We Christians delight in stories of conversion, of someone being “born again.” We remember our own joy when we first committed ourselves to God. Our new life is a much better life. It starts with joy and wonder at the realization that Jesus died for our sins—and it will certainly end in joy in eternal salvation.
What, however, do we make of those emotional struggles we encounter in between the beginning and the end of our earthly Christian lives? This is a broad and perplexing question. We know, intuitively, that a full life will certainly necessitate the experiencing of a full range of emotions. We will always want to know: what can we learn from this; what is God saying to us; what shall we do in response?
In Isaiah 50:10 we read:
Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness and has no light
Trust in the name of the Lord
And rely on his God. (ESV).
J.I. Packer quotes this verse at the beginning of his article “Holiness in the Dark”
(CRUX Vol.44, No.3, Fall 2008, p.31). Here he explores the issue of the “spiritual darkness” of Mother Theresa, the world-famous founder of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India. It appears that Theresa, that tireless servant of God, made many confessions of feeling apart from God, and that these confessions have been published (see Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday) ed. B. Kolodiejchuk 2007).
Packer is careful to define the kind of “darkness” that he suspects is more common than might be expected:
It is the problem of felt abandonment by God, the Father Son and the Holy Spirit, within the frame of full commitment to God: in other words, the desolation and seeming desertion of the deeply devoted. (p.31).
In exploring this concept, Packer reviews the historical resources of the Church in trying to understand various stages of growth in holiness. He discusses John of the Cross and the often-repeated but little-understood phrase “the dark night of the soul.” (Page 34.) This is a complex and often lengthy process whereby the soul is growing towards union with God. (Page 35.)
Packer then goes on to contrast this Roman Catholic tradition with the evangelical understandings of fellowship with God. He looks at the foundations of Reformed faith, such as the importance of Scripture, and the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. (Pages 35-36). He also comments on the doctrine of justification through faith alone:
This doctrine determines that knowledge of being always a sinner, who can stand before God only through God’s daily reaffirmation of one’s pardon and acceptance on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and vicarious sin-bearing, must always be front and center in all analyses of the life of grace.
This “daily re-affirmation” should mean that we have the opportunity to re-discover our joy at re-birth every day.
Packer then goes on to discuss Mother Theresa and her particular calling to serve the poor. After much reflection, he concludes that her darkness may have been a kind of diaconal discipline from God, “aimed at qualifying the disciple more fully for particular works of ministry to others.” (Page 39). This idea provokes numerous questions for us. Can we link our emotions to motivations? Will our disgust at poverty motivate us to alleviate it? Will our anger at social injustice motivate us to right wrongs? Can we turn our fear of evil into the courage to combat it? Will our sense of loneliness cause us to seek God’s company and the fellowship of other Christians in every possible way?
Packer makes numerous comments about the life of grace including the following:
. . . that Christian contentment, cheerfulness and joy are fed, not directly by spiritual experiences—feelings, visions, raptures, thrills, which come and go, and in particular cases may hardly come at all—but by cognitive meditation and reflection, that is, by thinking, and thinking often, about the goodness, glory, and grace of the holy Three. (Page 39).
We can do this! We have adventures before us—praise God!
In faith and fellowship,
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