“Darkness is a definite experience of prayer”

In my sermon yesterday, I covered Jesus’ fourth word from the cross (and, no, I don’t know how they number these things), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” We can’t experience God’s absence to the same extent that Jesus did on the cross—in that moment when, as Paul writes, Jesus was made “to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). But most Christians experience the spiritual desert, what St. John of the Cross famously called the “dark night of the soul.” This experience feels as if God has forsaken us, even if we know, theologically, that God hasn’t.

In his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster describes this feeling of forsakenness:

Here we experience real spiritual desolation. We feel abandoned by friends, spouse, and God. Every hope evaporates the moment we reach for it. Every dream dies the moment we try to realize it. We question, we doubt, we struggle. Nothing helps. We pray and the words seem empty. We turn to the Bible and find it meaningless. We turn to music and it fails to move us. We seek the fellowship of other Christians and discover only backbiting, selfishness, and egoism.1

Foster emphasizes that these experiences are not our fault. When God withdraws his presence from our consciousness, it doesn’t mean that “God is displeased with you, or that you are insensitive to the work of God’s Spirit, or that you have committed some horrendous offense against heaven, or that there is something wrong with you, or anything. Darkness is a definite experience of prayer. It is to be expected, even embraced.”2

While I suspect that most of us are reluctant to “embrace” the experience of abandonment, I am convinced that God hides from us in order to help us grow in faith. We often need to be reminded that God is free and untamable. God is not at our disposal to do our bidding. Our very resistance to the idea that God freely chooses to hide from us is a measure of the extent to which we’ve made God in our image. Why would God want to hide from me? Doesn’t he know how wonderful I am? Shouldn’t he be flattered that I’m willing to free up a small part of my calendar for him? Why would he risk my being angry at him?

You get the idea.

Foster writes, “For me the greatest value in my lack of control was the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, ‘Jump!’ Neither by theological acumen nor by religious technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.”3

1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, 1992), 18.
2. Ibid., 19.
3. Ibid., 22.

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