It’s not uncommon for people to request to see me in my office. People at the church may have questions about a sermon, a Bible passage, or a ministry initiative. Others may want advice on any number of matters. Each day is filled with a general assortment of calls, emails, and visits. Occasionally, someone comes to see me from outside the church community; when this happens, all bets are off – you never know what you will get.
In early 2019, I had a visit from a gentleman named Mark. Mark was a young professional. He was clean shaven, well dressed, and articulate. He described his work in business, and his involvement on several boards and committees throughout the city.
He then burst into tears. “I’m a mess”, he said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I sit in my apartment and just start bawling my eyes out. I feel alone and hollow.”
It was the intensity of emotions that caught me off guard. I could feel the rawness of profound spiritual confusion. Mark described how he believed in God and how he used to go to church as a child. But more than anything he described this aching feeling of distance. He did not just feel cut off from God, he felt cut off from himself. He felt he was living a life that wasn’t his – or wasn’t to be his – but he could not decipher this complex mystery. He had no language to describe his feelings, and now way to discern the way forward. He wanted to follow God’s will for his life but had no way to understand exactly what that meant.
I sat in prayerful silence as he cried. Eventually I said a prayer of encouragement and healing. I asked Jesus to help Mark journey through this time. I then spoke about the community of faith and how engaging an active spiritual life may help Mark put the pieces together.
None of my responses were wrong, misguided, or faulty. What is more, they helped Mark. Mark journeyed with the community for the next little while and participated in prayer-evenings and ministry work. All that aside, however, here is what I wished I said.
I wish I had told Mark those feelings of absence and confusion does not mean that God was not with him. In fact, it may just be that God has come very, very close. I wish I had said that, sometimes, the nearness of God feels like absence because God is at work exposing our deeper needs. It’s not that we are left alone or abandoned, or that God has removed God’s love. In fact, it is just the opposite. What we are truly feeling is a deep and intense desire for the Lord.
I wish I had taken the time to tell Mark about St. John of the Cross and his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” I wish I had explained that for, St. John of the Cross, the “darkness” being described is the darkness that surrounds the meeting of two lovers. In this darkness we are graced to experience Christ’s deep longing for us, and our visceral longing for Christ. The reason we cannot see God is because God has filled our vision.
This can be hard for us to understand today because we often associate faith with the absence of trouble. Christian radio’s toxic positivity leads us to believe that faith in God makes everything perfect. Times of deep discouragement or confusion, therefore, are translated as a loss of faith, or deep deconstruction. We feel like we cannot pray. We don’t know how to go forward.
But the truth is that these feelings really are times where Jesus invites us into a deeper love. Christ leads us into a broader experience of his presence and grace. The time may be uncomfortable, but awaiting us on other side is a deeper knowledge of His presence.
This is what I wish I had said. So, Mark, if you are reading this, I pray these words find you.