Faced with yet another life-threatening crisis in our small missionary community in Nigeria, I poured out my grief and disillusionment as I wrote in my journal, “What do you do when you have prayed and prayed and it doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference?”
There are times when prayer flows naturally and God seems so close. But on many other occasions prayer seems like a monologue. God feels distant and doesn’t seem to hear. George Buttrick described it as “beating on heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.” We feel like we are praying in the dark.
What is it Like?
We feel Lonely. We feel we are the only person who has ever known this kind of pain or grief. People try to offer kind words but they really cannot understand our darkness.
We feel Abandoned. God seems to have left us or seems indifferent to what is happening. The Psalmist exclaimed in
We feel Overwhelmed by Crisis. Nothing makes any sense. We feel like victims in a cruel cosmic game, discouraged and helpless. We echo the words of Jesus in Gethsemane: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (
Where do we turn and find comfort as well as the energy to keep on praying when the darkness seems so thick and our efforts appear fruitless? Three valuable truths can bring comfort and encouragement.
You’re Not Alone in the Dark
I recall a hospital visit to a young woman undergoing chemotherapy for abdominal cancer. Ten years earlier she had beaten brain cancer but now, once again, she was battling for her life. She pointed to her Bible and asked, “What can you say to me at a time like this?” I knew that a trite reply about God’s providence would sound empty and uncaring. So, I said, “I don’t have easy words of comfort. You can read through the Bible and you won’t find answers to this absurdity you are going through. But you will find your questions in that book. Others have walked a similar path. You are not alone. You are in godly company.”
Job prayed in the dark. David prayed in the dark. Esther fasted and prayed in the dark. Daniel prayed in the dark. Jonah prayed in the dark, quite literally! A Sunday School teacher was trying to get a class of 6 year old boys to imagine what it must have been like for Jonah, so he asked them what they would do if they found themselves trapped in the belly of a large fish. One said, “I would build a fire and burn a hole and crawl out.” Another offered, “I’d stomp on his tongue until he spit me out.” A third said, “I’d cry out real loud till my Daddy comes to get me.” That last reply captures the essence of what praying in the dark is all about.
The Apostle Paul prayed in the dark about his “thorn in the flesh.” Jesus prayed in the dark on the cross crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He felt alone and abandoned, yet he kept on praying.
Sue Monk Kidd in her book, When the Heart Waits, points out that in Gethsemane Jesus asked his disciples to sit and wait up while he prayed. He didn’t ask them to pray for him, to plead his case, but to sit and watch while he prayed. Is that what Jesus asks us to do when we face the crisis and darkness overwhelms us? Is it to sit and watch while he prays? Maybe this is what Paul talks about in
You Can Find God in the Dark
We have all been taught to affirm that God is Omnipresent, fully present everywhere. In our experience, however, He seems at times to be very close and at other times far away. David was certainly aware of this tension. In
Christian mystics referred to the experience of Deus Absconditus, the hiddenness of God. We tend to emphasize the nearness of God. We speak of having a “personal relationship with God” and learning to “hear the voice of God.” Some Christians preface sentences with “the Lord showed me . . . ” and “the Lord told me that . . . ” as though they had an uninterrupted, direct line to heaven. And so we don’t know what to do with those times when the heavens are silent and our prayers don’t seem to go beyond the ceiling.
We have accepted, perhaps, a distorted image of a God who is always there, always accessible, always communicating with us.A common saying has been: “If God seems far away, guess who moved?” The obvious implication is that I must have drifted away from him.
While it is true that God hides from us when we sin against him it is also true that God is Ungraspable Mystery. His ways are not our ways; his thoughts are above our thoughts. He is transcendent as well as immanent. He is not a genie who can be summoned by rubbing the magic teapot called prayer. Although he is everywhere, we are repeatedly told to seek after him with all our hearts.
We often think of light as the primary metaphor of God’s presence, yet the darkness of God is also a theme worth exploring: “The Lord has set the sun in the heavens, but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (
God is the God of the dark as well as of the light. Darkness is a natural part of the trip and it is never permanent; it must always give way to dawn. It doesn’t mean that God has left us. He suffers with us, weeps with us and enters our darkness. This is a holy darkness that moves us into a new way of relating to God. Even the experience of “God’s absence” is another way of probing his mysterious presence
You Can Grow in the Dark
God takes even the darkest moments of life and redeems them for a good purpose. Nature tells us that darkness produces growth.
For nine months all of us experienced a dramatic multiplication of cells as organs were formed, hair and eye color and even personality were programmed in the darkness of the womb. Similarly, for a seed to germinate we must cover it with soil and the roots make their way down into dark places where they find nourishment for the emerging plant.
The most significant events of Jesus’ life took place in darkness: his birth, his arrest, his death, his resurrection. Our own darkness may be an opportunity to move into a deeper dimension of the spiritual life. We learn what it means to trust when nothing makes sense and faith is the only thing left to which we cling.
Larry Crabb says, in his book Encouragement, “At those moments when the loneliness is greatest, we must . . . entrust ourselves so completely to Him that our psychological doom is assured if he fails to respond. . . Then godly character will grow. His glory bursts through most brightly when the night is darkest.”
Hudson Taylor accomplished incredible things in his ministry to China. In the process he lost two wives and numerous children to disease and unsanitary conditions. At the end of his life he expressed the strength of his belief when he said, “I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust.”
When there is nothing left to hold on to, trust in the Lord with everything you have. Know that you are not alone. When words fail you, sit and allow Jesus to pray in you. Know that God shares with us the darkest moments. Trust and hold on because the dark is God’s chosen place to help us grow.
Allan Effa teaches Spiritual Formation and Intercultural Studies at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Canada. He served for 8 years as a missionary to Nigeria.