It will come as no surprise to frequent readers to learn that I have lately struggled with depression. I'm certain I'm genetically predisposed to such bouts, and that predisposition has been fed copious amounts of environmental stress to trigger a dark season. For the longest time (and it has seemed the longest time), I kept operating under the assumption that there was something I needed to do or say or pray to turn on the light. Slowly, I have begun to recognize that it is better to know that this season isn't one to be pushed away under my own power and that God is with me in the dark. I really am feeling better, but it's still more than a little murky most days, a delicate balance of light and dark. Sharing (in person) with people who walk this way, too, often helps me to understand better myself. We wait together for the sun to rise.
I recently spoke with a woman in her early 30s who was surprised to find herself in an extended period of darkness. She and her husband had suffered a job loss, a pregnancy loss, and a move resulting in loss of support — all in the last two years. She goes through the motions of a practicing Catholic, but she feels as if God has abandoned her.
“When the calendar changed,” she said, “I thought now it will get better. Now God will show up in a new year. Now He’ll make good things happen and we’ll know He’s real and He loves us and maybe we’ll understand His plan. Now, I’ll feel God. Then, something else happened and I felt nothing but alone.”
It is a rite of passage perhaps to learn that life isn’t happily ever after and that extended periods of darkness are just as likely as extended periods of light. Perhaps the dark is precipitated by a series of unfortunate events as in the case of my friend. Or, perhaps, it’s the dark night of the soul that settles when one feels the loneliness that comes with at once knowing God exists and feeling distanced from Him.
Mother Teresa, who will soon be canonized, experienced prolonged bouts of profound feelings of abandonment. She confided, “Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” Yet, she is remembered as a woman of cheerful service. How does one reconcile the darkness within in order to bear light to the world?
With that first dark night (and maybe with several that follow), it is entirely possible to stumble around futilely wondering why the Lord of light has abandoned you there. In the black, in the pain, in the unrelenting questioning, the key to survival is to recognize that the times that are hard beyond imagination are not devoid of God.
God is there in the darkness. He’s just as present as He is in the light. You don’t have to know why it happened or how it ends or whether it’s all going to work out in a way you consider favorable. You don’t have to hear answers to your questions. As Ravi Zaccharias so succinctly put it recently, “Having the answers is not essential to living. What is essential is the sense of God's presence during dark seasons of questioning.”
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. We cannot survive unless we know God is present in the black. Something slowly dies within us unless we can rest in the presence of God even in darkness. What is needed on our behalf is not the wit or the strength to find the switch and turn on the lights so that we can see Him. On the contrary, we can have peace in the darkness only when we learn be still with Him in the dark.