"Everyone is served their cup of sorrow in season." (David Jeremiah in Slaying Giants)"He takes us into the dark night. He weans us from all the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness. In doing so, He is able to take away all these vices and create virtues within us. Through the dark night pride becomes humility, greed becomes simplicity, wrath becomes contentment, luxury becomes peace, gluttony becomes moderation, envy becomes joy, and sloth becomes strength. No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the Dark Night." Chuck Swindoll in Job
On the day I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday, my yearly custom typically included anticipating a sumptuous meal with my husband, opening thoughtfully presented gifts from my four lively teens, lunching out with treasured friends stretched casually over several weeks' time, and savoring the largest section of the most decadent chocolate cake ever conceived.
There were myriad activities I should have been looking forward to, but I wasn't. In truth, the very thought of commemorating this previously ritually joyous event made me even more depressed. Depressed? Did I mention the word depressed? Couldn't have ... not me. Not the "I'm always in control" person.
Then why? Why was it that I found facing the truth of my current predicament so very painful? Why did a simple elective shoulder surgery send me into a brief period of emotional despair? I wasn't depressed before I opted to have my loose shoulder tightened. Something transpired within my psyche during those subsequent post-op days that sent me spiraling into a black, obscure night of the soul. The worst aspect of this terrifying, albeit temporary experience, was that I felt powerless ... utterly helpless ... and entirely alone on this companionless journey. And where was God?
Having never experienced such drastic fluctuations in my emotional state before, I didn't recognize the signs of depression. True enough, I wasn't sleeping — enduring continual shoulder pain for weeks on end will inhibit even the soundest sleeper from gaining daily needed rest. I had also stopped exercising for a solid month post-surgery, something I've never done in my entire adult life. This too, may have contributed to how off-kilter my body felt as it responded to this drastic change in my former daily pattern.
Most significantly, and most terrifyingly, it was as though someone was pinning me against the wall ... and no matter how mightily I struggled, I couldn't break free. It was in this skewed frame of mind that I unwisely began contemplating life ... my faith, my marriage, my work, and my future. Pondering the past, present, and future through these murky, dimly lit lenses was not a good thing. This habit alone increased my sense of despair and my lack of hope. Thankfully, I had outside support or I may have begun believing that my wild mental digressions into the hopeless were true. Because my family and friends continued to speak positive words of truth, accurately assessing my life, indeed my very person, I was able to heed that small, still-sane, voice in me that continued to resist these negative mind-speaks. It was a battle to be sure, one that I fought hour by hour, and often I found myself placing a desperate telephone call to a trusted friend for perspective, to vent, to question, and for prayer. But where was God?
We've all heard of these ominous periods in the Christian life defined as, "the dark night of the soul." Some of us, perhaps most of us if we're honest, don't really invest much emotional stock in the excess suffering another has endured ... until we experience it firsthand. Outwardly, we know what to say, how to respond, and what glib words of wisdom to bestow. Inwardly, I fear, we shrug off the uncomfortable exchange ASAP in the hopes that it will never happen to us ... and we too soon forget the intensity of our friend's war inflicted scars.
Eventually, the unspeakable makes a direct hit — as it did with my depression — and we're the ones who are suddenly paralyzed by some stunning blow we didn't see coming. Mind you, the particulars of the troubling circumstances don't seem to be of much consequence, for the response is almost unilaterally universal — that of gut-wrenching panic and abhorrent denial, even among the faithful. It could be a financial blow, the death of a parent, a lingering betrayal from a former friend, a child gone wild, or even a minor illness turned terminal.
However the specific "trial" takes shape, we're generally forced to face it alone. Not that caring friends won't come alongside and lend a hand of support, rather, it's simply that every person has to face down her or his own inner demons of fear, worry, anger, regret, addictions even, and then make sense of the blind-siding pain in light of God's promised care. And where is God we wonder?
Whenever we find ourselves struggling to understand life's pain and injustices, we must eventually come to a definitive understanding of what has occurred and that important question, "Where exactly is God?" We often have to do this while we are suffering, seemingly alone. Emotions, we know, are fickle and frequently traitorous ... we cannot rely upon our feelings as the stalwart foundation for functional living. No, as seasoned followers of Christ, we realize that God's Word alone offers the respite and care our frailty and neediness demands. God promises to be our refuge and a very present help in time of trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
So why do we sense we're walking solo during moments of deepest despair? Why too, does the temptation to give into fleshly desires seem so potent and appealing during these periods of tenuous faith? And finally, we ask again, where is God to be found when everything around us — including our God-given five senses — is declaring his absence?
Perhaps writer Jerry Bridges says it best in his text Trusting God:
If we are to trust God in adversity, we must use our minds in those times to reason through the great truths of God's sovereignty, wisdom, and love as they are revealed to us in the scriptures. We must not allow our emotions to hold sway over our minds. Rather, we must seek to let the truth of God rule our minds. Our emotions must become subservient to the truth. This does not mean we do not feel the pain of adversity and heartache. We feel it keenly. We are meant to feel the pain of adversity, but we must resist allowing that pain to cause us to lapse into hard thoughts about God.
The lesson then, during periods when evidence suggests abandonment by God, is for the eventual advancement and strengthening of our faith. Despite our circumstances, even in spite of them, God is calling us to cling to the truth that He is actively working in our midst. He is present, and He is working for our good and His glory; no matter that we "feel" abandoned. We are not ever, ever, left to work through our difficulties alone ... never! "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5) God gives us His Word to instill rigorous truth in our hearts and minds, His grace to sustain us, and His people to come alongside and comfort us. But, in our despair, we often mistakenly choose a path of solitude and pitiful self-reliance.
Reliance and self-reliance. Two very different animals. One will send us headlong into disaster ... but it is a most patient beast, this self-reliance. It will await the exact moment when it deems we are vulnerable in the extreme. But reliance on God is another matter entirely. Perhaps this is the true crux of the problem we face. Our God, who sent his Son to die for us, is present, active, and very much aware of our agonies. He waits, with the gentlest of mercies, for us to trust in Him and in His revealed character in Christ. He waits for us to look to Him for aid.
It is interesting that as all our energies are focused on alleviating our pain, this single end frequently obsesses us, unable to accept the tangible mercies of powerful grace that God offers us. God stands ready to defend, protect, and heal our broken condition. Still we resist.
At our lowest ebb, when we do finally relinquish our rights and will, is our suffering miraculously erased once we humbly submit ourselves and our situation to God? No ... and yet in our relinquishment, our brokenness, God promises grace upon grace to sustain us until the pain is removed. God will carry us, if need be ... to the other side, to a place of safety and peace. Despite our notions to the contrary, it is only by trusting in God that we can enter a place of rest and contentment. A place where circumstances do not send us scurrying for cover or relief ... instead, we have courage, we have strength, resolve, and endurance for the task at hand. "I cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills His purpose for me." (Psalm 57:2)
This trusting in God is a simply profound, yet clear matter. It requires our death and the enabling grace to believe even in times of shaky unbelief. In the end, we must bank upon God's unchanging character and know Him to be true to us, our situations, and our hopes for the future. During those dark days when I had no hope, and though my emotions were those of bleakest despair, I can testify to hearing that still small voice whisper to me in my confusion, "I will never leave you or forsake you."
Eventually, I chose to believe him. Writes Bridges, "Trust is a vigorous act of the soul by which we choose to lay hold on the promises of God and cling to them despite the adversity that at times seeks to overwhelm us." Eventually, we must choose to either believe God at His Word or continue to stumble aimlessly along, purposeless and without hope until our season of sorrow passes.
Though no human sense can be made of many of life's trials, we can cling to a single objective — that of choosing to obey God by trusting Him, thus honoring Him. If we can achieve this single objective, our losses count, our despair readies us for the next challenge, and we are more fully equipped comforters to those who suffer around us. Through our pain, we grow more accustomed to swiftly seeking God's mind, His grace, and His purpose. Only as we cling to Him can we truly be at rest; only as we choose to trust are we offering God the honor of which He is so worthy.
"All props are gone. I am in a situation where I can totally and completely throw myself upon God. He is the only one who can sustain me and He will sustain me. His love is my support, and His consolation my joy." (Larry Julian in God Is My Success)