by Greg Prout
By Greg Prout, November 21, 2013
As a young child, I was afraid of darkness. When put to bed and the lights turned out, I imagined menacing gorillas lurking nearby. I swear I saw their shadows skulking across my walls in the reflection of moonlight. Gorillas do not sing lullabies, and going to bed could be sheer terror. Many times I feigned thirst and bellowed for mom to retrieve me a glass of water just to get her to turn on the lights. Pesky gorillas, they would disappear quicker than light, and I knew they were waiting for the darkness again to scare the willies out of me. Being a child was not easy, and there were no bible texts about gorillas; I know because I checked.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).i
The meaning is the Light shines unceasingly, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Good news. I wish I had understood this as a child. The promise is Light will dispel darkness, but sometimes I find a troubling paradox: Darkness in the Light.
There is a darker side to John’s “light into darkness” statement; darkness that torments me. God can be vague and distant, like a wilderness. “But my beloved had turned away and had gone! …I searched for him, but I did not find him. I called to him, but he did not answer me” (Song of Solomon 5:6). Like Tar Baby in Uncle Remus Folktales,ii God sits speechless as I pummel him with my supplications. Long ago I shed the skin of immature drive-thru faith, praising God for finding lost keys or a parking space at the mall. Instead, I progressed into the dark realities of faith in a world often broken and entirely mad. God perplexes me. Theodicy harasses me. His thoughts are not my thoughts; my ways are not His ways (Is. 55:8–9); my faith trampled by reality.
Temporality struggles to fathom eternity. Measured space struggles to fathom infinity. We talk of a relationship with God and how eager He is to have a relationship with us, but listen to Job, ‘O that a man might plead with God as a man with his neighbor! ‘(Job 16:21). The Light can be very dark indeed. “The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these” (Is. 45:7).
When I am in the wilderness, my prayers remind me of the ascending smoke rings of Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar, dissolving into nothingness.iii I knock on Heavens’ Door,iv and the place is vacant. I am empty, and God is empty; and the darkness like a Kafka novel.
David complains the Lord sets him in ‘dark places…in the lowest pit,’ and plaintively asks why God has rejected Him and hides His face from him. See Psalms 88. Again, Job: “Where now is my hope? And who regards my hope? Will it go down with me to Sheol? Shall we together go down into the dust?” (17:15-16). A believer understands Hell when she experiences the non-responsive God. I now understand the complaint of the Deist: God wound us up and wandered off. I know the angst of the Existentialist: no Presence; no encouraging words whispering in my thoughts. There is abundant hope, but not always for me. It is often just dead as if God had vanished. “My soul cleaves to the dust” (Ps. 119:25).
There is no intervention, no mediator in the opaqueness of God. His concealment defines Him as Mystery while driving me nearly mad. I am free to explore possibilities, answers, theologies and God, and I do, endlessly, yet He remains detached. Biblical promises are not guarantees in this life. Scriptural promises can simulate odds in Las Vegas. They produce expectations; I throw the dice and expect more than ‘snake eyes.’ I cry out from my suffering, awaiting something. Faith confronts the void. My spiritual riddle is like ‘playing solitaire while the King of Hearts is well concealed,’v or another verse might be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
With the darkness of Light, I feel like Habakkuk (3:17). Nothing works; prayers leap into the abyss; production fails; self-worth plummets and God’s footprints disappear in the retreating tide. Habakkuk knew this murky swamp and chose to rejoice, a form of hope. Swallowed by opaque obscurity, Job made his famous illogical claim: “Though He slays me, I will hope in Him”(Job 13:15). Job also chose hope. Ravaged by the sudden loss of family, a distraught wife, feeling deserted, falsely accused, yet he hopes while in blinding darkness (see Job 19).
Frustrated, we contest God; we ask hard questions: Would a Friend invite the Devil to harm His loving ally in a cruel game? Is this the “God of love”? Would Job have believed had he known he was the ball in a soccer game between God and Satan? Was Job a such a plaything? The conundrum of this story alone challenges my faith. Job trusted even though God resembled the mute stone idols He condemned, adding an ominous nuance to “Jesus, the Rock.”
What do we do when our prayers seem to fall lifeless to the ground, when God is judged absent, and life feels pointless? We either run, or frantically rearrange the chairs on our deck of faith as cognitive dissonance is not uncommonly the underbelly of faith. Sometimes, worst of all, we stop believing.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
The dynamics of belief in an invisible God drive the darkness of Light. Suffering darkness is unavoidable. Fortunately, spiritual nightfall does not describe the whole Christian life, but if you are a Christian, your lights will go out, sometimes briefly, sometimes at length, but always an inexorable attack on trusting God.
I have concluded three things. First, regardless of faith’s vicissitudes, I believe. Jesus, my example, trusted regardless of challenging evidence. Promises, assurances, and consolation deserted Him. The cross concealed God, and Jesus, feeling forsaken, submitted to the unknown, uncertain there would be tomorrow. He is Light shining into my darkness. Believing can seem absurd, strangling the life out of you; yet we are to trust like Jesus. We do not surrender our faith when evidence overruns our reality and chains us to the fusty dungeon of despair; we endure. We too will have a cross, and it will teach us that lesson.
Secondly, when your Christian experience is pitching black, praise and thanksgiving are essential. Daily, count your blessings. Gratitude is a light switch in the black hole of spiritual darkness.
Finally, The Incarnation means God “lives and moves and has His being” (Acts 17:28) in the society of humanity. He embeds Himself in the molecular structure of our lives, the foundation of who we are as human beings, having to work things out as we work things out. He limits Himself. God incarnates into our feeble thought patterns, our misconceptions, our wrong-headed notions about life and the hereafter. He is there in our careful plans, our quotidian efforts, our creations, and our character flaws. Like the song, He has become “one of us.”vi
When bad decisions occur and nasty consequences result, God is there plodding through our messy stuff like a crafty GPS redirecting our erroneous course. We laugh… He laughs; we weep… He weeps; we stumble… He stumbles, always sharing our humanity because that is the decision He made in the wards of eternity long before we went to hell (Eph. 1:1-5). He has incarnated into ordinary people living mundane lives. He is the ultimate Other, the “Stranger on the bus just trying to make his way home.”vii
My faith cannot be built on expected goodies, or miracles and promises, but only on His claim of who He is. Jesus is straight from the heart of the Father where He continues to adore me, in spite of the sewer I often make of my time here. When frustrated and depressed, when my fog envelopes God, that is just my broken self in a flawed world, my crumbled sinful existence living out the curse (Gen. 3:17). Ineluctable suffering just is, and like Job, I hope in hope. Perhaps I am beginning to understand the Incarnation on a deeper level and commencing to comprehend the Light after all; for the gorillas have gone.
i All biblical texts are from New American Standard Bible, 1972.
ii Uncle Remus Folktales, Joel Chandler Harris, 1881.
iii Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865.
iv “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan, 1973.
v “Solitaire,” Neil Sedaka, 1972.
vi “One of Us,” written by Eric Brazilian (1994), and released by Joan Osborne, 1995.