Utter Despair

“God has wronged me and drawn his net around me…. though I call for help, there is no justice. He has blocked my way so I cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped me of my honor and removed the crown from my head. He tears me down on every side till I am gone; he uproots my hope like a tree. His anger burns against me; he counts me among his enemies” (Job 19:6, 7b-11).

“Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?… You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:14, 18).

“The Lord is like an enemy… My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground… let your tears flow like a river day and night; give yourself no relief, your eyes no rest” (Lamentations 2:5a, 11a, 18b).

Yup, it’s all in the Bible. Those who think of the Holy Scriptures only as an unbroken canticle of “how wonderful God’s ways are” need to go back and reread some of the poetic sections.

Not that I mean to be flippant about it. I know well how it feels to want to cry, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It doesn’t necessarily take a catastrophe akin to the trials of Job or the destruction of Jerusalem, to a chunk of Alabama left in shambles by tornadoes or a Libya torn by civil war. As human-relations expert Dale Carnegie put it, “A boil on [the average person’s] neck interests him more than forty earthquakes in Africa.” Blame human self-centeredness if you like; to someone who has been out of work for months and has little left in the bank, there’s no problem more deserving of God’s immediate attention.

Small wonder that our prayers quickly lose their intensity when God seems to disagree. He might at least give us a permeating sense of His support, or some indication of when the struggle will end. Instead, we’re left devoid of any perceptible evidence He knows or cares what we’re dealing with. Like the Scripture writers above, we even start to wonder if He’s taking an active role in causing our problems. Such are the roots from which paralyzing depression grows. We give up on prayer because “it doesn’t do any good anyway”; having decided God isn’t going to be any help, we can’t see any alternative means of support to try out; and the only option left seems to be retreating to bed permanently. Admonitions to recall the good God has done in the past, and is still doing–doing for others–seem pure mockery.

In the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross coined the phrase la noche oscura del alma, or, in English, “the dark night of the soul.” As theologians use the term, it usually refers to a period of crisis in the life of an actively growing Christian (not, as logic might assume, as the just consequences of a lukewarm spiritual attitude). “Dark nights” may or may not be triggered by real-world problems, and they may or may not hamper a person’s ability to function effectively in the real world. What they all have in common is an overwhelming sense of depression bordering on despair (to the point one can hardly think about anything else) and lengthy duration as perceived by the sufferer (to the point it seems the pain will never end). There is no guaranteed way to speed through them; God alone knows how often they will come and how long they will last.

Why does God allow such pain to come to His followers–especially when they have done nothing to deserve it? A truly satisfying explanation is beyond the capabilities of any human theologian. But one thing is clear: we grow through struggle. The Bible refers many times to the blessedness of those who persevere through life’s troubles to reach the rewards of Heaven. Yes, God could “carry [us] to the skies on flowery beds of ease,” as one hymn puts it;  but a medal won in a hard contest means much more to its wearer than one bought in a souvenir shop.

Again, I’m not offering a flippant “cheer up, it’ll be worth it someday.” I too feel regularly (five or six days a week on average) that getting rid of some of this world’s problems would be well worth a lower place in Heaven. A nebulous “someday” is small comfort when the pressures of “now” are all too obvious.

But even small comfort from God holds a deeper joy than the cheap solutions of this world.

(For a particularly readable discussion of putting the problems of this world into the perspective of eternity, I recommend Mark Buchanan’s book Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever. See especially Chapter 9, “The One Thing Needed.”)

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2 Comments

  1. If we couldn’t feel grief we couldn’t love and if we couldn’t feel pain we wouldn’t protect out bodies so maybe without dark times we couldn’t appreciate the light.

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