I was startled when I read the February, 1987 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry. The lead article is entitled “Self-Portrayal by a Depressed Poet: A Contribution to the Clinical Biography of William Cowper.”
William Cowper wrote hymns such as “There is a Fountain,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” “Jesus, Where’er The People Meet,” and “Sometimes a Light the Christian.” These steady us in our way, lift us and throw light on the darkest places in our relationship to God. We take heart when we sing:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In mercy upon your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
(God Moves in a Mysterious Way)
Yet, the man who wrote these hymns had depressive attacks all his life. He says “Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror and rising in despair.”
Reading hymns, Psalms, and other poetry seemed to alleviate his feelings of darkness, but he says that he experienced “the inefficacy of all human means.” He claims that he did not lose his senses but that he lost the power to exercise them.
On two occasions he attempted suicide, but was restored to safety and health in a hospital and by a family who took him into their home to live. His own mother died when he was six. Little is told of his father.
Under the loving care of this family he thrived and worked as a writer of ballads, poems, and hymns for twenty years. However, even so he suffered bouts of despair. He had times of restrained but genuine happiness. He had bright, superproductive eras of elation when, he said: “I am much happier than the day is long and sunshine and candlelight alike see me perfectly contented.”
William Cowper’s life-long struggle with God in the darkness gives you and me and our audiences a sense of companionship in the days of darkness when God seems either to be punishing us or to have abandoned us. Martin Marty calls this bereftness from the Presence of God the “winter of the heart.” A person cries: “O God, why dost thou cast off forever.”
In his book, A Cry of Absence, Marty says: “The absence can … come … to the wastespace that is left when the divine is distant, the sacred remote, when God is silent … The fury and bleakness within the soul can remain no matter what the season or weather.” (A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. p. 2.)
From the despair in Psalm 88, the rage in Psalm 109, the cry of abandonment in Psalm 22, and dark forsakenness of Jesus on the Cross, the dark side of the Presence of God is a reality to large numbers of people in your preaching audiences. “Heavenly sunshine” preaching to these persons is as salt in the wounds.
The character of God is not all sweetness and light. The dark side of God’s Presence demands recognition in the proclamation of the Gospel. As the Psalmist says: “If I say ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is as bright as the day: for darkness is as light to thee.” (Psalm 139:11-12)
The critical issue in preaching, whether it be personal testimony from our dealings with God in our own dark nights of the soul, objective guidance to the congregation about theirs, or both, is to address the feeling of the absence of God, the fear of punishment by God, and the fear of darkness left by the absence of the light of God’s Presence.
The way to go about this is to do as the Psalmist did: focus upon the character of God. What kind of God do we have? In the face of the dark mystery of life, Einstein said: “God is subtle, but not malicious,” and “God does not play dice with the world.” This he could say even though, at the end of his formal education, his teachers would not commend him for a job nor could he get one. He could say: “I was suddenly abandoned by everyone, standing at a loss on the threshold of life.”
In the face of such abandonment, preaching must push to the more difficult concerns of persons by seeking with the congregation the very face of God, God’s very Presence in the Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
Preaching from Our Own Experiences of the Dark Nights of the Soul
Some of the most profound documents of Christian writers have been their intimate descriptions of their own search for God in the dark nights of their souls.
John Bunyan describes the Slough of Despond in his Pilgrim’s Progress. He says that Christian stayed in the pit of despair longer than did Pliable, his companion. Pliable got out on the side “that he knew,” the one nearest the City of Destruction. Christian stayed out on the side farthest from the City of Destruction and nearest the Celestial City.
Here Bunyan gives the preacher a clue for speaking of his or her own sloughs of despond: he formulated a story, an allegory, a metaphor. This is one way of speaking of one’s own tribulations and senses of separation from God without being frankly autobiographical.
Confessional preaching — that is, preaching in which you hold your own personal struggles in your open hand and tell your congregation that all is not well or has not been well for you in the past — is a difficult kind of preaching for many members of your congregation to accept.
Mahan Siler, Pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., had declared some of his personal struggles in his sermon. One person responded: “I appreciate your being human with us.” Another responded: “Frankly, I don’t like knowing that you are not on top of things. This may not be fair but it is the way I feel.” (Mahan Siler, “Leaves from a Pastor’s Notebook,” Review and Expositor, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 4, p. 523).
Less candid members of his congregation may have called one another on the telephone and said: “We’ve got to put a stop to that kind of preaching.” Thank goodness they did not! Yet in some churches, to which his church is a marked exception, only “sweetness and light” sermons are acceptable.
Yet a whole congregation was transformed into a ministering church when John Claypool poured out the agony of his soul at the long illness and death of his daughter with leukemia. He records that preaching odyssey in his book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1974).
In the first sermon he says to his congregation: “There is something I want to share with you, my family in Christ. Please do not expect any great homiletical masterpiece. Do not look for any tightly reasoned, original creation. Rather, see me this morning as your burdened and broken brother, limping back into the family circle to tell you something of what I learned out there in the darkness” (page 26).
As Claypool does in his sermons, our experiences of darkness point away from us to the mystery, the awesomeness, and the unrealism and irresponsibility of waiting until we have perfect answers to all of life’s questions and imponderable enigmas before we start living life a day at a time.
In your preaching and mine, the purpose of preaching autobiographically is to point to our suffering, point away from it to greater sufferings, and to point toward Him who chose to enter the darkness of our realm of being. He partook of its tragedy infinitely more deeply than any of us. He stood with us and stands with us in the darkness and redeems us from its power.
Helplessness and Rage as Dimensions of the Dark Side of Our Experience of God
A neglected theme of preaching is our lack of emphasis upon helplessness and its companion emotion, rage. A little child cries in its helplessness. An adult will admit most things long before he or she will admit being helpless.
Parents see their sons and daughters come to maturity and do things of which they disapprove, get into situations about which they as parents can do nothing, and often ask for help beyond the capacity of the parent to provide it. Such parents spend many sleepless nights in self-pity, loneliness, and dark forebodings.
Yet these are things that cannot be discussed in the smiling, handshaking, tea-drinking, pep rally life of the church. Sons and daughters in the drug culture, sons and daughters “living together” and not married to their heterosexual partner, a son or daughter in a distant (or not so distant) place who has announced to them that they are gay, a son or daughter dying with AIDS — these parents suffer in their own private darkness. They ask where God is. When they have “had it up to here,” they burst forth in rage.
Would not a sermon on Psalm 88 be a great background, therefore, for a sermon on “Your Own Private Darkness Before God”?
Douglass Steere says: “Martin Buber confided to a friend of mine (about) his being asked a whole procession of grandiose questions by an audience one night until he burst out with ‘Why don’t we ask each other the questions that come to us at three o’clock in the morning when we are tossing in our beds?'” (Together in Solitude, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 95).
I would rephrase it: “Why is it that we do not hear these questions talked about in sermons?” I would answer it by saying that you and I can do something about that by putting these questions into sermons that affirm the darkness and rage of persons in the Presence of God with the candor and depth that the 88th and 109th Psalms do.
Yet the “whole counsel of God” requires that we affirm the Providence of God even in the depths of dark, helpless rage. As William Cowper again says:
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings.
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings.
When comforts are declining
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining
Cheering after the rain.

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