Saturday, January 30, 2010

In the Midst of Dark Times

Image by Kurt W. via Flickr

There are times in life that one comes to the edge of what they can know, feel, believe, and understand.  It is a bit like standing on the edge of an abyss.  There is not much peace in that place.  Doubts creep in.  You begin to question everything.  At times you question why you are here.  That is relatively mild compared to the more difficult questioning of your beliefs, your sanity, whether you have been deluded to believe that God exists.  If you have not been in this place then consider yourself lucky.  It is a lonely place.  A painful place.  It is a dark place. 

I presume that Paul was there on at least one occasion.  I base that on his remark:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.
1 Corinthians 15:19 (HCSB)

Most people who have not traveled to the Abyss will quote Pascal's Wager or some version of it.  The gist of Pascal's Wager is that God cannot be found based on reason only by faith .  Therefore it makes sense to believe as if he existed for one has nothing to lose (if God does not exist) and everything to gain (if God does exist).  Pascal's wager stand's in direct contrast with Paul on this point.  The fact is if we trust in Christ for this life only then we should be more pitied than anyone.  Those that would espouse such an argument trade faith for wishful thinking which leads unbelievers to mock Christianity. 

Coming to the edge of the Abyss forces us to the point of questioning and eventual rejecting of things we are unable to reason (knowledge of good and evil becomes our God) or we reach out and find a loving Shepherd longing to love us and guide us (by faith affirming Christ as our Lord).  In one sense the Abyss separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32, Matthew 13:49).  A goat (one looking like, but lacking authentic Christian faith) will travel to Abyss and upon seeing his dilemma throw his religion into the abyss and walk away believing (faith in reason not in God) he has done something enlightening.  A sheep (on having authentic Christian faith) will come to the Abyss experience the pain, fear, doubt in all its fullness.  Then quietly wait in that place for his Shepherd to come find him and lead him out of that place. 

The 23rd Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He renews my life; He leads me along the right paths for His name's sake. Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live.
Psalms 23:1-6 (HCSB)

These words are foolish to the world.  They are useless to goats.  But to sheep these words are balm to the soul.  These words are comfort in times of pain.  These words are light in the midst of darkness.  These words are assurance in the feeling of loneliness. 

"The Lord is my shepherd."  We choose him when we come to him in faith.  He does reveal Himself to us, but we have a choice to accept or reject Him as our shepherd. 

"There is nothing I lack."  This seems a strange statement when one is standing next to the abyss.  In fact this whole series of pictures is strange next to the Abyss.  There are images of  "green pastures," "quiet waters," "renewed life," "right paths" and standing next to the Abyss you might say, "Perhaps The Good Shepherd has forgotten me.  I seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere and do not see green pastures, quiet waters, renewed life, nor right paths.  In fact I lack very much.  God where are in the midst of this dark time?"  I believe that David (The one writing the Psalm) is reflecting back on in the past what God has done in his life in Psalm 23:1-3.  Looking back beyond the darkness of his present situation he recalls God's faithful provision of green pastures, quiet waters, renewed life, and right paths.  And now at this moment that reflection is something that can reaffirm your faith. 

"Even when I go through the darkest valley..."  Some translation say, "Valley of death."  When one travels to the deep abyss one can scarcely imagine walking through it.  It is terrifying enough to stand at the edge and look into it.  Yet even when we are near this abyss or traveling through it we can be assured of this:  the Shepherd is with us and desires to comfort us.  With the shepherd nearby we have nothing to fear.  David is describing his current situation in Psalm 23:4.  Looking at the darkness we see only pain and suffering.  Looking at our Savior we have nothing to fear even in the midst of grave danger.  With our eyes fixed on the Shepherd we have nothing to fear of doubts and suffering.  We have nothing to fear at the end of our reasonableness.  We have nothing to fear of our sanity.  We had nothing to fear for our Shepherd is in this place.  He guides us.  If we get to far to the right or the left with a gentle tap from His rod He will get us back on track as we travel this dark time in our lives.  What a comfort His rod and staff are when we have reached the end of ourselves and what we can do on our own.  Traveling to and through the Abyss can be a gut wrenching experience of this there is no doubt.  However, we will have the guidance and presence of God even when all we see is the darkness. 

"You prepare..."  In Psalm 23:5 David again shifts his focus from the present moment (in the dark valley) to the future.  Even our enemies cannot overcome what the Lord has prepared for us.  There is leanness right now in this valley, but then will be a banquet table, anointing oil, and plenty to quench our thirst.  There is abundance in our future when we walk through this with our Lord.  He has prepared it for you.  The image of anointing with oil is a symbol of God's selection of you.  God has chosen you.  He has anointed you for His purpose.  You are especially His!  Some day His anointing, blessing, provision will overflow to you.  His provision waits on the other side for you!

God's "goodness and faithful love" will "pursue" you the days of your life.  Walking to the abyss, walking through the abyss, God's unfailing goodness and love pursue you.  That is quite a statement.  That is boldness that is beyond being reasonable.   The world and the goats will say, "Show me the proof and then perhaps I will walk through that valley with you, but you are foolish to think that such a place reveals God's goodness or love.  Quite the contrary if God was loving and good the valley would not exist."  That is what they will say.  They will not understand.  They cannot understand walking through the valley because they do not have the Shepherd. 

"I will dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live."  Notice the trip to the abyss did not destroy the faith, but made it stronger (Psalm 23:6).  Note the resolve that this trip produced.  I will dwell...as long as I live.  These are powerful words from a person who has been to and through the Abyss.  There is no room to pretend that God exists and if he does then He will reward you and if he does not then you have lived a good life.  This is utter foolishness. Either you do or you do not choose to dwell in the House of the Lord.  There is not phantom faith.  It either is true faith or it is not faith at all.  The wondrous thing is that once we have made the resolution to trust the Shepherd our weakness will be His strength and He will take care of us no matter how dark it might be. 

Blessings to you!

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