Is it true that we only really find God in the darkest moments of our life? That our knowledge of God is made real precisely when we are in the disaster of a marriage on the rocks, a bereavement that was unexpected or the shattering news of an illness that is here to stay?
That appears to be the view of pastor Eric Elnes in his new book Gifts of the Dark Wood. I have not read his book and I am not sure if I want to – so I may be doing him an injustice. I have only read reviews, including this one by controversial church founder and author Christian Piatt. Here is an extract:
Sometimes it takes a journey into darkness, even deep darkness, to finally awaken to the smallness of our success-based world. Sometimes you need to lose your way in order to discover the grandeur, mystery, and freedom of the world that awaits you. Sometimes, even, you need to step away from the security of your boat onto the stormy sea of your own awakening to discover that a sinking stone is a far firmer foundation than you have imagined. There’s no firmer foundation than the awareness of being grasped and upheld by a strong hand at the very moment when you thought all was lost. Jesus sought to build his community at the intersection of human cry and divine embrace.
I agree with this. In fact If it wasn’t for the most difficult and hurtful life experiences we could never understand courage, valour, sacrificial love, true persistence, our own lack of faith, or God’s ability to hold on to us. What I find difficult is the author’s apparent argument that we need to openly embrace these experiences, that failure, loss, emptiness, uncertainty are gifts from God to help us discover true insight, awakening, and God himself.
When I think of calamities in my own life such as the violent breakdown of my parents’ marriage, or the life-threatening illness of my daughter, I can see now that God held me in that time, and the knowledge of this is now ingrained in me. But I definitely don’t want to go back there, and I don’t want to embrace other equally crushing life experiences – no matter how much I might learn. I also believe that we can learn much about God from the accepting, open heart of a child, a simple walk in the hills, or the intricacies of this created world. Life brings us both types of experiences. Both have value for learning.
Well maybe I am just a coward, but let me turn to another book (one I have actually read and heartily recommend) – the late Gerard Hughes’ classic book on spiritual guidance; God of Surprises. Hughes deals with similar topics but in a balanced and convincing manner. Commenting on life’s most painful adversities Hughes states:
I may be full of faith feeling that all power belongs to God and that without God I can do nothing. Then my security is threatened in some profound way and I reach a deeper level of consciousness to which my faith has not penetrated and where I have lived in an unconscious atheism. Actually this moment is an invitation to grow in faith. I may accept the invitation and for a few years I live at this deeper level. Then another crisis occurs and I become aware of an even deeper level of atheism within me…
… Our God is the God of surprises who, in the darkness and tears of things breaks down our false images and securities. This in-breaking can feel to us like disintegration but it is the disintegration of the ear of wheat. If it does not die to bring new life, it will shrivel away on its own.
Hughes’ deliberate phrase “unconscious atheism” is that boundary within most of us at which point the question “why did God let this happen” can surpass our trust in him. My experience is that this can happen but thankfully only for a time.
Mark 9.24: “Everything is possible if you believe” said Jesus. “I believe” said the boy;s father, “help my unbelief”.
In case anybody reads Gifts of the Dark Wood, let me know what you think.