THE DARK SIDE OF FAITH
by Cara Dillon
Doubt never invades or crashes my faith party in an obvious and expected way, like the arguments of an intelligent atheist or the philosophical pontifications of a well read agonistic. It’s the subtle abrasion by difficult circumstances that, when multiplied by my factor of faith, turns out a product of doubt instead of hope.
One such season was seeded by the unexpected pregnancy and subsequent courthouse marriage of a faithful friend. We had lost touch for about six months until I began hearing from others that she, an unwed leader in the youth group, was pregnant and married. I told them they must be mistaken since the last time we spoke she shared her plans with me of oversees mission work and didn’t even have a boyfriend. But once we met for coffee and she rose from the table to greet me, her over-reaching tee shirt confirmed the rumors. She explained that her now husband had told her he wasn’t even able to have children and that a prophetic word from God about their future marriage would make their premarital indiscretions inconsequential. I wasn’t shocked by her pregnancy, but by the way faith was wielded to steer her there. Despite the endorsement of his “prophecy” and their miracle child, I was less than trusting of this man, especially after we met. His first words to me, after my friend introduced us were, “God Bless you,” with both hands clasped around mine to shake. I wanted to curtly assert that I hadn’t sneezed, but I was too startled at the inconsistency of the whole equation. I was disturbed by the power of faith as it is wielded over the weak.
Those seeds of confusion were watered and fed by more faith abusers who declared rest as selfish, any feelings as untrustworthy, and discontent as disobedience. I spent three months working at a Christian summer camp serving the well-to-do families of the greater metro Houston area during their summer vacation. That environment was conditioned by staff members who equated spiritual fervor with ceaseless smiling. “Smiles a lot” was actually a graded category on our final evaluations. While tolerating such a monotone faith was difficult, what happened next was worst. The seeds of confusion about faith and forgeries disappeared, as circumstances changed and time went on, to leave behind sprouts of uncertainty growing into rooted plants of doubt, draining all the nutrients from my soil of faith. I was able to leave that environment, but I was unable to control the spread of its effects on my soul.
Contributing factors can be identified, but there’s no procedure, like a faith autopsy, to definitively declare cause of doubt because doubt arises as much inside of us as it does from factors outside of us, and both are resistant to our control. As in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the narrator knows she is losing her mind, but she is unable to halt its progression. Had she been unaware of her own disintegration, I could easily write her off as senseless and absurd. But her lucidity amidst the turmoil forced me to accept that not only am I unable to control the tragedies that face me ahead, but I may not even be in complete control of my very self.
For me, doubt then ushered in the dark night of the soul, when faith felt as distant as whatever I wished for on my tenth birthday candles. Whatever it was was hopeful, fleeting, and if I were granted it now, it wouldn’t be of any use because of how dramatically my priorities and perspectives that have changed. I discovered that doubt is the ever-present shadow of faith. Whether we like it or not, as one tries to walk through life in faith, a shadow of doubt, darkness, and fear will tag along and maybe even grow. Mother Teresa once confessed, “When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven--there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.--I am told God loves me--and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” As she disclosed to few others during her lifetime, this was the constant state of her soul in the midst of her ministry in India that only seemed to deepen as her life went on.
In my first season of darkness, friends would sit with me on my green damask printed couch and tell me not to worry because God had a plan. I knew that, and knew the same was true for Jesus, and the Bible gives us four accounts of how that painful plan worked out for him. Or, when my current concern was about something as shallow as money, the optimistic faithful would tell me, “God will take care of you,” but I didn’t see how homeless people fit into their affirmation. Those were the days when the Gospel tasted stale, like bread that’s been on the kitchen counter for a week. There was no sweetness, no freshness to its message. No joy or comfort in its consistency. It was a necessity kept because there wasn’t anything better to replace it. The dark night of the soul became an attempt to figure out both what I lost and where it was and wondering why I was so damn alone in the darkness.
Church was no reprieve for a lonely, thirsty soul, but a visit to a foreign land. My spiritual eyes were veiled and I could only view services filled with a language now unacceptable to my unspiritual ears with the distant examination and unwavering scrutiny of an anthropologist. Who were these people and why do they do these things? The singing and praying and baptisms of fellow believers didn’t usher me into the presence of God or propel me to meditate on His goodness. They only intensified the track of questioning in my mind that simply repeated, “What is going on here?”
There’s a scene in the movie “Hook” in which a grown-up Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, returns to Neverland with the lost boys. Dinner is announced and they all sit at a large table filled with what Peter sees as empty bowls and dishes. But the boys are gorging themselves on this nothingness, taking spoonfuls and handfuls of air, chewing and declaring its deliciousness. They even serve themselves second helpings of invisible spoonfuls. But Peter sits there, bewildered, hungry, and at a loss for how to help himself to the meal. That’s what spiritual darkness feels like in church, like everyone else is feasting on food you can’t even see.
But, despite my sense of isolation, my eyes were opened to the pervasive presence of spiritual darkness through the heartfelt confessions of a number of young women at the summer camp we were working together. In a place that was so full of uninhibited fun and silliness, comical skits and professions of faith, girl after girl on staff confessed to me the heavy and dark burdens she carried of despondency and doubt. One revelation happened next to storage closets of Styrofoam cups and to-go boxes as she wept in frustration and another in hushed voices over deep wash sinks filled with dirty dishes and wrinkled hands and again, another disclosure occurred over cutting boards of cucumbers and tomatoes, but wasn’t mentioned again. Once it took place when I rode down flat Texas roads into the ceaseless horizon with a girl who just finished her sophomore year of college and again, another young woman opened up as we sat on a long bench facing a placid pond and her voice waivered as she spoke. Each prosaic setting revealed the girl’s desperation to just talk about it. They each admitted these struggles with a kind of shame and the affirmation that I was the only other person on staff who knew. I watched each of them shoulder this burden and still compel herself to hold a smile for the campers. Their concealment was the pragmatic answer to the task at hand. They each kept these heartaches hidden so they could continue to smile and strive.
Diving into these shadowy places takes time, time to rip open wounds and then slowly let them heal, but we honor busy Christians instead of deep ones. That’s why we keep burying it down deep and covering it over with duties and tasks. We simply don’t have time for this hard spirituality. Walking through the darkness feels like a waste of time if it keeps us from building spiritual resumes. I want to be perceived as sharing in the faithful foundation of the saints without the hard work of trudging through the darkness on my way to the light. If I showed others what a spiritual mess I was, they might tell me to take some time off and actually make me deal with what’s going on inside. Or, even worse, they might tell me to keep on.
This fear of stepping away from religious activity reveals that I hope and even expect that my spiritual performance will earn God’s presence and response. Especially as one who intends to make a vocation out of faith, if I were to show the cracks of hesitation and confusion, what would happen to the shiny religious veneer that people see? I admit it’s largely fueled by my pride as well. I want others to see me as faithful, as strong, and as an example of faith.
But I’m also quick to run from difficult seasons because our Christian culture doesn’t believe that pain and disappointment and sorrow are as normal and human and spiritual as joy and peace and happiness. To complicate matters further, our American perspective, that champions bootstrap pulling as a way of life, doesn’t view sadness and uncertainty as just different emotions, but illnesses in need of diagnosis. I’m afraid of accepting dark times in this society that can sometimes mistake melancholy for mental illness. Another friend of mine went to a doctor during her first semester of college, an uneasy and tumultuous growing season, and her doctor promptly prescribed her an antidepressant. Afterward, she figured out that she didn’t need a note from a transcription pad. She just needed to transfer to a different school. But no one advised her to see this season through, to allow her unease to unravel like a spool of thread until she found its end. She wasn’t wisely counseled to receive these human emotions and seek to understand them, but to medicate them away.
Then, on top of that general distaste for the idea of melancholy inside and outside the church, add additional shame for actually feeling negative emotions from those extra other-worldly Christians. If Christ is not enough to make us happy all the time, we must just be too “worldly” and need to do more. I think this the most common response to dark seasons. Try harder. Be happier. Relax more. Pray more. Read more scripture. Have more faith. This is even worse nowadays with so many displaying their spiritual fervor on social media. All social media outlets seem to declare that everyone you know thinks you need to hear about what spiritual revelation they had in a blog post or fill your twitter-feed with Bible verses or show you a photo of their open Bible and coffee mug. It’s really best just to avoid all of it, especially on Sundays. Then, in the “Spiritual Growth” area of the Christian bookstore, akin to the “Self-help” section, Joel Osteen smiles at me on the cover next to fifty or so other books that systematically outline how to have “Your Best Life Now” and I have to step back and wonder how it could ever be that simple.
I once saw a piece by artist Tracey Emin called “My Bed.” It was an installation of the setting in which she spent days depressed. Her bed was dirty with disheveled sheets and trash littering the floor surrounding the bed. The image stuck with me because I kept thinking what an act of courage it had to be to put on display your darkest hour. The piece was applauded by the art world, who are familiar with darkness are sorrow. I was impressed because she chose to reveal and use that darkness, something that’s hard to do in church because such lack of certainty and conviction is often viewed as traitorous betrayal. Ellen Charry, writer and theologian, pinpointed the root of this phenomenon, stating, “On the view that God’s goodness, knowledge, and power are absolute, shock and anger in the face of tragedy are unseemly because they appear to doubt God. On a very strong belief in God’s powerful goodness, what happens must be for our good, and we should rejoice gratefully, even if we are being punished. For such persons, lament is also precluded because it conveys a questioning of divine goodness” (Pembroke 55). Doubt and sorrow are no longer just emotions, but threats to faith.
Maybe we don’t know what to do with our melancholy in church because emotions are often abused there. Think about the hellfire and brimstone fear used to create repentance or the “salvation chords” that the piano player magically begins playing as the pastor begins the altar call, or the guilt that’s used to encourage church members to give more time or money or something. Or, the guilt used to scare teenagers out of having sex and the prayers that aren’t prayed to persuade God but the parishioners. Church is like those heartbreaking ASPCA commercials for sickly animals with “In the Arms of an Angel” playing in the background.
And the social structure of the church keeps me pushing those feelings down deep, too. Potlucks are no place to begin discussing deep fears and doubts over mashed potatoes and macaroni salad. And that awkward three minutes when we all turn around in the pews and greet your neighbor is only long enough to smile and shake hands, not express any pain or uncertainty. I can’t imagine the look on the elderly woman’s face in the pew behind me, when she grab my hand, clasped by both of her cold, delicate hands and declares, “I’m so glad you’re here,” if I responded with, “My soul feels dark and I can’t sense God and I feel like all of this is as real as a Comicon convention right now.” Would she still be glad I was there, even offer to cry with me, or would she find my confession inappropriate? Or, if you frequent a less traditional church like I usually do, it’s likely that you won’t even shake hands with anyone, but you’ll pass a door greeter or two who will again, smile and say, “Hello.” But if I don’t smile back, do they sense how I’m burdened down by the world, or just assume I’m rude and continue to welcome the masses? I wouldn’t blame them for finding me rude or inappropriate because the alternative is just awkward. Just as I haven’t learned how to share these things, none of us have been taught to hear them.
“Well, just tell her to do things she enjoys and tell her not to worry about it.” That was my mother’s advice to me regarding my friend’s experience of depression and anxiety. “Mom, you can’t do that,” I tried to tell her. I had no idea how to explain to her that such advice wasn’t an option, how it was just different from a friend who broke up with her boyfriend. You solved that with Ben&Jerry’s. My friend was daily taking something much stronger. She told me she felt caught in this cycle: she had no desire for scripture reading or church going, wouldn’t partake in either and then felt immense guilt for both her lack of desire and activity. While others advised my friend to hold on to things like schedules, consistent exercise, and religious activity as life preservers until she was plucked from the sea of darkness, I couldn’t help but think she might be better off just stepping away for a time to understand her doubt instead of devising a timetable to make it go away. Likewise, I tried to be patient with my mom. She’s of the generation and upbringing that didn’t really deal with depression. The bible literalists of her generation worried more about dancing than they did mental illness. It makes sense though. With two parents who lived through the 1930’s, depression had a very different meaning in my mother’s home. So, like those before her, my mother was unable to teach me how to just patiently meet with doubt and disbelief and those experiencing them.
So, like Job’s companions, we often attempt to offer shallow encouragement and instruction as salve instead of staying silent. It will get better. There’s a greater plan. Think positively. This is for your good. God is sanctifying you through this. But Proverbs 25:20 says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” The writer adequately describes a person who gushes with hope and gladness to those in pain as awful, as the kind of person who would steal the covers off of you as you slumber on a cold morning. It’s cold and very cruel.
Maybe that’s why people outside the church find Christians difficult to relate to. We often offer only simplistic religious platitudes for your sadness, if we even acknowledge the pain at all—because real difficulty, especially if it is experienced personally, thrusts us back into the classic questioning of the problem of pain. As Christians, because of our eternal hope, we’re easy targets for the lie that God just wants us to be happy here and now, until life offers a rebuttal. To suffer through difficulty with someone, we would have to dive headfirst into accepting that the health and wealth promises in exchange for payments and prayers really are lies, not just something we theologically disagree with, but a deception that we feel down to the bone because the uncertainty of life and the wickedness of man have confirmed it for us. We’d rather bake you a casserole than wrestle through that with you.
I can never figure out if those people with their anti-suffering slogans are simply unaffected by the world or unaware of it. It could just be my personal dislike of people who are always happy that makes all of these negative feelings so difficult to deal with. No one can be that happy all of the time. Regardless, the world is not that good. With the daily bombardment of news reports detailing tragedies in the East, corruption in the West, and unnumbered evidences of human depravity all over the world, how does such pretentious cheeriness thrive anywhere, especially the church that’s filled with stumbling and recovering wrongdoers?
Christians often confess that one needn’t clean him or herself up before coming before God, but we often mean so for tangible sins. You can bring God your alcoholism and your addiction, but what about despondency? I think when the church traded organs for drum sets and electric guitars in church we nixed all the songs in minor keys with the melodies that soothed longing, languishing souls. If darkness is a threat to faith and not natural to it, we must drown it out with celebration and praise alone. Churches may not say this from the pulpit, but it’s being communicated nonetheless. Neil Pembroke writes, in Pastoral Care In Worship:Liturgy And Psychology In Dialogue, “It is not surprising, therefore, that most of our congregations fail to offer people an opportunity to lament. The psalms of lament hardly ever see the light of day. There is an unrelenting positive tonality in virtually all of our worship services. It doesn’t seem to occur to many worship leaders that complaining to God and expressing anger have a central place in Christian liturgy” (Pembroke 46).
I think an over-realized eschatology is partially to blame. Yes, we overcome all things through Christ, even death, but this world we’re in is still full of death and disappointment and all sorts of other awful things. Pastor Matt Chandler comments on Christians’ attempts to declare now what has yet to be. He recalls, “I’ve heard preachers and pastors come out of 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals where it says, “Where oh death is your victory? Where oh death is your sting?” And I always want to go, “Right here! We’re at a funeral. There’s a body in a casket. The sting is right here” (Chandler). Despite the fact that there is a day that death will no longer claim any more captives, we’re not there yet. And we don’t need to pretend that we are. One day all tears will be wiped away, but we’re not there yet, so our lives are free to reflect that reality.
Our view of spiritual superheroes has been inflated well beyond their humanity, too. Do we find Paul declaring his immanent death or his thorn in the flesh with callous indifference or difficulty? What on earth would churches have done with King David? He’d definitely be taken off the elder board because of his intense mood swings. How would we ever know his theology underneath all of his honest doubts and frank confessions? When Judas denied him and his friends abandoned him, did Jesus stoically declare, “Well, it’s clearly all a part of God’s plan,” or did he hurt? Jesus’ garden experience is typically pinpointed as his most human moment of carrying pain. I agree that it is the moment he was most downcast, but not necessarily the most human moment of pain. It’s not exactly something everyone will identify with and because of that, sometimes it seems like we can’t be sad in the same way. Instead, I love the story of Lazarus in the gospel of John. Jesus’ friend Lazarus, whom Jesus loves, dies. When Jesus heads toward the tomb where Lazarus was laid, he weeps. Then, Jesus raises Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days.
I’ve always loved Jesus’ choice to weep. It isn’t out of the ordinary until you realize that Jesus knew that he could and would bring Lazarus back to life and yet He cried with the mourners anyway. I don’t think he did it just for their benefit, for their comfort. I think he did it because he was sad. He was human and he was sad that his friend had died because death isn’t supposed to happen. Each tear declared, “This isn’t how it should be.” By embracing that pain, every tear protested the rightness of death and loss. His weeping was just as much a rebellion against the presence of evil on earth as Lazarus’ subsequent healing was. Jesus knew better than everyone else that this wasn’t how things were supposed to go. He is allowed to lament because pain, sorrow, darkness, death, and loss were never supposed to be a part of our lives.
I sense this same thing in the psalms of lament, a simultaneous heartache and trust of God. They begin with this gut-wrenching wrestling and almost accusatory questioning of God. “Why, God? Why, God?” they all inquire. This goes on for stanzas outlining their plight and their heartache. But then, many of them suddenly switch their song. Psalm 13 takes a screeching halt from it’s questioning to markedly declare, “But I trust in your unfailing love.” I used to think this was the moment that God swooped in and saved the day, as if the Psalmist was penning his questions and petitions to God and all of the sudden, someone ran in to inform the writer at his desk that God had taken all the troubles away and so the remainder of the psalm changed.
But we know nothing about the outcome of the psalmist’s situation. I only assume that the situation changed because the song does. So, what if nothing changed? One scholar notes, “There is nothing to suggest that the psalmist has dropped his protest against God’s adverse disposition. Simultaneous with the psalmist’s confession of present trust is his complaint of God’s hiddenness” (Villanueva 68). What if the most comforting thing about this psalm is not that God swoops in and changed things, but that these declarations of doubt and trust are side by side, juxtaposed to vindicate our messy emotional and spiritual states? Perhaps we can tread the same line of faith and doubt, making devoted declarations of trust with parts of our hearts still lagging behind in the terrain of uncertainty.
Maybe that’s the problem: once we get to this point we know God can save but then we realize, that sometimes God doesn’t. It hurdles us back to the realization we had when we first surrendered: God is God and we are not. I wonder if this realization was as unsatisfying for Job as it can be for us. Oh, despite all the pain and uncertainty you still expect me to trust you? Maybe that’s what Jesus was really thinking in the Garden, too.