against feel good religion

[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Mark 8:34-37

Melissa Florer-Bixler makes a good point in her article: “Worship can be boring, and that’s OK.” The title to this post (not to that article) may be strong or a bit misplaced, but feelings and emotions are a byproduct of what we’re about, what we do, not the aim of faith at all. As humans, experience is important and has its place. And “the dark night of the soul” is no picnic. It’s not like we want to be emotionless, or experience no peace and joy. That’s not the point.

It’s an emphasis on following and continuing on regardless of our own state of emotions, or whatever struggle we’re having. It’s following Christ to the breaking point and beyond, yes even to death if need be. Taking the way of the cross. Pressing on that direction, no matter what. Oblivious to how that feels. In company with others who are doing the same. In and through Jesus.

accept darkness (the needed darkness before the light)

A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.

To you, O Lord, I cried,
and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
Lord, be my helper!”

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30

There is one thing none of us like, what’s called “the dark night of the soul,” when any sense of God and of spiritual insight is gone. When it seems like we’re on our own.

Seasons of darkness vary. Sometimes we feel like we’ve taken a battering from the spiritual enemy if we’ve been taken for another ride in their deception, having failed to resist that. Or it might be over some sort of struggle we’re having in our attitudes, or in overcoming sin, maybe something which has plagued us, even an addiction, whatever it might be. There are times too when we really can’t put our finger on it. Maybe we’ve drifted, unbeknownst to us, but for whatever reason we feel dry and lost.

Seasons of darkness, even of dryness we can and should see as opportunities to seek God and hopefully find God in something of a new and fresh way, breaking through into our lives in some ways God hasn’t before. Maybe times for needed confession of sin and repentance (James 4). And such times can serve to confirm our faith rather than unsettle it. If we only hold on and look to God and not give up.

When the light does start breaking in, because by and by it will, we need to accept that. Be thankful and live in that gentle light of God. Realizing the next time darkness come settling in on us, that light will eventually come.

All of this for our good. In and through Jesus.

why is it so hard to follow?

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Rich Mullins wrote a couple of interesting songs which speak of the challenge of following Jesus, just how difficult it can be for us: Hard and Hard to Get. I really enjoy what seems like and surely is the all too short seasons of feeling close to God when each step seems natural and unforced. All too often I’ve lived in the space where nothing comes easy and I just don’t get it, where I often feel a crushing weight inside. Usually I live somewhere in between, having some buoyancy coming from grace, but still more weighted down than I want.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to follow, or why it often seems that the Lord is so hard to get. Such thoughts and experience seem to fly in the face of what Jesus tells us about his yoke and the rest he gives. That seems to force the question back on us. Are we really coming to him, taking his yoke upon us, walking alongside with him as he carries the burden? I’m not sure. A prerequisite so it seems for this coming is that we be weary and burdened. That surely includes all of us somewhere along the way.

I would like to enter into this yoke, or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “the unforced rhythms of grace,” and just stay there. It really does seem like I’m such a slow learner. I actually do think I’ve come a long way over the years, but I still easily disappear into the space where God’s grace seems all but absent, where life is drudgery, everything forced. Not as often as in the past, but too often. Maybe a kin to “the dark night of the soul?” I don’t know.

The invitation is present. We must simply respond in faith regardless of what we’re experiencing. Come to the Lord. See what God might teach us or be teaching us in everything, hopefully deepening us. We hold on in faith to the one we trust has hold of us and keep going. In and through Jesus.

in the not okay

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one 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.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on 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.

I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne 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 from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88

Yes, I believe our salvation is in Christ, and that it’s a grand and glorious salvation. But I distrust teaching or theology which has easy answers, and doesn’t seem to take seriously the struggle and plight we can find ourselves in, even if confined largely to our experience. This is why we can turn again and again to the pages of Scripture. We find it’s for real people, and as we keep going, by faith we’ll come to see that God is just as real. To help us through. But sometimes we do feel alone and overcome. And if I judge correctly through this psalm, that’s okay.

when overwhelmed with darkness

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one 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.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on 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.

I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne 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 from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88

Sometimes, especially for some of us, we feel quite down and not far from despair. At times lack of sleep may be the culprit; we need proper sleep. But some of us easily drift into this state of despondency when so much seems wrong to us, or when at least we don’t feel good inside.

This is so very true with the psalmist here. Someone said they made darkness an idol. I don’t agree at all. They were simply stating their experience to God.

The crucial point for us to hold on to when we’re struggling is the importance of addressing our concerns and baring our heart to God, holding nothing back. We can see that eloquently done in this psalm.

I like the way this psalm ends with a sense of being stuck in the mire, lost in the darkness, akin to “the dark night of the soul.” Because it’s real to life, not some phony pretense of saying “All is well” when it’s not.

Fortunately the Bible and the psalms don’t end there. God is good and God will work everything out for good. When we don’t see the good, when essentially we don’t feel good, we need to practice what the psalmist does here. Cry out to God, and keep talking to God, looking to God for the help that only God can give. In and through Jesus.

(Medical and/or psychological help may also be needed. Some of us are just more prone this way, but others need special help. And that can include any of us. So we need to be open to that possibility, as well.)

the fake world of pop theology in denying the reality of mental illness

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one 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.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on 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.

I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne 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 from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88

Another Christian, this time a pastor (we could say another pastor) has committed suicide. He was well aware of the danger, probably entered to a significant extent into the depths of others, and didn’t get out himself when he sank into his own depths of darkness. Once I led a team devotions at a Christian ministry where I work, going over this psalm. I asked if anyone there thought this psalm is meant for us today, and no one raised their hand. Based on what I gather, most would say “no,” though maybe it would be more like “I don’t know.” I think I remember at least one head shaking no.

I am glad to be part of a ministry that takes mental illness seriously. It’s not swept under the rug or attributed to the demonic or considered a sign that someone lacks faith. It is an honest illness which humans struggle with. Maybe the psalmist would have been diagnosed with mental illness such as a bipolar disorder. I think such a psalm and other Scripture similar to that can be helpful for such people to realize they’re not alone. That others struggle too with darkness.

I wonder if maybe I suffer with a mild case of something such. I don’t know. I have struggled not feeling good internally for years, decades, and that might be related to head trauma. So it’s easy for me to identify with Psalm 88.

There is within the Christian tradition, “the dark night of the soul,” hardly acknowledge in the evangelical Christian circles I’m a part of. I don’t at all for a moment think a person, yes a Christian has to be clinically depressed or mentally ill to experience such. There are all kinds of reasons in this world why we can get down. Of course there’s what’s considered normal depression, maybe over not meeting a goal, or losing a friend, even a marriage. Just maybe it would be helpful to consider mental health problems as also being like temporary sicknesses such as physically catching a cold or the flu, so that one might have a bout with melancholy over an extended period of time. Of course no one can possibly be the same after an unexpected death of a loved one.

The Bible reflects real life with all its complexities. For those who take Scripture at its word, spiritual warfare can be accompanied by a spiritual darkness. A time and space where God seems to be absent. And where hope seems all but gone, replaced by fear, or more like a gnawing shock in which little seems real.

At any rate, I take Scripture seriously in part because I find it takes life seriously. People of faith question God and struggle in their experience. The psalms are repeatedly helpful, this psalm a prime example.

Psalm 88 ends on a realistic note. Because God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want. We don’t always find the help we want. But we hold on in faith regardless, this psalm an expression of that. Something we should thank God for, helping us not only live through such times, but do so knowing that the Lord is somehow with us (Psalm 23:4).  The end of Psalm 88 is an end, but not the end. In and through Jesus.

turning the corner

Sometimes I feel and seem to be in a place in which either my wheels are turning slow, or they’re stuck. And I can’t get any uplift, the joy of my salvation largely absent. Life can then seem to be a grind, the oil of the Holy Spirit seemingly absent. So that one essentially feels like they’re on their own.

Most of the time for me, such times are relatively short lived, and yet when they keep coming up again and again, and then one holds on and seems (I don’t like to use the same word too often, but it seems like I needed seems again) like it might never end, then one begins to wonder what’s up.

It’s not like there are no reasons for the difficulty; I can chalk it up most of the time to a trial which I could specify. It’s that there ought to be a word from God for it, and actually there always is something I can seek to apply from scripture. And basically simply seek the Lord in prayer, while I try to comply to his word.

I find inevitably that it’s simply a matter of time before I break into the clear again, and emerge into the sunshine of God’s grace, and begin to see a bit clearer. But again, when I keep going back again and again, and especially when it’s for the same reason, then I begin to think enough is enough. I’ve had it, and I want something different as a pattern of life.

I find that in the evangelical circles in which I am in, there seems to be no place for “the dark night of the soul” (see Psalm 88 for just one of the many examples of this from scripture). And because of that, we fail to learn how to navigate such times through scripture, and through tradition, surely to our great loss. Perhaps there are depths which may be needed before certain heights are accessible. At least for us to be deepened ourselves, we surely need to go through something of the depths.

Turning the corner in this is simply by grace through faith. Even as we were saved, we are being saved in the same way. Works come sometimes as a needed expression of faith I suppose, but by and large I see as the result of God’s grace and our response of faith. And what is needed is something of a glimmer of hope, which is certain to get stronger, along with the faith and love which accompanies it.

Is God true to his word, and just how great and good is our God, anyhow? I have to know, or at least ought to, that God will take care of whatever difficulty I’m in, and that in this there can be a greater purpose at stake. We are in the world not merely for ourselves, to somehow succeed, or live carefree, untroubled lives. We in Jesus are in the world in mission for others. We are to be a witness of God’s ongoing faithfulness in Jesus, of the faith that is in Jesus, the good news in him. That is why we’re here, and that is what God is about, both in shaping us, and in our experience in this life of the ongoing salvation that is in Jesus.

seeing more, going deeper

There are posts which are taken up with the end, and most posts with something of the end and the means. This post is more than less taken up with the means. They say more than half the joy is the journey before the arrival.

I have noticed that when I get into those relatively infrequent times when there seems to be an impasse, and no breakthrough, or what breakthrough finally does happen seems to be withdrawn a bit at a certain juncture, those are the times I pay particularly close attention to God’s word both in terms of the written text, and what God might be saying through that.

Usually when I experience a trial of some sort, in the course of a day or less, the problem seems resolved, and there is once again grace and peace from God. But I refer here to those times which seem to linger, even day after day, and in which I seem to be battered, maybe broken in some way, and baffled, not seeming to make any headway.

Maybe such times are akin to our Lord’s counsel to his disciples that such come out only through prayer and fasting (or at least, prayer). What I do think is certain is that these are times during which we can see in some way what we missed before, and descend deeper into depths, and higher into heights, not previously attained, or frankly, sought after, probably unimagined.

Somehow one has to not only accept, but become accustomed to the sense of having not arrived to the goal (Philippians 3). All too often in Evangelical Christianity (I might be able to criticize, since I myself am part of that tradition), there is an emphasis, which while right in its time and place, can lend itself to making us rather shallow, with little heart. Although I don’t think such an emphasis has to leave anyone that way. The Roman Catholics have a point when they say life in Christ is a continual conversion. Yes, we’re converted, and translated from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the Son God loves. Therefore, we are in a process of sanctification, in being made holy, which won’t be completed until we see Jesus at his return.

And so, it’s with this solace that I enter into another day, not only sensing, but feeling my own great need. And wanting to gather from the gospel, and through the church what scripture tells me I need and is available to us in Christ. Even while I continue to look into that word, hopefully seeing clearer and more deeply by the Spirit, what the Spirit is saying to me, to us in Jesus, to the churches. As I look forward to the day when we will finally have arrived at the goal, the completeness in Christ in which we stand now having finished its work on us, in the new world in him.

 

“walking/living in darkness” and “the dark night of the soul” two different things entirely

There are those who believe that no believer in the present should experience anything of the depths of the psalmist in Psalm 88. After all, didn’t Jesus say:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

John 8:12

The walking in darkness is a motif in scripture which has to do with living apart from the light of God. Deeds of darkness accompany that, as Paul makes clear. Isaiah touches on this as well. There is both a culpability as in deserving blame and an ignorance here.

The dark night of the soul as John of the Cross called it, is something entirely different. The light is present, oddly enough, but it’s almost like something of an eclipse is taking place, so that experiencing God seems all but lost. We find this not only in the Old/First Testament, but in the New/Final Testament, as well. No less than Jesus himself experienced something of this in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross itself. We could make an argument that Paul experienced something of this himself (2 Corinthians).

The dark night of the soui is paradoxically when the light can be most at work in our lives in a work of not only exposing, but helping us eradicate as in get rid of folly or certain habits of the heart. Inclining us to the new way, to God’s will in Jesus. Of course in the case of Jesus, although he learned obedience from what he suffered, he was also without sin (Hebrews), no folly in him. So the dark night of the soul can be at work in something of a mysterious way in shaping us according to God’s will, as well.

As a brother shared recently, we fail to read the New/Final Testament with the Old/First Testament in mind. The writers of the New Testament wrote thoroughly immersed in the teaching of the First Testament so that there is continuity between the two Testaments along with the radical newness in Jesus that the fulfillment of the First Testament brings.

And so in Jesus we are those who no longer walk in darkness, but who have the light of life. And that light is at work in our lives, exposing our own darkness, so that we can more fully live in the will of God together in Jesus.

knowledge becoming reality

Paul, who saw as few have ever seen, said we now see through a glass darkly, or like a dim/rather distorted image in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13). We are limited. On occasion, though it seems rare, we sometimes catch a clear glimpse of truth, more like get immersed into something of the reality of truth. A couple of examples probably more or less common to us all in Jesus: a sense of our sin as offensive to God and a violation of love against both God and neighbor. And the righteousness, peace and joy that is simply a part of God’s love in his grace and kingdom in Jesus, which can flood our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5).

Much of the time, at least in my experience, and I think I’m not alone, we live in a faith which accepts truth revealed from God, at the heart of that, the truth of the gospel. But truths like God is our Father, we are his children, our relationship to God is through Jesus, etc., etc. We accept everything as we understand it, which we may often acknowledge, not very well. But in all our weakness and we can even say sin since we still do sin, we believe it in the midst of a denying world and even with all of our doubts.

I think over time, imperceptibly by us since it’s gradual and since we remain limited as creatures and still quite susceptible to sin, but over time what we know by faith becomes more and more the reality in our lives. So that we know that God in Jesus by the Spirit is indeed our salvation. That in all of our weakness and yes, sin, we are ever in need of God and God’s salvation in Jesus. So that our perspective is more and more changed from whatever we once thought the world and reality is to the reality that shows up the falsehood of everything else.

In time our knowledge becomes reality. Not that this isn’t true in some measure genuinely at the onset of our salvation, when this begins to dawn on us. It seems like God usually makes it especially clear then. We must go on through dry, dark and dangerous places. Holding on to the faith of the gospel, to the truth that is in Jesus. A vital part of the knowledge we have through faith becoming more and more a reality. Destined to become the reality of the world in and through Jesus.