It’s impossible to deny that life is full of mystery, and that as humans we are bound to wonder. What lies beyond the stars? How did we get here? Why do bad things happen to good people? What will tomorrow hold?
There are some mysteries in particular which I would call spiritual mysteries. Mysteries that seem to be more connected with the life of the soul, that don’t seem to make sense to our insistently logical brains.
Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m talking about is as spiritual paradoxes; things that don’t make sense but somehow in the light of who Jesus is they begin to seem possible. Things that are uniquely comprehensible only in the kingdom of God.
In this mini series I’ll consider four spiritual mysteries; not to try and make sense of them but to create a space for us to wonder and marvel further together at who God is and what he does in our lives.
2 // Spiritual Mysteries // Darkness
For most of us the idea of darkness has become synonymous with danger. We see darkness in total opposition to light, and we label things that make us afraid or uncertain as being ‘dark.’ Our homes are full of night lights so our children don’t become afraid, and we’ve filled our cities with so much light pollution that we can no longer see the stars. The darkness has become so scary to us that we triple lock our doors at bed time because surely the worst things happen in the darkness. As
Christians, we sing ‘Jesus, Jesus, you make the darkness tremble,’ and we pray for light to break through in ‘dark places.’
Of course, much of this comes from Biblical imagery and is useful and helpful to us. But herein lies for me another spiritual mystery – if the darkness is so dangerous, why is it so often the place of so much growth, learning, and transformation in our lives? If the darkness is to be avoided, why is it that we often come out of the darkness changed for the better?
I recently went on a family holiday where a whole bunch of us (fully grown up adults, I should add) decided one evening that it would be fun to play a game of sardines in the dark. We switched off any chargers with little flashing lights, we pulled curtains to shut out any stray beams and we began, each taking it in turns to begin the hiding whilst the others felt their way through the darkness to try and find the hiding place.
Something about this ridiculous game played by people who were definitely too old was completely hilarious, and yet simultaneously terrifying. It became secretly thrilling because of the adrenaline of walking through a pitch black room with no idea who might be about to crash into you or jump out at you to make you scream. Without our eyes our sensitivity to the touch of another person and the sound of their footsteps became increased, and this house that was so friendly in the day time became a dangerous playground that awakened the senses we often ignore.
There’s something about losing one of our senses that makes the others so much stronger, isn’t there? When we can’t see because we’re in the dark, suddenly our sensitivity to sound, taste, touch and smell become enlarged.
This same renewed sensitivity to things is true when we go through metaphorical darkness in our own lives; our inability to see the way ahead makes us more sensitive in other ways. Often, we are more receptive to hearing the voice of God, or the voices of the people who care deeply about us. We can sometimes have a greater ability to taste the goodness of God in a new way when we can’t use our eyes to see the way ahead. We can sometimes feel God’s presence in places we didn’t used
to, and have new experiences of who he is because the darkness has shrouded the ways we used to experience him.
I have been through my own darkness in my faith, and we will touch more on this later in this series but for now it’s enough to say that there was a period when I no longer felt like I knew anything about what I believed. It felt as if the world around me had gone dark, and the sun had gone down on everything I once knew. The darkness felt total, and my ‘spiritual’ eyes were of no use to me, I could not see the way.
But that darkness was not the end of the story, and whilst I was in it I had new experiences of knowing God. God became present to me in different ways to usual; he no longer felt accessible in prayer, and yet when I went for a run there he was in the rustling of the leaves on trees or a golden sunrise. The pages of the Bible felt devoid of God for me for a while there, and yet when I read a novel I would hear his voice echoing through the characters. Some of you will resonate with this experience whilst for others this is foreign, but I’m sure all of us have had our own darkness in our own way. Often, the darkness is the beginning of something new.
It also strikes me that some of our best growth, development and transformation happens as a result of the dark times in our lives. This thing of which we are all so afraid, that we try to run from, can actually be the thing that leads to deep change.
Time and again nature proves to us that darkness is necessary. In the spring we see flowers bursting out as a result of the dark that has nurtured their bulbs through the cold. Animals hide away in the dark of winter, and then come back strengthened and renewed for another summer of activity. The darkness in the natural world is not dangerous, it’s necessary.
Although the Bible tells us that God is light, it doesn’t seem to make an evil out of darkness in the way that we do. In fact, it’s at night that God calls Abraham to count the stars and makes his promise to him in Genesis 15. It’s at night that Jacob wrestles with God and meets him face to face. Jesus himself went out to pray alone, at night, unafraid of the dark. I think he knew that transformation happens in the dark, or as a result of the dark.
Even the resurrection itself began in the dark.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes ‘resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.’
She’s right. We don’t get any accounts of the actual moment of Jesus’ resurrection because it happened in loneliness, and in the darkness. Out of that darkness came Jesus himself, resurrected that we might experience resurrection life too. Transformation in the most radical way the world has ever seen.
I don’t have a complete answer to the mystery of why darkness can provide so much movement and transformation, but I do know that it must be because of the involvement of a God who is never afraid of the dark. His redemptive power, his ability to use any and all experiences, and his kindness in leading us forwards are what mean that we do not need to fear the darkness, for surely there we may find new depths, new heights, new ways of seeing the world.
There are times to be afraid of the dark, and to be wary of what lies within it, but there are other times to embrace it and to feel our way through it, arms outstretched. In the UK we are heading towards the darkness of another winter, and for many of us there will be greater darknesses ahead than just the dimming of the light. It may be difficult and we may feel blind, but may we also know the redemptive power of God in the darkness to bring us towards goodness. May we be strengthened, shaped, transformed, resurrected. May we wrestle through dark times knowing that this is a place of transformation, of greater sensitivity to the Spirit, and the beginning of new life.
Just like those magical moments of total dark before a sunrise as you sit and watch. Even though it’s the light that you’re waiting for, it’s actually the darkness that makes the moment of golden breakthrough the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.