I am a product of the best in evangelicalism: converted 32 years ago in a flood of tears after hearing the gospel, discipled by a strong prayer group, taught by great theologians. I know the strength of evangelicalism in bringing people to an intimate relationship with Jesus.
But what happens when you have relied on this intimacy and the day comes when God seems distant? What happens in the dark night of the soul?
I found out this past year. Weeks after finishing The Good Life, my son Wendell was diagnosed with bone cancer. The operation to remove a malignant tumor took 10 hoursthe longest day of my life. Wendell survived, but he's still in chemo.
I had barely caught my breath when my daughter, Emily, was diagnosed with melanoma.
Back in the hospital, I again prayed fervently. Soon after, my wife, Patty, underwent major knee surgery. Where was my good life?
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.
An answer came in September. I was standing alone on the deck of a friend's home in North Carolina, overlooking the spectacular Smoky Mountains arising out of the mist. I was moved by the glory of God's creation. It's impossible not to know God as the Creator, I realized, for there is no other rational explanation for reality. God cannot not be.
It struck me that I don't have to make sense of the agonies I bear or hear a clear answer. God is not a creature of my emotions or senses. God is God, the one who created me and takes responsibility for my children's destiny and mine. I can only cling to the certainty that he is and he has spoken.
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 manywritings by saints who endured agonies both physical and spiritual.
Teresa of Avila was a 16th-century Spanish mystic and author of The Interior Castle. Teresa, who suffered from paralyzing illnesses, wrote, "For his Majesty can do nothing greater for us than grant us a life which is an imitation of that lived by his beloved Son. I feel certain, therefore, that these favors [sufferings] are given us to strengthen our weakness."
John of the Cross, persecuted and thrown into prison, wrote the classic The Dark Night of the Soul. "O you souls who wish to go on with so much safety and consolation," John wrote. "If you knew how pleasing to God is suffering and how much it helps in acquiring other good things, you would never seek consolation in anything, but you would rather look upon it as a great happiness to bear the Cross of the Lord."
In the evangelical heritage, we could draw on spiritual forebears like the Puritans and Charles Spurgeon. "When thy God hides his face, say not that he has forgotten thee," Spurgeon once wrote. "He is but tarrying a little while to make thee love him better, and when he cometh, thou shalt have joy in the Lord and shalt rejoice with joy unspeakable."
The point of these older traditions is that faith becomes strongest when we are without consolation and must walk into the darkness with complete abandon.
Faith isn't really faith if we can always rely on the still, small voice of God cheering us on. A prominent pastor once told me he experienced the Holy Spirit's presence every moment. Contemporary evangelicals regard this as maturity. Perhaps it isor maybe it is a form of presumption. True faith trusts even when every outward reality tells us there is no reason to.
As theologian Michael Novak explains, true faith says, "Let this be done, Lord, according to your will"even if we don't know what "this" is.
Evangelicals must rely on more than cheerful tunes, easy answers, and happy smiles. We must dig deeply into the church's treasures to find what it is like to worship God, not because of our circumstances, but in spite of them.
Following the events of 2005, my faith is deepened. Countless times over the years I've experienced God and his providence, but I've also known the dark night. God, I've realized, is not just the friend who takes my hand, but also the great, majestic Creator who reigns forever.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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