A view from the darkness

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Imagine at the age of 13, (you) can bury (your friends)—it was so difficult, so bad…

It was as if…maybe (it was) that day, the Last Day as people say in the Bible…(when) Jesus Christ will come and whatever on earth will be judged. That was my imagination.

I thought that God grew tired of people on earth here, got tired of bad deeds, the bad things we are doing; but God is watching over us. I thought God got tired of us and wanted to finish us.

When I think of it back…it was so bad anyway.  You can even think of—you can even regret why you were born.

Now I wonder… Now, I am again wearing clothes and feeling very happy, so everything has an end. Even if there is a problem in Sudan still, maybe one day, one time, one minute…it will come to an end…we really suffered.

—John Bul Dau, Sudanese refugee in God Grew Tired of Us

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

–Albert Camus

It seems to me that if God is the Light (of the world) many claim him to be, He would be most findable in the darkness. Perhaps he is; for the stories of many encounters with Him are borne from dark moments in the circumstances of those who claim to have found him. And yet, it’s as easy to find stories of those who stare into the darkness and find only unending darkness.

This week I came across the accounts of two men who stared into the darkness: Harold J. Berman and Charles Templeton. Berman was Jewish, taught law at Harvard for 37 years and at Emory University for two decades. He had an encounter with God on a train while fleeing Germany on the announcement of Hitler’s invasion into Poland (excellent account here). Templeton was a popular preacher in his early life, working along-side Billy Graham. Later, he struggled to reconcile pain and suffering with his notion of a loving God; and consequently abandoned his faith.

Berman believed Hitler’s invasion marked the end of civilization and in that darkness encountered Jesus Christ. But it was that very darkness that kept Templeton up at night. He was never able to reconcile it with the loving God of Judeo/Christian teaching.  He died in his unbelief, still asking questions, but not as if he expected they could be answered (Lee Stroebel, The Case for Faith).

Same darkness, two views.

Then, no matter where I seemed to look this week, I was confronted with the questions of brokenness, pain, loss, guilt and suffering. I heard from a dear friend whose marriage is failing and another who had a friend die in an unlikely accident. “The world still needed him,” he told me; “He was one of my best friends.”

I listened to the stories of a friend who recently went on a Christian mission to Africa—tales of witches, demon-possession, four-headed snakes and terminal illnesses—realities for these children that rivaled fears most of us face only in our nightmares. Yet, she expressed a remarkable sense of God’s power in the midst of evils she had not previously known existed.

On a personal note, it has been a difficult week as well—contemplating losses I have recently suffered and recognizing my failures in attempts to love those most dear to me. I will confess I get tired of myself sometimes; I just get sick of being me and of the mistakes I am so prone to repeat.

The brokenness of this world is expressed in many ways. There is much suffering.

In times of relative good, it’s possible to have a nice (congenial and interesting?) philosophical debate over the problem of suffering. Does all the good in the world (see here, here and here) argue more convincingly the case for a loving God than all the bad in the world argues against it?

There are certainly reasonable arguments against the notion of a loving God based on the world’s seemingly meaningless and arbitrary suffering (How can God be both all-loving and all-powerful and yet allow so much pain?). But there are also thoughtful responses (If we can agree that God knows infinitely more than we do, can we refute the possibility that all suffering will be righted in the end; that his promised redemptive purposes will be realized either through or in spite of such suffering?).

But in the darkest of times, when we feel the cold, dark shadow overtake us—of loneliness or loss or guilt or shame or hopelessness or unanswered questions that keep us up at night—philosophical discussions tend to offer little peace. In the darkest moments of the soul, it seems our intellect is of little use. It’s in those times when we seek comfort, not solutions—an ear, not an answer; a friend, not a theory.

Why does God (seem to?) do nothing? How can we see Him in the darkness?

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were Jews living under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon who had conquered Jerusalem and Judah. Nebuchadnezzar required all of Babylon to regularly bow down to idols of gold as an act of worship to the King himself. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would bow only to their own God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This is what ensued after Nebuchadnezzar confronted them:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.  So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace.  The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, O king.”

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”   —Daniel 3:16-25

Who is this fourth man?

As it turns out, the Fourth Man is also the First Man; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego weren’t the last one’s to see him. Six hundred years later he was himself thrown into a furnace.

This forth man is Jesus Christ—God himself (the First Man) come to solve forever the riddle of darkness. The furnace he willingly entered was more than seven times hotter than usual; it was the Ultimate Furnace—God’s damnation. Hell, as it were.

When he was near death, looking in to the Pit,  he called out to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—his own Father—but found only silence. This time God sent no one; and in fact, He turned away. Jesus experienced separation from His Father for the first time in his life—the very definition of hell itself. At his darkest moment, the Son of God looked into the darkness and found only unending darkness.

Now, he lingers in the darkness

Harold Berman described his darkest moment in these words:

I was in Europe, where I had been studying European history for a year. While I visited Germany, Hitler announced on the radio that Germany had invaded Poland. It was literally the outbreak of the world war, and many of us fled for France. The stations were crowded with peasants carrying potatoes and animals and personal effects. The earliest train I could catch left at midnight.

I thought that Hitler’s invasion of Poland would lead to the total destruction of human civilization. I felt as one would feel today if all the major powers were to become involved in a full-scale nuclear war. I was shattered—in total despair. There, alone on that train, Jesus Christ appeared to me in a vision. His face reminded me of one of the Russian icons that I would later see—heavily scarred and tragic—not suffering but bearing the marks of having suffered. I suddenly realized that I was not entitled to such despair, that it was not I but another, God himself, who bore the burden of human destiny, and that it was rather for me to believe in him even though human history was at an end (Matt Sieger, Issues, “Answering to a Higher Authority”, Volume 17-9)

It’s staggering how often we feel we are at an end. We weren’t made for this.

We weren’t made for war, broken relationships, sickness and death. The world was not designed to be inhospitable—storms and natural disaster randomly killing by the thousand. We weren’t supposed to watch the world and our loved ones decay.  Yet, there is darkness ahead for us all.

Jesus went into the Darkness to destroy the claim it possessed on our lives. Now in the darkness we can find hope—like the hope of John Bul Dau: that “…one day, one time, one minute…(when) it (suffering) will come to an end”—when a permanent dawn will break and and all the sad things will come untrue. We can cling to the promise that all things will end in Light.

Further, the one bearing marks of having suffered lingers in the darkness because he loves so much those who find themselves there. In the darkness He will walk beside you.

This is not a philosophy, but something much more powerful. The same God who was willing to enter the Ultimate Darkness has promised he will never let us enter our pentultimate darknesses alone. He comes to us there to offer comfort, not solutions—an ear, not an answer; and friendship, not theories.

I write tonight as one who believes yet still needs help in unbelief. It is hard to see in the dark and yet I hope for what I will find.

It’s in these times I hear him say to me:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

“For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 43:1b-3a).

Much can be found in the darkness and the flames.

  1. Enjoyed checking out your blog tonight, though disappointed not to find any GI Joes or matchbox cars

  2. In discussing the notion of a loving God who seems to do nothing about the evil in this world, how do you account for somehow knowing what is good as opposed to what is evil? I am sure you have the answer as being a seminary school student (even if you did drop out). You presuppose the existence of God by holding to the position that evil does in fact exist. If good nor evil exists, all we are left with are things we prefer over things we don’t. But for some strange reason we as human beings are unable to live this out consistently. Atheists often cry out for justice when giving examples of injustice. Where do they get their idea of justice when trying to posit a world that has no objective standard of any kind. Within their worldview, we should just simply kill people and take their stuff. But, they would immediately object to such practices.

  3. One more thing to consider would be to observe the first century Christians and the massive amounts of persecution they endured.

  4. “Within their worldview, we should just simply kill people and take their stuff.”

    This is a biased and venomous assumption. For one thing, the evolution of the human species has made being fair to other human beings a greater advantage than a disadvantage. Biologically, we didn’t need someone to come along and mandate(or suggest) that men should do unto others as he would have done unto him. It, in fact, simply makes evolutionary sense.

    There is nothing in an atheistic viewpoint that promotes or edifies violence of any kind. To be an atheist, all that is required is that you don’t believe in a god or gods without evidence. Of course, if there were evidence for such a being, it would cease to be only a belief.

    I could go on and on explaining how misguided your statement was, but I’ll give up here. I hope you’ve learned something. 🙂

  5. When I said “within their worldview we should just kill people and take their stuff”, I was simply implying that the atheist has no objective ground to say that something is better or worse, good or evil, etc. How do you account for us being fair to each-other as being “better”? Within the atheistic worldview, there is a lack of grounding for how we as human beings “ought to be” or “ought to behave”. Ought-ness implies purpose. My watch ought to tell me what time it is because that is what it is designed to do. If there is no purpose, or something that we “ought to be” then we should just kill people and take their stuff lol! Seriously, how do account for you claiming to be right in this argument? You can’t. This conversation, as well as our differing views are just what is. Sorry, but logically, you can’t go from an is to an ought.

    As far as evidence for God is concerned, what evidence is acceptable for you? If its empirical evidence alone, then our conversation will go nowhere and your position will remain indefeasible. But, if you can accept rational evidence as being viable, which does correspond with and properly interprets the empirical evidence, then you are on the right track. If scientism (which is not science but a philosophy) is your starting place, how do you account for it? You cannot empirically prove empiricism. The information that is within the proposition that resides in your mind is something that cannot be empirically tested. I will now put the burden of proof on you. Can you absolutely prove that God does not exist?

    I dare to make a prediction. I predict that while trying to prove that God does not exist, you will attempt to be rational while using the laws of logic. I would hope that you refrain from making any self referential statements within your argument. Statements that don’t meet their own criterion are what is popular nowadays, and I hope that you are thoughtful enough to avoid them!

  6. also, I never said anything about atheists not being moral people. I know plenty of them who are. im just curious as to why. to be consistent with your view, there is absolutely no fundamental difference between being moral or immoral. hitler was who he was while mother teresa was who she was. neither of them was better or worse than the other. now of course you don’t intuitively agree with that and you will immediately cry out for the notion of justice. why? you know hitler was the bad guy but you have no objective basis for thinking so. every time you make the claim that something or someone is better or worse, good or evil, you are actually affirming the existence of the God of the Bible. if that’s too far for you to reach, you ought to at least recognize that you are affirming the existence of a transcendent moral law. following this logic will lead to understanding that this law is given by some sort of law giver. and with this law giver conveying what should and should not be the case, you have to understand that there is a transmission of information between the law giver and us. information can only come from intelligence and intelligence is only found within a mind. with that being said, this law giver must be a personal being by definition.

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