I’ve been trying to branch out and read more non-fiction lately. In addition to the humor writings of Tina Fey and David Sedaris, and all the Joan Didion I can get my hands on (decidedly not humor writing), I’ve been reading the work of a lot of Christian essayists— Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Shauna Niequist, and Anne Lamott. I used to be the queen of fiction only, but over the past couple of years, here’s what I have discovered: When I read the lived experiences of other people, it makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel understood. It makes me feel like maybe I’m not as defective as I often feel inside.
The past couple of years have been a time of deconstruction, demolition, and then a slow rebuilding for me. I’ve worked on my career, my kids, my marriage, and figuring out what I want in life. But the thing that was eluding me for what felt the longest time was a reconstruction of my faith. Once something has been stripped down to bare bones, how do you know where to even begin? I was desperately trying to find my way back to some kind of faith, but I felt so numb. I see it all the time in patients with chronic pain. They have suffered so much for so long, tried everything there is to try, and then finally they come to a place where they accept that this is their reality and they must live it in this condition. It’s a place where hope is nearly gone, but still they press on, going through the motions of life, gradually accepting that their life will never be what it once was. I had come to this place in my relationship with God. A place where I no longer aspired to the level of what I once had been and would’ve settled for even a tiny fraction of it. But I was frustrated.
I talked to My Crazy Lady about it one night. Sitting across from her on the comfortable beige couch with light slanting through the narrow gap in the drapes I said, “I go to church. I try to read the Bible like I used to. But I don’t feel anything.” The peace that I used to get when I read the scriptures, the flicker of faith, was absent. It was as if I were reading any other book or going any other place. “It’s like maybe that part is just over,” I said.
“You don’t have to feel anything. That’s faith. Reading it anyway, choosing to believe it anyway, in spite of how life looks or feels. That is the definition of faith. Sometimes I think that because you were raised in such an emotionally expressive branch of Christianity that you think you have to have some type of emotional response. You don’t. Don’t worry about if you feel anything. Just choose to believe it.” Those words took such a weight off my chest. Maybe I wasn’t defective. Maybe I was just human, and learning to navigate a new way of life.
The next week, Mary Ann and I went to visit a church she’d been asking about for a while. They had this table in the entryway with devotions. It’s strange how I’ve shied away from them for a while because I used to write so many devotions, but now when I read the words I wrote back then, it feels like reading the words of a stranger. It was so painful to look back on what I had written before not knowing now if I even believed myself. But that was what My Crazy Lady said faith was. Believing anyway. So I picked up the devotion booklet and stuck it in my purse. The next day, I decide I was going to read one, every day, whether it seemed like it was doing any good or not.
Here’s the verse from the first day I read it: “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness (Job 30:26, NIV).”
I’ve read so many verses. I’ve broken them down into the original Greek and Hebrew. I’ve listened to endless podcasts and Beth Moore teaching videos. I’ve gone to the Priscilla Shirer seminars. I’ve heard more sermons than I could possibly count, taught to me by people I loved and respected. I’ve seen scripture passages used to bring comfort and peace, healing and restoration. I’ve seen them manipulated and flung as passive aggressive stones from the precarious perches of glass houses. But in this moment, what I found was understanding. “Wow,” I thought. “He gets it. I’m not the only one.” Not the only one who ever felt alone or confused or misunderstood. Not the only one who thought that God had given up on me. Not the only one who wondered if this new experience was more true than the spiritual experiences I’d had in the past. In one of Beth Moore’s studies, The Patriarchs, she poses a question from God’s perspective: “Can you trust Me when your circumstances don’t line up with what you know of My character?”
For my whole life I’ve been taught about the character of God. That God is omniscient and omnipresent, able to do exceedingly and abundantly above all we could ever ask or think. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love with compassions that are new every morning. I’ve heard the verses about all things working together for good, and how God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.
The darkness, though. The darkness had been so big. It had stretched on for so long. It had not receded with prayer— mine or anyone else’s on my behalf. It had not lessened when my dad was given a fresh start or my professional life radically changed. It seemed profound and impenetrable, and so my eyes had adjusted. I had forgotten that my circumstance was not evidence of the love or rejection of God in my life. I had forgotten that even Jesus prayed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I had forgotten that John the Baptist, languishing in prison after all he’d done to prepare the way of the Lord, sent word to Jesus through his disciples saying, “Are you the one? Or should I seek another?” I had forgotten that tombs, the places where dead things are buried, are dark, but that the stones covering them can be rolled away to let in a shaft of light.
Job’s words, “I hoped for good, but only evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness,” gave me the gentle reminder that darkness does not mean that God has given up on you. They helped me to see in myself the potential for new life. A few chapters later, I knew, I would read Job saying, “[Before] my ears had heard you, but now my eyes have seen you (Job 42:5).
And all of the sudden, I had what I had been searching for. Acceptance. Acceptance of myself, and acceptance from the God I feared may have given up on me.
So many times as Christians, we refuse to sit in the middle with people. We jump ahead to outcomes; to what God must be trying to accomplish in someone’s life, or to remind them that their suffering is temporary. We might say it to them because we believe it, or we might say it because we’re afraid of what it will mean for us personally if we don’t see what we expect from God. I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m just offering a suggestion. Maybe, when someone is brave enough to let you see their darkness, resist the urge to try and fix it, or expel it right away. Fight against the voice in your mind that tells you that you must find the perfect encouraging word. Hit pause on the impulse to “speak things that are not as though they were.” There is a time and a place for that, absolutely. But first, before dismissing the present pain in pursuit of a more desirable future, sit down with them in the dark place. Look them in the eye with an arm around their shoulders, and say, “You know what, this really sucks. Life really sucks right now.” And then let it suck for a while. Because sometimes, there is work being done in the darkness that we can’t see or comprehend. And sometimes it does last a lot longer than we think it should, but it never lasts longer than God has ordained.
“I prayed for light, but there was only darkness.” This is mourning. Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking which chronicles the year after her husband’s unexpected death, says that grieving is something we have no choice over. Something happens, and we are forced to grieve. But mourning is a choice. Mourning is the willingness to process the grief and loss. For me, it was the loss of people, yes, but more than that, it was the loss of an identity I would never have again, my own, and my view of God’s, and a willingness to see that new identities were possible for both of us.
If you’re sitting in the dark, I just want to tell you, “That really sucks. Life really sucks right now.” And Job wants to tell you, “I prayed for light, but there was only darkness. I asked for good, but only evil came,.” And Jesus wants to remind you, “I prayed it. I asked Him that question you’re so afraid to ask— ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’”
And then I want to tell you the thing I didn’t believe when anyone else told me: it really won’t last forever. Joy really does come in the morning.