I want to take you on a journey, a journey of faith that seems near universal, yet never discussed in church. Our journey will take us right to the cross, the crucifixion, the most Christlike of positions.
When we first come to Christ we are like the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. We find ourselves outcast in one way or another. She says that her well is deep. The word she uses here is Phrear, which means abyss or dungeon, a bottomless space of emptiness. When we first meet the living Christ we realize that we, too, have this deep emptiness that we have tried to fill to no avail. But once we meet this Jesus we are filled and it feels great! We are ecstatic with joy and elation. So filled with joy that we cannot contain it we have to run to town and tell everyone we meet about this Jesus, tell them that He is the Christ and the way to salvation and eternal life. This is sensual and sentimental. We get happiness and good feelings from our new relationship with God.
Maybe we were introduced to the living Christ by someone handing us their faith, all wrapped up in a nice, neat, little package. “Here you go this is all that you need to have the life I have, to have eternal life and not burn in Hell.” Maybe this person was a parent, a friend, a stranger on a street corner, maybe it was a famous evangelist at some big rally and we went down for the alter call. Whatever, we recited some form or another of the so called “Sinner’s Prayer” and were told that we were good to go. We made a cognitive assent to a set of propositional statements, all very modern and neat. “Believe these things and say this prayer and you will have the life in Christ.” We are bathed in the Light and on-fire for the Lord, full of sentiment and sensuality. Here we experience the presence of God. We get good feelings when we obey Him. Almost as if God rewards us here and now for our obedience. Yet Jesus tells us through Luke in chapter 6 that we are to feed the hungry, lend to those in need, to love and expect NOTHING in return. Then in an aside He says, “And your reward in Heaven will be great.” We are not to do it for anything in return, not even that good feeling we once used to get, not even for the experience of the presence of God. It is almost as if God is using operant conditioning to help us change our habits until our minds have been renewed. This is the first stage in our journey to the cross.
Many Christians remain in this place. Never questioning that little faith package that they received. The feelings so great and good that the thought of questioning is very uncomfortable. These Christians can only take the milk, they are babes in Faith. Many of them live out this faith, helping feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless. But they do it in exchange for the helped person’s attention for a few minutes while they explain the Gospel to them, tell them that the way to avoid Hell is Christ Jesus. They have fruit and maintain the sensual and sentimental feelings of when they first met Christ. They have grown enough for this to be solid, they can take the storms of the world and their faith remain intact.
Some move into the next stage of the journey. This is the stage referred to by St. Gregory of Nyssa as being in the cloud or as St. John of the Cross called it, the First Night. This is the place where we become like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we consider whether it is our will or God’s Will. We seek knowledge as we begin to question the faith that was handed to us in the nice neat little package when we first came to believe. We seek knowledge of God, who He is, what is faith. Sometimes we can’t feel our faith, it ebbs and flows. We have suffered some for Christ. In this part of the journey we are closer to the Cross than we were in the initial stage of the journey when all was sentiment and sensuality. It is here that we give up all for Christ, even some of our most tightly held as we begin to question our faith, our beliefs.
Like with Jesus many of our “friends” can’t handle the threat to their comfort zone when we begin to openly ask the questions that we have been asking within for so long. Gregory of Nyssa says that this is a time of inner reflection with the Holy Spirit. Like in a mirrored room, we begin to reflect and see through a glass darkly. So people flee from us, abandon us so to speak. Maybe they are still around, but make it fairly clear that it is not okay to ask these questions, not okay to question this faith package that we were handed. Maybe some actually do quit us. But we do begin to feel abandoned by those we once felt closest to. This becomes a time of pain and suffering. Just like Jesus on His way to the Cross. We feel tortured inside. Where can we turn? Where can we ask these questions? We seem to learn quite quickly that the very place where we should be able to openly ask these question, the place where we should be able to openly share our sufferings is the place where we are most condemned for them, so they go underground as we keep these feelings and reflections to ourselves and suffer in silence all alone, like Christ when His friends fell asleep then ran from Him on His way to the cross. I have heard pastors teach their congregations that this place of questioning and doubt, because we won’t question that which we do not doubt, a “Ministry of Demons”, what a guilt trip to place upon those sheep that God has given you. And what nonsense! This is not the doubt of mockers. This is not the doubt of those who do not believe. This is not the kind of doubt that a satan would inspire. No, this is a divine doubt, a divine atheism. An atheism which questions and denies the concepts of God that we have been handed. An atheism that puts us in the position of Jacob wrestling with God. An atheism that leads us to become Israel—one who contends, fights with God.
If we survive this first night, this night of the purgation of the sensual and sentimental. If we do not turn back, and for many turning back is not possible because we ring a bell that cannot be un-rung when we first begin to doubt, question. Then God may take us into the next level, the next stage, to the mountain top.
Exodus 20:21, “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” When Moses reaches he mountain top he sees God in the darkness. This is where our journey from the first light of new belief to the position of the cross takes us. St. John of the Cross calls this The Dark Night of the Soul. It is here we cry out with Christ on the Cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”
We often hear that it is a sin and wrong to think that God has abandoned us. “God never abandons us, there must be something wrong with you, you shouldn’t think that way.” Often people will quote, Hebrews 13:5 which echoes Deuteronomy 31:6 & 8 as well as Joshua 1:5 where God is speaking to the community of faith. It is a promise to the community and not necessarily to the individual. God will never forsake His church, His people. Yet, we hear this cry from many of the characters in the Bible. David, that man after God’s own heart, cries out in Psalm 22,
“1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.”
Jeremiah echoes this in Lamentations 5:
“20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?”
Then just before He dies on the cross Jesus repeats the lamentation of David when He too experiences the absence of God. It is in this experience when we are in the most Christlike position of the cross. We have entered into the divine experience, into the divine mystery. We find ourselves at the end of knowledge. The end of reason. Face to face with God in the deep darkness like Moses. Yet, we are in the midst of experiencing the absence of God. We have gotten here through much pain and suffering. People have abandoned us. Calamity has befallen our emotions and psyche. And now to add insult to injury God abandons us. The ultimate pain, the pain of Jesus on the cross the experiencing the absence of God. Can it really get worse than that? Isn’t that how Hell is described?
So here we are in this very dark night of the soul, abandoned, forsaken. Yet we can find joy in this. This is not the end of the journey but the beginning. It is from this place of not feeling the presence of God that we step out in true, perfected faith. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that faith is one of the three things that can be perfected in this life. He tells us that all our knowledge is but imperfect (not that seeking knowledge is bad, it is not it is actually necessary and good.) But faith and hope and love can be perfect in this life. This is the resurrection life. The life of faith when we obey in the middle of our experiencing the absence of God, in the middle of our divine doubt and divine atheism. When we are the sheep of Matthew 25, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, giving comfort to those in the hospitals and prisons, those dying and in chains absent the good feelings, the sentiments and sensuality of the early days when we first came to believe and seeing God in the midst.
It is from this position that we can have the mindset of Christ as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:5-8,
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
From this position we find ourselves saying with Mother Teresa, “If I am ever to be a saint I will be one of darkness: I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.”
Is there a place for us who are in the middle of this experience in church? Peter Rollins talks about church usually being thought of as an oasis in the desert. But in this oasis it is all about God as my therapist whose job it is to make me feel good. and songs that sing of Jesus is my boyfriend. That in this feel good church God is a theatrical device we wheel in, a Deus ex machine, the god of the gaps to relieve us of all suffering. In this church there is no place for the real feelings of the people. Feelings such as this divine doubt and divine atheism. Real feelings that as I alluded to before are driven underground, into the shadows. Rollins suggests that maybe church needs to carve out a space for the honest expression of the Dark Night of the Soul, a space that is the desert in the oasis. Maybe we here can create this desert in the oasis where we can come together and talk honestly about what we are going through. Maybe we as a community can find the joy in experiencing the absence of God in living in pure, completed faith.