Don’t read your Bible: the dark night and letting go

There’s an old Sunday school song which my wife grew up on (and which we recently discovered they were very fond of in Kenya), which goes:

“Read your Bible, pray every day
If you want to grow.”

Now of course there’s nothing wrong with this message in the right place. For one long stage of the Christian journey it’s (for the most part) entirely appropriate – if perhaps slightly works-based and guilt-inducing (our 5-year-old son recently expressed a worry that he couldn’t be growing because he wasn’t reading the Bible every day). In Alan Jamieson’s schema, it’s a caterpillar-stage song, appropriate for the early ‘pre-critical’ phase of faith marked by insatiable appetite and enthusiasm for all things Christian – books, sermons, services, worship music.

But The Evangelical Liberal isn’t primarily a blog for the caterpillar phase; Christians in that stage are already amply catered-for elsewhere. Rather, this is a place for those who are beginning to move beyond that phase into what Jamieson identifies as the chrysalis – the place of struggle and change, of the deconstruction of former beliefs and practices in preparation for the transformation to a new kind of faith. This is primarily a blog for ‘Chrysalis’ Christians, for dark-night stumblers and wilderness wayfarers – though all others are very welcome.

For these chrysalis Christians, the old message of ‘read your Bible, pray every day’ can come to sound like a word of death, not of life. The old spiritual disciplines and practices, the songs and services and daily ‘quiet times’ that have fed them up to this point now feel dry, dead, empty, hollow; frustrating and guilt-inducing rather than life-enhancing. Many will try harder at this point, desperately trying to regain some of the old enthusiasm, but to no lasting avail. Are they falling away from faith – have they ‘lost their first love’? No. They are simply moving into a new, difficult but ultimately transformative transitional period of faith.

The Bible and worship songs

For many Christians, two of the great things that have fed, sustained and even delighted them in their early ‘caterpillar’ walk have been reading the Bible – learning, studying and engaging with ‘God’s word’ – and singing worship songs, expressing their love and gratitude to the One who has so profoundly changed their lives.

Conversely – and perhaps for this very reason – the Bible and worship songs are two of the things that dark-night, chrysalis Christians often find most problematic and least helpful. The worship songs no longer express sentiments or often even beliefs that they can relate to; they can feel distanced and alienated during times of exuberant praise or intimate worship. This can be very painful and confusing.

The Bible carries even more baggage. For one thing, dark-night Christians have often fed on it to bursting point in their pre-critical caterpillar days; they don’t want (or need) any more of it right now. All caterpillars have to stop their incessant feeding when the time comes to retreat into the chrysalis.

Secondly, for dark-nighters the Bible is for the time being inextricably associated with – indeed foundational to – old, rigid, black-and-white ways of thinking and with external-authority-based believing, which at this point they are needing to deconstruct and to disconnect from. When they read the Bible they can only hear the old fundamentalist doctrines and guilt-laden messages which they can no longer accept; so they feel alienation and even anger. Again, this is confusing and painful.

Christians at this time need to feel free not to read the Bible – hence the title of this post. They need to feel free to lay aside former ways and practices – and doctrines – for the time being, without condemnation or guilt.

Prayer in the darkness

People at this point often experience a similar sense of alienation towards most other formerly-embraced spiritual disciplines and practices – church attendance and involvement, mission work, serving, theological study, devotional ‘quiet times’ and even prayer.

At this stage, Christians may abandon former regular habits of praying and instead find themselves crying out to God in new and very different, uncomfortable and unconventional – even uncontrolled – ways. These are often cries of deep hurt, anger, abandonment. They may not be polite, restrained or reverent; I’ve written of my own experiences of swearing at God. Prayer in the lonely dark of the chrysalis is a very different thing to prayer in the light and joy of early, pre-critical  faith.

Moving beyond

So when I say ‘don’t read the Bible’, of course this is not meant as a piece of universal advice for everyone at all times, any more than I’d advise swearing at God as a standard model for prayer. Rather these are things that may be appropriate or helpful for this particular season or stage of the journey, the time of the dark night and the desert. It’s okay to let the old practices die for a time, to lay them aside until they are once again able to be helpful.

All being well, and with proper support and encouragement, a time will eventually  come when the dawn breaks and the desert gives way to green pasture again; when the chrysalis breaks open as the new butterfly pushes its way out into the sunlight, ready to fly. Then at last, when the time is right, the newly-emerged Christian will be ready and able again to engage fruitfully in church, in reading the Bible, in songs and other forms of worship. But it will be a new kind of engagement, a very different way of being Christian from before. It will be a way of openness and colour and life, embracing mystery, uncertainty and paradox, and able to accommodate struggle, pain and darkness.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Dark night of the soul, Emerging, Stages of faith, The faith journey and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Don’t read your Bible: the dark night and letting go

  1. Jenny Rayner says:

    I think I may have emerged 🙂

    Like

  2. johnm55 says:

    Alternatively;

    If you want your child to grow, your child to grow, your child to grow
    If you want your child to grow, give ‘im a jar of porter

    Of course the Dubliner’s were never exactly pro religion.
    Jar of Porter

    Like

  3. johnm55 says:

    More seriously, from Maggie Dawn on the *rapture*;

    What makes someone predict the rapture, judgement day, or the end of the world? I imagine you first need a psychological disposition that makes you believe the end of the world would be a good thing. Is the person predicting the rapture angry with the world, depressed, disconnected, or running out of hope? Probably one of the above. But the prediction itself usually comes from reading the Bible without reading everything else. If you only read the Bible you get a very strange view, both of the Bible and of the world. But if you also read some literature, philosophy, history, sociology and psychology you get a better grip on how to make sense of the apocalyptic passages in the Bible.

    Reading the bible to the exclusion of everything else causes shrinkage not growth, but you knew that already.

    Like

  4. johnm55 says:

    The link that I got wrong in the last post:)
    here

    Like

  5. deann says:

    I have been going through the dark night for over 5 years now. I haven’t been able to read my Bible at all. I felt this was part of it. This article makes me feel so much better. I have no one to talk with about this. I am miserable. It’s never ending! I am miserable in worship as well. I feel I am so out of place and I can’t feel God’s presence at all and haven’t in years. It’s older than old. I guess I feel I am just existing. I have tried to find more books on this subject, other than St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton. Any other suggestions? THank you so much for posting this.

    Like

    • Hi Deann, thanks so much for your comment. I can only say that I know a little of what you’re going through and how difficult it is; you’re not alone in this, and what you’re feeling and experiencing isn’t wrong or bad (though it certainly is painful and miserable). Sadly there are no easy answers or quick fixes – at least not that I’ve found anyway!

      There are a lot of books that I’ve found helpful and encouraging – I’ve listed some of them on my books page, and reviewed a few of them on this blog. Probably the most helpful for me have been Alan Jamieson’s Chrysalis, Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Mike Riddell’s Godzone, and pretty much anything by Frederick Buechner, Tom Wright, Brian McLaren or Philip Yancey.

      I think for me, part of what’s helped in starting to emerge at the other end of the dark night has been recognising that it’s okay and perhaps even necessary to go through this; that it doesn’t make you a failed Christian or a useless person. Quite the opposite – it’s almost definitely part of the painful process of becoming a fuller, more real and whole person.

      Getting truly angry with God has also helped; really letting him know how I feel, no holds barred, swearing and all. And just being honest with myself about the things I can’t currently believe or accept has been a relief – jettisoning some of my evangelical baggage about hell, biblical inerrancy, penal substitution etc.

      But I guess the path of the dark night is different for all of us – we all come to be there for different reasons, we all have different things we need to learn there, and the way out is probably different for each of us too.

      Do stay in touch,

      All the best,
      Harvey

      Like

    • Alexandra says:

      Just pray for renewed faith and hope, because God will never leave or forsake you, please be persistent because God loves you and I’m sure he would want you to live your life happy and with him:) love ya, and if you need help reading the bible, I like to listen to Shepards Chapel:) the pastor explains in depth in bible study what each chapter means cause some can be pretty confusing, Good Luck:) and even though you might not want to, read the bible, its Gods truth and his letter to us to help us:)

      Deuteronomy 31:6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
      http://bible.cc/deuteronomy/31-6.htm

      Psalm 34:4
      I sought the LORD, and He heard me,And delivered me from all my fears.

      Like

      • Hi Alexandra – thanks for your comment, and sorry for not replying before – I’ve been away for a couple of weeks. Don’t worry, I’m not losing my faith in Christ, just going through a different stage in my faith journey. I’ve read the Bible plenty in the past, and I intend to read it plenty more over the years to come. But sometimes we need to take a little time out, particularly while going through a time of transition from a more ‘fundamentalist’ way of reading the Bible to a more ‘open’ way.

        Thanks, and bless you
        Harvey

        Like

  6. stacey says:

    I’ve been going through this stage for a while. It can be very lonely. I have at times felt a lot of guilt for not having read my bible for the reasons you have mentioned in your article. I live in the Bible-belt and my fellow church members have noticed this distance & disconnect in me during worship services and praise & worship music. They mistakenly think that I am losing my faith and want to try to rush in to “fix” things. They almost look at me with a sad pity that seems to say “Poor thing! She’s losing her faith. We need to help her before she backslides.” Not understanding what was going on in me, at least at that time, was causing me confusion and doubt. I really did wonder if I was losing my faith in God. This kept me from moving forward as I was constantly trying to go back to my former state thinking it was the correct way.

    Something interesting has happened to me during this journey though. People in the church may be looking at me as if I’m losing my faith and moving away from God but internally, I feel a closeness with him I’ve never felt before. I’m not perfect by any means, but I have over the last few years, become a more kinder, compassionate person and more accepting of humanity and the human condition as a whole. The downside of all of this is that I have a lot of anger towards the place I just left and some of the people in it who tried to dictate to me what my relationship with God should be and look like. That is an area where my acceptance is still wanting and it’s area I’m still having to work through

    Like

    • Hi Stacey, thanks so much for your comment. I really identify with what you’re saying, and with the experience of drawing closer to God inwardly while appearing (to others) to be losing your faith. I’m starting to see all of this as a healthy and normal – but often painful – stage in spiritual growth. Moving on from old, familiar ways can feel dangerous and frightening, and others who are at a different stage in their faith often feel disturbed by it, not able to understand that it’s a healthy and necessary process.

      I hope to come back to the point eventually where I can read the Bible again without getting angry or upset, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I will be reading it and understanding it in a very different way to how I used to.

      I genuinely wish you all the very best in your journey – thanks again for taking the time to write.

      Like

      • DeAnn Wade says:

        I totally had forgotten that I posted to this last year. I read my words, and I am taken back to the state I was in. Did you notice I said “was”? 🙂 I can thankfully tell you that I am so much better. Things has gotten really bad last year; I felt I was losing my faith, I felt God has forsaked me.. and was watching me suffer in torment. I was in very bad shape. Last Fall, God sent reinforcements to pull me out. I can say I am no longer angry at God. I have a way to go in the trust dept. with God. He hurt me deeply, and it will take a while to recover. I still can’t read my Bible. Really weird. I just do my Jesus Caliing devo. I know that I am supposed to be doing Contempletive Prayer. I can relate to what Stacey was saying too. Except the part where she feels closer to Him. He still has left His presence from me, and still not communing with me. But, what has helped me, is that I don’t expect Him to anymore. When I quit expecting His presence and communion, it was like it all clicked. I just ACCEPTED where He had me, and it made all the difference. SO! Thank you for replying to my post. I knew you people had to be out here somewhere, just could never find you.

        Like

        • Hi DeAnn, I’m so glad you came back and found my reply! Thanks for letting me know how you’re doing. I too feel happier with where I am in my journey, and that this is where I’m meant to be at the moment. I have all sorts of unresolved questions and even apparently unanswered prayers, but that’s okay.

          There are no easy answers of course. For me one of the things that has helped is seeing a (secular) counsellor, which has helped me to come to terms with all sorts of difficult things in myself. Above all it’s helping me to accept myself with my flaws, and to emerge from a religiousness that was based mainly on fear of rejection and the need to please an imaginary authority who can never be satisfied. Others report similar experiences with seeing a spiritual director.

          Oddly I don’t feel God’s absence in quite the same way now. I still don’t sense his presence exactly, but in his apparent absence and silence, I do somehow sense a hidden presence. I know he’s there, and that’s somehow enough.

          I really wish you all the best in your journey. Do stay in touch!

          Harvey

          Like

  7. Janet says:

    I can relate to your blog and I have to say the Evangelical church has left me feeling confused and empty .
    Oh but I shouldn’t listen to my feelings I should listen to what the Bible says.
    At least that’s what a sister said….
    Janet

    Like

    • Hi Janet, thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      It’s so important that we listen to our feelings! Our feelings aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, they just are – and they’re usually telling us something important that we need to pay attention to, even if it doesn’t mean acting on them. And if we try to ignore them or shove them aside, they don’t go away, they just come out again in other ways which may be less helpful.

      The things is, we can’t just listen to ‘what the Bible says’, because it’s almost never saying one single, simple set-in-stone thing that can be applied to all people in all times and situations. And half the time we don’t really have a clue what it’s saying anyway, or are missing the fuller point of what it might be saying because we’ve already been told by our church what it means (to them).

      The Bible is so much richer and more complex than any of our theologies – but sometimes I think we have to lay it aside for a while, because when we read it through the limiting lenses of our inherited theology we end up doing violence to the Bible, in turn causing it to do violence to us.

      Bless you – and bless your Christian sister, who probably needs a lot of grace.

      Harvey

      Like

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