Have you ever played around with a DSLR camera (digital with interchangeable lenses)? I would really encourage you to do so. Sure, with the emergence of smart phones, anyone can pose as a photographer. But a camera, like a DSLR that gives you control over all its functions, forces you to learn about how the camera actually works. And if there is one thing photographers need to learn about, it is light.
There are various functions in a camera that control the amount of light moving through the lens to hit the sensor. The shutter speed, for example, controls the length of time the shutter is open, and the longer the shutter is open, the more light will enter the camera. The darker the situation, the longer the shutter needs to be open. But in order to do that, you need to keep the camera stable, otherwise the photo will become blurry (of course there is more to it than what this blog post can allow for).
There’s no better way to learn about cameras and the effects of light than to be put into low-light situations. I have learned how frustrating an experience that can be. I have spent a lot of time just standing in the same spot, taking pictures of the moon, city lights, or traffic on the highway, taking picture after picture until I get it just right. Out of a hundred pictures, there might be seven that I actually like. But if I want to become a better photographer, I need to spend some time in the dark.
In many ways, our spiritual walk is similar to taking pictures in the dark. We may not always like to be in the dark, and those times can become really frustrating, but in the same way that the dark makes us better photographers, the dark times of life have the potential to enrich our relationship with God.
I’m not talking about taking an hour of your day to sit in a room with no lights on (although that could be a nice way to find some quiet). I’m talking about the dark parts of life and our Christian journey that lead us to frustration and questioning. I’m sure we have all had these experiences or moments in our lives when God seems to be absent. We may feel abandoned by God or that nothing about life or faith makes sense. We may feel like the connection we did have with God at one point is gone and maybe it was all just fiction anyway.
I can count many times, even in ministry, when I have experience dark times in life. If you have felt that also, then we are in pretty good company. Many in the Bible have experienced that as well. Prophets like Elijah felt like they were the only ones working on God’s side and became frustrated that God didn’t seem to be changing people. The disciples of Jesus, after His death, were discouraged because it seemed like everything they had lived for was over and gone. How many times do the writers of the Psalms call out to God and ask Him to wake up and do something? Yes, moments in the dark are not uniquely ours.
R. Thomas Ashbrook, in Mansions of the Heart, outlines the teachings on spiritual formation of 16th century Christians Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. As Ashbrook guides us through the seven castles (or mansions) of faith development outlined by Teresa of Avila, he makes sure to not skip over John of the Cross’ teachings on the “Dark Nights”.
Ashbrook describes God like any parent who wants to see their child grow. Sometimes they need to “let go” to allow their child to crawl, walk and run. A baby who is held forever will never learn to take care of themselves. Although good for the baby, this can be a very frustrating experience, feeling abandoned by their parents. But through that experience comes learning and growth.
There is growth and learning to be had in our spiritual walks as well. We should never think that we have “arrived,” because there is always more available for us in our relationship with Christ. He wants to take us deeper and bring us closer to Him. But for us to be able to grow, we will have to spend some time in the dark.
Those times are tough. It is difficult to trust in the presence of God when we cannot see Him at work around us. In these times, Ashbrook reminds us, we have two options. We can either give up, counting faith as loss and moving on with “real” life, or we can persevere through the darkness knowing that we will be transformed though it.
“… we who would pursue the union of love with God must be stripped of the weaknesses that cannot tolerate God’s holiness, and be given a transformed heart that will love and trust God fully.” (Mansions of the Heart, p.152)
I don’t know what kind of dark times you have endured, but I would guess that as you look back you will notice how you have grown through that experience, or how you learned to rely on God in a new way. I also don’t know what kind of dark times you and I will have to go through, but it could very well be that God will take us through those times to transform us once again.
I don’t think we should minimize the dark seasons of our lives and all of a sudden see them as wonderful things. They are not. They are hard, painful, tumultuous, troubling, and heartbreaking times. Let’s not let go of the suffering and sorrow we experience. Let’s not offer friends who are going through dark time the cliché answers of “everything happens for a reason” and “this is all for the best.” But we can hold that darkness while at the same time trusting that God is present in that situation. God is working in that circumstance and we can be sure that we will come out of it transformed if we allow God to work in us to change us and draw us closer to Himself. Perhaps it is in that light that we can join in with James as he writes:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
If you feel discouraged, frustrated, empty, or alone in your spiritual walk, don’t be alarmed. It may not get easier right away, but if we trust in God and give the situation over to Him, He can do amazing things. If you feel confused, bored, or empty, don’t give up. All this means is that there is more for you to discover. Don’t be content with your emptiness, but allow that emptiness and darkness to keep you searching. If there is one thing we can know in the dark, it’s that God is not finished with us yet.