'MY GOD, MY GOD..'
WHERE IS GOD WHEN IT'S DARK?
An Easter Meditation from Paul Tyson
(PSALM 139:12) I am hemmed in by darkness, and thick darkness covers my face.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O God, I cry out to you by day but you do not answer, by night, and find no rest.
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' - which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'
'Come, follow me,' Jesus said...
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers (and sisters), about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in the secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
If I say, 'Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,' even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for the darkness is as light to you.
Job 23:17 (RSV); Psalm 22:1-2 (NIV/RSV); Matthew 27:45-46; Matthew 4:19; 2 Corinthians 1:8; Hebrews 12:2; Isaiah 45:3; Psalm 139:11-12. (all NIV)
Did Jesus give a cry of pain as the nerves in his wrist were shattered by the nail and Roman hammer? He said 'Father, forgive them, for they do no know what they are doing'. His composure convicted the hardened centurion of his divinity. Who could drink pain like this, who could love his murderers like this, save a God of awesome, wondrous grace? We glimpse the very heart of God - the all-enduring, inexorable power of the divine heart of love - as we gaze in wonder at the spectacle of Golgotha.
Yet whilst his love enabled him to transcend the extremes of human pain and rejection, Jesus' separation from God taxed him to his very limit. In Gethsemane his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death; and what was this cup that nearly overwhelmed him? - I believe it was the terror of the separation from God he would face at the point of death. So he cries out in forsaken anguish whilst the very heart of darkness descends upon him at death.
Jesus saw the heart of darkness.
Joseph Conrad and many other great thinkers have sketched profoundly the deep darkness that is despair, futility, brooding pointless evil and suffocating lostness. In Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness Marlow describes his river steamer voyage into the Congo early last century to retrieve an ivory hunter called Kurtz. Kurtz has a peculiar charisma which he uses to exploit the natives. Kurtz dies, and Marlow nearly dies, on the outward voyage. The Congo is the darkness - yet the voyage is also a psychological and mystical journey wherein Marlow sees a glimpse behind the veil of surface reality and peeps into the chasm of an immense and impenetrable darkness. In the excerpts below you can savour his imagery of despair.
Now recall Jesus as he is cut loose from the arms of True Reality by the spectre's blade of death. He is received by the despair reserved for humanity that has chosen to reject the presence of God. He plunges headlong into this same darkness that Marlow glimpsed. And this despair is a reality - for it is part of the human condition. We have the real choice to love God and enjoy him forever, or not to love God and know the perpetual torment of being made of indissoluble stuff in the grip of ceaseless futility and crushing mindless darkness. And we are all born into the latter state. To redeem us from it, he must conquer it for us - he must be sacrificed to it and then in death strike the fatal blow to its heart. Do we understand what we have been redeemed from as well as Conrad, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, Clarke, Hume or Hess understood the nature of Godless reality? Maybe they understand better than we what Christ faced as he cried 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Maybe we can learn from them here.
What of our knowledge of despair, what of our struggle against the dark reality?
The soul's black night is a part of the Christian experience. It is a part of many secular thinkers' experience. It is a part of the human condition.
Kierkegaard goes so far as to say that our capacity to experience this despair is a great privilege, and - to the extent that Christianity is a process of 'becoming' in the mortal medium - our metamorphosis is perfected in refinement through the process of despair and death, for this strengthens and perfects true faith.
A profound realization comes to us through despair. It is the realization that there is NO meaning, NO value, NO worthwhile activity, NOTHING of any value within us or the material universe, NO beauty, NO love... NONE of these contain value in themselves. Meaning and value is above and beyond, it is in God alone. And we only find meaning and value through our relationship with God.
The realization of our need for spiritual growth in the area of our total surrender to the demands of God's relationship with us, only truly comes as we see the reality of despair more clearly. And then death to our futile life is the point where we are resurrected into the fullness of life with Christ. Despair and death is the medium of conversion, and of spiritual growth in the mortal dimension. 'For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again' 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, (NIV).
So why then do Christians who grapple with despair, theological discontent, turmoil in darkness, and a sense of alienation from God so often feel ostracized from the Church? Could it be that our established Christianity is a comfortable and in many ways shallow shelter from the darkness? I believe this may be so. But I think it is more an issue of a lack of conception of the importance of spiritual struggle for spiritual growth in a culture where material comfort is the milestone of success.
There is a 'Christian myth' which states that Christians who show doubt, taste despair, struggle in darkness or lose a sense of the presence of God are by definition failing Christians who are probably caught in some deep sin. This 'myth' is a lie.
It is alright to struggle in darkness. Job did, and God spoke to Job's theologically correct companions and said, 'You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has'. Jacob struggled with God and was blessed because of it.
The same God who gives us the treasures of darkness is also the God in whom there is no darkness. When we cannot see, we must pursue the light through the darkness in faith. Then, if we succeed, we can see - with faith - in the darkness, just as our Lord did even in the very heart of darkness.
We can be angry, but we must not sin. We can be perplexed, yet we must not discard the child's faith. We can lose the sense of the presence of God, yet we must worship him. We can see ourselves as hypocrites, and yet we must not judge others.
Darkness is an opportunity for God to birth a jewel within us, and that is a jewel forged in our own character by our struggle to follow Jesus.
Those are perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of their feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglect and wandering forgetfulness, and say to him, 'Thou art my refuge'.
In Kierkegaard's book, Gospel of Sufferings, he describes how suffering - not success - was the unique medium whereby Jesus demonstrated his divine worthiness. As Revelation claims '...worthy is the lamb who was slain.' And Christ's work of worth in us is given scope to the extent to which we follow him. But to follow through suffering is not a self-debasing road, rather it is one that gives us real life and worth - and as Jesus himself went to the cross out of the motive of joy ('Jesus who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame') we can rejoice in what he is accomplishing even through darkness.
If Jesus faced the ultimate crisis of a sense of hopeless separation from God, and yet endured, why should we expect never to be led through trials of a sense of separation?
... I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky. It seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
... the sun sunk... stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.
Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.
... the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.
... 'The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrant note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpse of truth.
What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage - who can tell? - but truth - truth stripped of its cloak of time...
... Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings... And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with vengeful aspect.
... it was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, of temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more that a breath - 'The horror! The horror!'
... We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
... I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of a candle but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up - he had judged. 'The Horror!'
... No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity.
For a moment it seemed to me as if I also was buried in a vast grave oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night.
... I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors.
J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness
In Kierkegaard's work on despair, The Sickness Unto Death, he explains how the innate sense of futility and purposelessness spurs us on to seek meaning. We do not find it in ourselves, we do not find it in the material world - we can only find it through a relationship with God. Comfort is the enemy of despair and the enemy of spiritual life, for then the searching is not attended to because of the relentless demands of petty routine, or even - in temporal terms - grandiose routine. Discomfort is an essential part of spiritual development.
When the bold warrior presses forward nothing daunted, and takes in his breast the arrows of the foe, thus protecting his young henchman who follows him, can we indeed say the youth is following him? ... Nay, we cannot say so; the case must be altered. The bold warrior must withdraw, so that it may be seen now whether his henchmen will truly follow him, follow him, in actual danger, when all the shafts are aimed at his breast, or whether like a coward he will turn his back on danger and lose his courage because he has lost his man of courage....
To follow therefore means to go the way he went whom you are following...
For there is a time when Christ goes almost visibly by the child's side, when Christ goes on before the child, but then there is also a time when he is taken from the view of sensitive imagination, so that now the seriousness of decision may show whether the child, grown older, will follow him.
Kierkegaard, Gospel of SufferingsLove's as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing he had done;
Seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and his.
C. S. Lewis, Poems
Jesus' eyes have pierced the very heart of darkness, for he has been to the very heart of darkness; the darkness of spiritual void, oppressive crushing evil, and rampaging futility. For what else could his forsaken cry on the cross be? He who was God, made totally powerless, separated from the Father and taken into the dark oblivion of death and triumphant purposeless evil. Despair crushing all, save the enduring jewel of his faith - without sight - in God.
To him, darkness is as light. Oh blessed Savior! With this confidence we can walk on in any darkness we face, knowing it is less than he faced and is effortlessly penetrated by his eyes. And in the darkness he faced he saw the joy set before him, without any light, and God gave him a name above every other name because of the metal of his jewel created in the totality of that darkness. And we are called to follow him. And we are called to share in his glory by following him. For if we die with him, we shall also be raised with him. How did he die? He grappled with darkness to the mortal end in his life and in his death. So do we follow him to his death? May Paul's desire be ours too: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10-11, (NIV).
Gracious Lord, my God, darkness is as light to you, and so my hope in you is not shaken, no matter how much I am shaken by darkness. Because you have conquered, I do not fear the darkness. Thank you my Lord, my refuge.
And in the darkness you forge a treasure in my soul. So I thank you even for the darkness. Not because of what it is, but because of what you use if for.
Merciful Redeemer, grant me faith to grasp the courage you have seeded within me not to shrink from my high calling - to follow Jesus. Complete the work you have begun within me, as I hold onto you in faith, even in the weakness of my fear of the dark.
I love you Lord, for you have conquered the darkness through the light of your love, even for me.
A Benediction. The Lord delights in you. May you rest secure in his love, protected by his power, surrounded by his grace, even in the clouds of thick darkness.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Penguin Classics, 1983. U.K. pp 121, 28, 113, 52, 113, 70, 67, 69, 66, 111, 68, 112-113, 108, 103, 97.
Os Guinness, Doubt. Lion Paperback, 1987, U.K., - book referred to in passing.
Soren Kierkegaard, Gospel of Sufferings. James Clarke & Co., 1982, U.K. pp 14-15.
Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death. Penguin Classics, 1989. U.K. - book referred to in passing.
C.S. Lewis, Poems. Ed. Walter Hooper, Harvest/HBJ Books, 1977, U.S.A. pp 124
C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, An Anthology. Bles, 1974. U.K. pp 23
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