The thick darkness where God is

It’s been a harrowing week for Ellen and those who love her. We finally finished sorting through her father’s effects and, as she has asked me weekly since he died, I gave her his collection of cassettes and CDs. But music is Ellen’s main way of communicating with, and understanding, the world. Every one of those music tracks reminds her of something about her father. She has been hit by a torrent of grief so overwhelming that her self-harming almost landed her in hospital and the doctor has had to prescribe tranquilizers. The bewilderment on her face betrays an emotion all the more crushing because she lacks the vocabulary to articulate it, and so cannot tame and constrain it in the way that words do.

I’ve spent today with her and, unable to restrain my own tears, I have found a curious relief in the discovery that my heart is not so calloused that it has become inured to her pain. I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the things God has promised me for her. It’s almost thirty years since God spoke to me unmistakeably clearly about her physical healing, that it would be in the land of the living, not in the sweet by-and-by.

I spent my teenage years in a church that would have denied the possibility of God even speaking to me like that, and would have dismissed it as a misinterpretation. This tradition took a fatalistic approach to life which, while it acknowledged that God could in theory heal if He chose to, had no expectation at all that He ever would, and was more likely to view a sudden healing as a demonic counterfeit than a divine miracle.

As an adult I joined a church that took God’s promises seriously and expected Him to live up to His word. I found this a much more satisfying approach because it lacked the gulf between faith and practice or belief and reality which I had been conscious of in my previous walk with God. (I still belong to this same church, thirty-five years later, a mark of the fact that the church has also not remained static but its corporate journey has mirrored my individual one.)

The problem is that neither of these ways of relating to God can confront and deal with the unanswered question, the question that would receive a glib answer from either of them: what happens when a promise remains unfulfilled for thirty years? The beliefs of my childhood would say that I was wrong to claim such a promise, and that is the end of the matter. I should resign myself to Ellen continuing to suffer as she does, and go on believing in God despite it all. The beliefs of my early adulthood would blame my inadequate faith or lack of prayer.

But both these answers are cop-outs. They are different ways of denying either God’s desire or His ability to heal Ellen. What is more, both are counsels of despair. If God is powerless or unwilling to help Ellen, there is no hope of change. If it depends on my mustering more faith, I have already scraped the bottom of that barrel so often that I’m through to the bare ground.

It might seem that this leaves me no alternative but to doubt the goodness of God. Certainly that’s a stage I have passed through (I remember once saying to my pastor that the Romans had it right, the gods are capricious), but I’m thankful that it never became my resting place. I am still expecting God to fulfil that promise; I do believe He spoke to me, and I don’t believe the passage of time negates His word. But there is still no sign of the promise’s imminent fulfilment.

I know this is a journey; who knows where I will be a month, or a year, or a decade from now? But here’s where I am today as I witness Ellen submerged beneath a tsunami of sorrow, and desperately will her not to drown. There is a place in God where questions are unanswered. He is silent. The lack of any response from Him is the most deafening sound of all. And in that place is the immense relief of discovering that God is beyond my control. Nothing I do or fail to do can manipulate Him into acting in a particular way just because I want it. Which means that He is big enough to hold my most insistent, unanswered questions for me, and vast enough to sustain and embrace me in the middle of any storm.

A God whom I could command to do my bidding would be no God at all. Richard Dawkins has taught us to fear, or at least despise, the idea of mystery. But what would God be with no mystery? A God who was small enough to be comprehended within the little limits of my mind would be no God at all. I stand dumbfounded in the presence of an impenetrable and silent mystery. I feel I have an inkling of what Moses must have experienced when he encountered God in thick darkness.

It’s like standing, some moonless night, on a deserted beach before an arch of rock, and stepping through the arch, expecting to find the cold sea lapping at one’s feet, the wind chilling one’s bones and the vast emptiness of a dark ocean stretching away for an infinite distance; but finding instead that one has stepped into a light, warm, soft-lined and homely room where the richest fragrance and the sweetest music permeate the air. Sometimes it’s in the bleakest of silences that God is found.

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The Glory of Christ

This post was written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Worldwide web watchers may have noticed recently that there has been some fresh controversy regarding a particular brand of “prosperity Gospel” coming out of America. In this particular version, at least according to its critics, God has been portrayed as being rather like an over-indulgent grandparent whose offspring have only to name a wish for it to appear in front of them. If it fails to appear, there is something wrong with the way they are asking, the words they are using or their levels of faith. The focus of this type of spirituality appears to be our own happiness rather than God’s glory. (I’m choosing my words carefully because the speaker in question claims to have been misunderstood and misrepresented; although the original words were, at least, ill-chosen.)

The problem with a version of the Gospel which emphasises God showering material blessings on us is not that there’s no truth in it, but that it isn’t half (or even one-tenth) of the story. I certainly know there have been occasions when God has blessed me materially. There have been times when praying for things has been answered by those things happening. There have been times when speaking out the truth of God’s word has changed situations. There have also been times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, for reasons known only to God, and other times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, because I wasn’t really asking in faith. I am also convinced that, for the most part, when God sees me happy, it gives Him pleasure. But these things form only a tiny part of my Christian experience.

Moreover, when God blesses us materially in these ways, we see it from our own perspective. We have a little need; we ask in faith; God meets our little need and sometimes even goes way beyond what we asked for. We are blessed, we feel really happy and we have a great testimony to share. But God sees it from a far larger perspective. He has only one real goal in everything that He does, which is, in Paul’s words from Colossians, that in everything Christ might have the pre-eminence.

The times of most transforming, lasting joys in my life have come when God has not instantly gratified my desire, even for things that might seem a really legitimate good to pray for. I remember sitting in the paediatrician’s office when my daughter Ellen was 11 and being told that her scoliosis was now so severe that it was crushing her heart, lungs and stomach and putting her at imminent risk of heart failure. She needed a very risky operation to straighten out her spine and insert a metal rod to support it. The paediatrician explained that the operation might kill her or leave her completely paralysed, but that without it she would certainly die. He concluded with the words, “We can’t leave it a year. She hasn’t got a year left.”

For complicated reasons which I won’t explain here, ten months went by before Ellen was able to have her operation, by which time her condition was critical. I was convinced that God can and does heal, and I could see no possible good to a child from having a painful and traumatic operation, so I confidently prayed for her healing. I confessed the word of God over her. The pastors from my church came round and prayed for her, and, in obedience to James 5. 14, anointed her with oil. (I remain convinced that they were right to do so.) I had every expectation that she would be healed. After all, James 5. 15 confidently asserts that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up”.

Eventually she went into hospital, but still my faith never wavered. I believed she would be healed at the last minute, the operation would not be needed, and God would be glorified by her testimony. When they came to take her down to the operating theatre, I was reading Psalm 27 aloud to her.

Ellen had her operation, and it was traumatic. But she didn’t die and she wasn’t completely paralysed, although she did lose some physical function. We were told that the operation would take at least 5 hours, she would need at least 48 hours in intensive care, and would be in hospital for at least a month. In fact the operation took less than 3 hours, she went straight back to the children’s ward accompanied by intensive care nurses, and was well enough to be discharged 3 weeks later. I remained at her bedside day and night for 3 weeks, catching some sleep in a chair whenever she dozed. The thing that struck me was how much genuine, deep joy I experienced during those 3 weeks. I had an unassailable inner peace, and the presence of God in the ward was so real I almost expected to see Him with my eyes. My closeness to Him was deepened immeasurably, and the effects were lasting. It was an important stage in my spiritual development and, crucially, it revealed to me a glorious facet of the character of Jesus as the God of all comfort, which I would never have encountered if all my prayers had been instantly answered.

So to go back to the controversy about the “prosperity Gospel”, when God blesses us with answered prayer it’s not primarily for our own benefit (although of course we do benefit) but for His glory. And when He withholds answers to prayer, even to prayer offered in faith, it’s primarily for His glory, although we do benefit too. Any Gospel which misses this point has an incomplete view of the glory of Christ – and this matters because it’s the glory of Christ around which the whole of creation revolves, and towards which the close of the age will draw us.

In 1864 a puritan named John Owen wrote a little book entitled The Glory of Christ. If you can cope with 17th century language, or find a modern abridgement, I recommend it to you. In this book, he meditates upon different facets of Christ’s glory – the glory of His love, the glory of His mystery, His glory as mediator, His glory in the church, and the glory of His eternal being. He shows how beholding the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith in this life is preparing us for, and will be completely overtaken by, our sight of His glory face to face in the next. Any Gospel which has anything other than the glory of Christ as its chief focus is at best lopsided and at worst misleading.

As C.S. Lewis discovered, when he pursued happiness it eluded him, but when he encountered God he received joy as a surprising by-product. Yes, our happiness gives God pleasure. But only when our happiness is derived from our pursuit of God and His glory. Any other kind of happiness brings him sorrow because He knows it is a deceit that will ultimately leave us empty and unfulfilled. He has created us for relationship with Him, and it’s only in seeking to know and worship Him in all aspects of His character that we will find true and lasting goodness and joy.