Yesterday evening I found myself trying out a novel style of praying, one which is unlikely to be found in the Alpha Course Prayer Manual.
I was walking home across Blackheath, praying, and suddenly all my long-felt frustrations, hurts and disappointments with God came tumbling out. Why won’t you answer the prayers about the things I really care about? Why won’t you speak to me directly instead of second-hand through the Bible? If you care so much, why does it so often feel like you don’t care at all? Why does your presence so often feel like absence; why do your supposed blessings so often feel like punishments?
And suddenly I was swearing repeatedly at God: ‘F— you! F— the Bible, f— church, f— theology! F— you for ignoring me, for never speaking to me!’ And so on. And the strange thing was, it felt really good.
Now don’t get me wrong; this isn’t something I’m planning to repeat particularly often, and I’m not recommending anyone to include it as a regular feature of their daily devotions. Nor am I claiming that it was a mature, wise, or admirable thing to do, nor in any way biblical (except by a very long stretch of some of the psalms, perhaps).
But in its favour, it did represent honest, heartfelt and passionate communication; and it sprang at least in part from a genuine desire to engage more deeply with God. I wasn’t swearing to insult God but just to express my deep-seated (even if unfounded) rage towards him. Crucially, I wasn’t telling him to get the f— out of my life but to get the f— into it.
I love God, and I need God. I’ve known his presence powerfully at times, felt his love, seen his action both in my own life and the lives of others. So his absence and silence (whether real or apparent) now feels all the more crushing, intentional and hurtful. I realise this is all part of the process; that the Dark Night of the Soul is something most Christians have to go through at some point and that in the end it can be a good thing. That doesn’t make it any easier when you’re in the middle of it.
Fight the good fight
I’d much rather be speaking words of love to God; seeking his tender embrace. But in the absence of that, I’ll settle for a fight instead. As Mike Riddell says in Godzone, ‘God enjoys a fight as much as an Irish Publican’. There’s something hot, something real, even intimate, in fighting; something which comes quite close to love. If I can’t feel God’s embrace at the moment, at least I can wrestle with him like Jacob did. And maybe in the end that’s just another pathway to receiving his blessing.
Postscript: transition and birth
Before our first child was born we dutifully attended the ante-natal classes put on by the NCT, where we learnt rather more than you could ever want to know about the gory details of labour and birth (though sadly not a lot about the steep learning curve of parenting that follows after).
One of the genuinely interesting things we learnt was about the stage of labour called Transition. It’s the interval between the contractions of dilation (the long period during which the cervix is expanding to a size where a baby can fit through) and the final contractions of pushing, when the mother exerts all her remaining strength in ejecting the baby into the world.
Transition, if I recall rightly, is excruciatingly painful and simultaneously frustrating. It feels like nothing is happening, but the pain is such that at this point the most mild-mannered and middle-class women apparently often find themselves shouting, screaming and swearing. Of course, it’s a crucial stage in labour, one that prepares the mother for the final push, but it’s reported to be the most difficult stage.
It strikes me that the Christian dark night of the soul – the transition point before starting to break free from the confining chrysalis – has a lot of similarities to this. It is painful, frustrating, seemingly fruitless. You may find yourself uncharacteristically raging, shouting and swearing at God, at faith, at church, at everything you’ve held dear. But out of all this eventually comes birth.
And then the next set of challenges begin…