensitivity and constant attention to the inner movements of one’s soul in relation to God. Ignatius of Loyola is a perfect starting-point for beginners in the life of contemplation: he talks about consolation (those moments when we feel moved with joy or tears because of a sense of God’s love for us), and desolation (those moments when God feels very distant and our spiritual lives feel empty). More importantly, he helps pray-ers distinguish between true consolation (consolation which comes from God), and false consolation (consolation used as trickery by the evil spirit to lead us astray).

    John of the Cross helps more mature pray-ers understand the Dark Night of the Soul, where we are called to surrender ourselves in complete abandonment to God, even if and when we do not find consolation.

    And of course, for all wishing to enter into a more contemplative prayer life, Teresa of Avila’s autobiography–the same one that made a convert of Edith Stein–is a must-read.

  14. Thanks so much for such an affirming article. For those of us who have experienced the “dark night”, it is a relief to have someone else in the Christian community express the idea that the Christain walk isn’t always “walking in victory”. I’ve heard enough of that clap trap to last me a lifetime. I’ve also heard pastors blame individuals experiencing the darkness as though more Bible reading will be a quick fix… the “all you have to do” syndrome. The evangelicla church does a perfectly lousy job of facing the fact that sin, sickness, death are big problems that all the faith in the world will not fix.Isn’t that the paradox that in the very weakness we are stuck in, Christ promises His strength? I just wish I found this article a few weeks ago….. Thanks again for stimulating writingl