“They” always say the night seems darkest just before the dawn. I suppose it is. Most of us have experienced those long hours of the darkness when the difficulties loomed largest. When I was a pastor, I would have opportunity to visit patients in the hospital. The medical staff would often give updates such as, “They had a good night” or “They didn’t do well during the night”. Even physical trials seem harshest in the hours of darkness.
Darkness Brings Fear
I believe that much of the angst in our lives looms largest when the darkness is thickest. The fear comes on strong as we experience our frailty, our loneliness, and the endless cycle of doubt-filled thoughts in the night. It doesn’t matter if we are struggling physically, in relationships, mentally, emotionally, in our careers, or even spiritually – look back over our lives and we see spikes of anxiety at night.
But the darkness doesn’t always have to be in the evening. The darkness may be a stretch of time in our lives where our experiences are extremely difficult, filled with the unknown, or silence from God. It is also in these times that we begin to lose our grip on hope. We’ve already “tied the knot” at the end of our rope and we can feel it slipping slowly from our fingers.
It is at this point in time that I think the Passion Week leading to the Resurrection is the most poignant.
Darkness is Intentional
No where in Scripture is there a darker hour than those experienced by the disciples of Christ between the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection. The Shepherd had been struck and the sheep, in fact, scattered: literally, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. Imagine their loss. Meditate on the insecurity and the hopelessness that not only filled their hearts, but spilled over into every conversation and sleepless night. Some of the last words their Rabbi shouted from the cross were, “It is finished!”. What did he mean by that? It seemed there wouldn’t be any time for his patient explanations any longer. Was everything over? What about the sacrifices they had made to follow this Man they thought to be the Messiah? What would they do now? How could they ever go back into their community, or face their families? The future was certainly bleak. They couldn’t just “turn the page” and read about the resurrection. They were sinking quickly in a pool of agonizing dread.
I think the Church jumps much too quickly from the Cross to the Empty Grave.
We want to avoid the darkness. Not only have we skimmed through the depth of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, but we flip quickly to the grave so we can revel in the Hope that walked away from it alive. For as much as the cross makes us uncomfortable as it confronts our sinfulness and the consequences of it, the dark hours between “It is finished!” and “He is risen!” are to be avoided at almost any cost.
Darkness is Vital
From the Garden through history, highlighted in the Psalms, and continued until the return of our Savior, all mankind have had to endure the darkness. There is no escaping it. And, it is in this realization that we must learn the lessons that the darkness teaches us. I stop short of saying “embrace the darkness”, because I will tell you, I despise it. Knowing that there is purpose in the darkness doesn’t make it any less smothering. It doesn’t remove the fear, the anxiety or the nagging doubts of our own weaknesses. But I do think that knowing that there is Hope in the darkness comforts us and gives us resources to battle the fear we experience.
What are some of the lessons we can take with us into the deepest nights of our lives?
- Our darkness, while unique to our own selves, is not unique to mankind. You don’t have to look far before you see others who are experiencing their own dark nights. And you don’t have to look far before you see others who have made it through their own agonies. And that helps us tremendously. Knowing that even in our weakest hour there are those who have endured, brings a strength in and of itself. We can make it through the night.
- It’s okay to talk about your darkness, even lament about it verbally and loudly. Don’t we see this all through out the Psalms? Doesn’t the Apostle Paul explain it quite clearly that he wasn’t happy with his own darkness (that which he referred to a “thorn in the flesh”)? Our individualistic culture does us a great disservice here. The Church fails to share its failures. And in doing so, fails to allow the gifts of the burden bearing truths of the Body of Christ to manifest themselves.
- We are not alone in our darkest hours. Oh! How we’ve trivialized this truth! We’ve turned “I will never leave you or forsake you” into a mantra of minimal comfort. I recall one of the most terrifying moments of my life, deep into one night in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when I was attacked so vividly spiritually that my prayers were a mumble-jumble of unnerved cries for help. I found the one word I could focus on and repeated it over and over in my mind: “JESUS!” Assessing the situation in hindsight, I reassure myself that the Holy Spirit also was battling on my behalf with his own prayers, groaning too deep for words, before the throne of our Father. Friend, you are not alone in your darkness.
- Our darkness, no matter the intensity, will not last forever. This is the beauty of Easter, isn’t it? There truly is a Redeemer, Rescuer and, if I may in my layman’s theological terms, a Returner. Despite the validity of our deepest, darkest valleys, Jesus Christ will stand in our midst in the near future. The disciples were shocked by this truth when Jesus appeared in their midst after the Resurrection, but how it revolutionized their lives! And, fellow traveler of darkness, can I infuse the Hope of the resurrection into your story today? This dark hour, this dark night of your soul, these terrifying torments will all fall away in the presence of Jesus. I don’t say that lightly or trivially. But I say it with fingers slipping off the knot I’ve tied in my own rope. My wavering faith is anchored in a truth that even if he kills me, I will one day find peace in his presence. And so, moment by agonizing moment, I do battle in my heart and mind and life against the darkness. I challenge it with its claustrophobic oppressiveness by the Hope that was secured in the hours between the cross and the grave – with the Hope that the empty tomb represents: Jesus is the Author of my life.
Don’t Skip the Darkness in the Gospel
So, as we are enduring this Passion Week and eagerly anticipating Resurrection Sunday, I encourage you to not skip over the dark hours between the Cross and the Empty Tomb. Dig for the truths embedded within the Gospels and soothe your heart with a greater understanding of the Gospel itself.
While writing this post, I was messaged by a friend concerned with the fact that I haven’t posted much lately about my “walk”. This is a great example of how the Church should interact with those experiencing darkness. Our family’s future remains up in the air, I am frantically trying to wind the hands of God’s clock forward faster and faster, so that I can have “peace” and “rest” in knowing what we are to be doing. But heaven is so silent. A great many of those who I thought would necessarily have asked about our future have been quiet. I have wrestled with understanding those “whys”, but am learning to leave those concerns in the hands of my Sovereign God. The Church needs to be vigilant toward its brothers and sisters. Perhaps I’ll end this rambling post in the words of the Apostle Paul:
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
19 And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. (Eph 6:18-19 NLT)