Amidst Devastating Loss,
Will the "Real" Christians Please Come Forward???
A religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true.
Grieving father, former pastor, and popular Christian speaker, Ronald Dunn in his book, When Heaven is Silent, addresses what I think has become some of the cultish thinking in the church today in which there is only a focus on "positivity" in the church, which effectually patronizes the children of God that we cannot (with God's help) handle the paradoxes in life when it easily appears to us at times that God is hidden from us, sometimes feeling so bereft as to wonder if God has completely abandoned us. In such patronizing of its parishioners, I fear the church is denying us the Struggle that tests our faith, enabling it to grow stronger under such tensions (making or breaking us in the process) as we honestly bring our heartfelt angst and questions before our Lord amidst our devastating grief.
Who among you fears the LORD
and obeys the word of His servant?
Let him who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the LORD
and rely on his God.
Dunn comments, Isaiah is saying that the way you can recognize one who fears God and obeys the Lord Jesus is by observing how he acts in the darkness.
I say to God my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?"
Saints through the ages have trod this dark road before us. In fact, it's a major theme of many of the psalms.
How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
And there are many others, both personal and communal: Psalms 22, 25, 39, 86, 88, 109, to mention just a few.
Actually, there are nearly as many psalms of lament, protest, and complaint as there are of praise and thanksgiving. But we do not hear much about them.
And that is strange because we think of the psalms as the hymnbook of the Church.
Right now there is a sweeping revival of psalm-singing in many churches, ignited by a new emphasis on praise.
Why don't we ever sing Psalm 88? I'll tell you why. Listen:
O LORD, the God who saves me,
day and night I cry out before You.
May my prayer come before you;
turn Your ear to my cry. (vv. 1-2)
Now here's his prayer, his cry:
For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom You remember no more,
who are cut off from Your care. (vv. 3-5)
It gets worse:
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
You have overwhelmed me with all Your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief. (vv. 6-9)
Had enough? Let's skip to the conclusion--maybe it turns out all right in the end.
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death.
I have suffered Your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and love ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend. (vv. 15-18)
Try throwing that (Psalm 88) on your overhead (projector to sing) this Sunday morning and see what it does to your praise service.
No, I'm not advocating that. It's too depressing.
But it is real.
I know it's real, because it is in the Bible, I have experienced it, and I counsel believers every week who are struggling through the experience and could honestly say, "The darkness is my closest friend."
The bravest seek me out after the services. I see them out of the corner of my eye. They won't approach me until I'm alone… When I'm alone, they come, with furtive glances; they speak guarded words in whispered tones from a dry mouth….
They are outsiders because they have an unspiritual affliction.
They are an embarrassment to the other members of the Church of the Feeling Good.
They are reluctant to admit to the darkness for fear they will hear the she admonitions:
"Pull yourself together."
"Confess your sins."
"Die to self."
"Crucify the flesh."
"Count your blessings."
"Be thankful you don't have cancer."
Some, I think, would be willing to exchange their darkness for cancer. At least then they would acknowledge the pain and get help and find comfort.
Writing after the death of his first wife, Martin E. Marty in A Cry of Absence, talks about the wintry season of the heart, the frigid cold blasts that come in the wake of pain or death--an absence in the heart.
"Wintry frost comes in the void left when a love dies . . . . The absence can also come, however, to a waste space left when the divine is distant, the sacred is remote, when God is silent."
Winter, Marty insists, is just as legitimate a season of the soul as is summer and spring. But it finds little help or understanding.
In the current religious atmosphere, only brightly lit summer spirituality is allowed.
"Picture someone hungry for a warming of the spirit. He calls a friend who is advertised as spirit-filled. 'Praise the Lord!' she responds, as she picks up the telephone. The two meet in person. One is chilly but open to stirrings, the other well characterized as full of stir. What transfer of spirit can occur when the filled person is compulsive about the summer and sunshine in her heart. Never does a frown cloud her face. Lips, once drawn tight in disapproval, are now tight in a cosmetic smile. 'The Lord wills it.' Never does the storm of the troubled heart receive its chance to be heard. The Lord has satisfied every need, one hears, so it would be sin to stare once more at the void within. Christ is the answer, the spirit is warm and no chill is ever allowed between the boards or around the windows of the soul."
~Martin E. Marty, A Cry of Absence
To say one is (full of) praise and the other (who is struggling) is not betrays a shallow understanding of praise.
Must (we) all be the same?
Are we to be conformed to the image of Christ or to the image of one another? Grace does not denaturalize us. Salvation does not dehumanize us. We are in Christ, but in Him we still retain our personality, our individuality.
…I suspect that many "summery" Christians are hiding "wintry" hearts. They deny reality and call it faith. But they will never tell lest they be excommunicated from the Fellowship of the Excited.
In some areas of Christianity, silence is considered to be the proper response to suffering. But silence only deepens the darkness… (S)offering has an isolating effect on the sufferer. He sees himself forsaken by God and forgotten by everyone else. To remain silent under the burden of suffering means to become more and more isolated.
But the Scriptures do not encourage silence or forbid speaking. If we learn anything from Job and Jeremiah and David, and even Jesus--who cried out on the cross, "My God, My God! Why have You forsaken Me?"--it is that it is right and essential to express the pain of our souls. Sometimes the suffering can be endured only when the pain can be articulated.
"Israel was repeatedly plagued by the experience of God's hiddenness. Time and again the disparity between religious convictions and the realities of actual experience brought the issue into the forefront of Israel's thought."
Yet what is surprising, and instructive, is that when the Israelites penned their Scriptures
they did not deny this experience or seek to hide its reality. This is especially so with the psalms of lament and protest. Why weren't these psalms deleted? If you want to make your faith attractive, not to say marketable, those words would be better unspoken.
Commenting on Psalm 88, Walter Brueggmann in The Message of the Psalms asks, "What is a psalm like this doing in our Bible?" It is there, he says, because life is like that, and these poems are intended to speak to all of life, not just part of it…
Brueggmann divides (the psalms) into Psalms of Orientation and Psalms of Disorientation.
He finds it curious that the Church, in a world that is increasingly experienced as disoriented, continues to sing almost exclusively songs of orientation.
"It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.
"Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
"The use of these 'psalms of darkness' may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure; but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith, on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is, in fact, to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life."
~Walter Brueggamann, The Message of the Psalms
Ronald Dunn, who lost his own son to suicide, concludes by saying,
"I said earlier that I was surprised that when Israel recorded its faith it didn't deny or banish the darkness from its religious experience. But what is more remarkable is that as I studied these psalms of disorientation, I found that never one time does the psalmist say he no longer trusts in God. Even in the darkest of the psalms God is perceived as one who is present in and attentive to the disorientations of life.
"And it is this kind of stubborn, protesting and lamenting faith that brings new life in deathly places."