A friend gave a talk recently on the wonderful theme of light: the very thing we are so grateful for and which we associate closely with God. We constantly pray for the Lord to shine more light into our own and other peoples’ lives, and pray for more light concerning the things we are seeking to understand and to accomplish. Any reference to darkness inclines us to assume we must pray against it, because we inwardly associate it with feeling distant from God – separated from Him, even. The Lord has been giving me some reflections from Scripture on a very different kind of darkness, however, which I hope you will find interesting and helpful; one might even say ‘illuminating!’
Hebrew has two words for darkness, and the nuances of each are very different. First comes choshek, which, as we would expect, indicates the complete absence of light. It is the spiritual equivalent of the night hours of darkness – and the plight of those who live ‘without hope and without God in the world.’ (Eph. 2:12) When Isaiah spoke of the people who walked in darkness before they saw a great light, the Hebrew word ba·ḥō·šeḵ speaks of misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow and wickedness. (Strong’s 2822) Paul urges us, as children of the light, to steer well clear of the fruitless deeds of such darkness in Ephesians 5:8-11.
There is another word for darkness, however, which appears initially to be equally as uncompromising and unhelpful, and that is araphel, (Strong’s 6205) which refers to thick heavy clouds. But whereas we associate dark clouds with storms and gloom and danger, which we hope will pass as soon as possible, closer inspection reveals something surprising, that God is often shown to be present in the araphel – ‘the thick darkness where God was,’ as Exodus 20:21 puts it, and out of which He appears speaks. (Deut. 5:22-23)
For much of the time, we see through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it. The medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing encourages us not to be deterred by this, but to press on through the darkness to where God is. Why do we find it so hard to lay down all our own perceptions and understanding, and truly trust that God knows? It is good to be silent sometimes in ther face of things that puzzle, bewilder or annoy and anger us in order to allow that which is most necessary, and indeed, most beautiful, to emerge from the depths of the darkness – albeit that most of us find that highly challenging when the pressure is on!
For those of us who are early risers, there is something deeply comforting about the night hours. They are a time of seclusion from the busyness and pursuits of the day, a time when we can, as it were, wrap ourselves prayerfully in the Lord. But I am speaking here primarily of times when we find ourselves immersed in, or facing times of much more challenging ‘darkness.’
During our years in Chester, Ros and I spent time with Alex Buchanan, a greatly anointed prophet-pastor much used of God. Alex was a man who knew what it was to suffer and to persevere; during the Second World War, as he was undergoing an operation, a bomb fell which caused the surgeon to jump, and his knife to permanently alter Alex’s facial appearance. In addition, his wife suffered from greatly debilitating MS.
As if that were not enough, the couple experienced considerable spiritual flak as a result of their deeply significant and influential work for the Kingdom of God. I remember this mighty man of faith confiding to me that they spent much of their life ‘deep in the valley’ rather than on mystical heights, and he came up with a delightful – and telling! – 11th commandment that reflected their need to persevere through times of thick darkness: ‘Thou shalt bash on!’
Truly, our God is the Lord who ‘leads the blind by ways they have not known, and guides them along unfamiliar paths, turning the darkness into light before them and making the rough places smooth.’ (Is. 42:16) Let’s have a closer look at examples of God appearing out of the araphel in Scripture. It may help to shape our perspectives concerning some of the darkness that we see around us, and go through personally, and to sharpen our discernment as to whether we are called to pray for light to break through, or to persevere through seeming darkness.
In Exodus 19:9 the Lord had told Moses that He was going to come to him in the cloud and thick darkness. It was ‘out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness’ that the Lord delivered His ten commandments. (Ex. 20:21)
Then, in 2 Samuel 22:10 when the Lord tore open the heavens and came down, we read that ‘dark clouds and thick darkness were under his feet.’ Picking up on this, Solomon reminds people that the Lord has declared that ‘He would dwell in thick darkness.’ (1 Kings 8:12).
Psalm 97 begins with the tremendous declaration that the Lord reigns. The next verse, however, tells us not only that ‘righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne,’ but also that ‘ Clouds and thick darkness surround Him.’ Again, this is not what we are used to associating with the presence of the Lord.
Even when a voice sounded from Heaven at the baptism of Jesus, as the Lord God spoke to His Son, His words were perfectly clear to Jesus, but were heard by most of the bystanders as a confused noise, or perhaps thunder. (John 12:28-30) May we have ears to hear and pick up on what the Lord is saying in and out of the darkness!
The fact is that there are many things we can learn, and victories of faith that can only be won through times of adversity ‘in the valley of the shadow,’ rather than in easier times. ‘Soaking and sunbathing’ in the Lord’s presence is utterly delightful, and can enable us to recharge our batteries to the point where we become more receptive to His love and leading, but it is often when we are going through times of great pressure in one form or another that we lean in at the deepest levels to seek Him still more zealously. It is helpful to remember that children do much of their growing by night; it is often so for us on a spiritual plane too.
I love the idiom the RSV and the NRSV employ in translating Isaiah 45:7: ‘I [the Lord] make weal and create woe.’ The language is memorable, but the theology deeply challenging. (Most modern versions adopt some such rendering as, ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.’)
Challenging too are the apostles’ reminders to ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter trials of many kinds’ (Jas. 1:2), and to ‘rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Rom. 5:3-4) Or when Jesus tells us that we are ‘blessed when people hate you, and when they exclude you from their company, and reproach, revile and insult you, and spurn and slander your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.’ Thus have they treated so very many of God’s finest prophets. (Lk. 6:22-23)
Truly, God’s measuring scales are not like ours. He who looks not on appearances but the heart, sees and weighs things quite differently. Even when all the terrible events described in the book of Revelation take place on Earth, Heaven responds and resounds in worship. Jesus’ victory is complete, and God’s power and purposes can no more falter than His goodness, no matter what the chaos on Earth.
In Psalm 139:12, the Lord reassures us that ‘even the darkness’ (the absence of light that the other Hebrew word for darkness, choshek, indicates) ‘will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.’ (Psalm 139:12) So it is that Amos can implore us to ‘Seek the One who fashions the Pleiades and Orion, who turns the deep darkness into morning, who darkens day into night, who calls out to the waters of the sea, pouring them out onto the surface of the earth – the LORD is His name. (Amos 5:8 ISV)
Jesus’ warning that we will have trouble in this world is matched by His assertion that there will be many difficulties during the ‘birth pangs’ that lead up to His return – including terrible earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions, not to mention wars and famines. He reassures us that He has ‘overcome the world,’ but warns that anyone who loves their life too much will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Heaven’s priorities and perspectives are very different from our own! (John 16:33, Luke 21:11, John 12:25)
May this reflection on what the Bible has to say about God being in a certain kind of darkness help us to make more sense of some of the things that we go through ourselves, as well as to identify more fully with others who are going through particular forms of ‘darkness.’
I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who went through a period of prolonged darkness after the accident that left her paralysed from the neck down. But wen we think of how the Lord has used her to minister to many thousands of people through Joni as a result of what she has endured! May her example, and that of so many like her, spur us on to trust and seek God in the darkness, and go beyond the instinctive assumption that we should be asking Him to lift and remove every trace of it immediately.
Praise God for the many robust, thirsty, questing and prayerful souls across the world who are pressing in to seek God, and who are willing to move beyond inspiring and uplifting times of blessing-worship to enter and embrace the seemingly ‘dark side’ of God. Their prayers scatter the darkness of spiritual ignorance and shine His light toward people and situations that desperately require His saving touch and intervention.
As an example of just one amongst a myriad of such faithful souls, I was reminded afresh of the example of Praying Hyde, whose profound intercession for India at the start of the twentieth century must surely lie at the base of so much that God is doing in that vast nation today. May the Lord develop such resilience and God-seeking in us.
In light resplendent
Much has been made in recent times of the fact that we are only able to see 0.0035% of the full electric magnetic spectrum with our physical senses. I love the thought of all the Lord must be doing on the 99.9965% of the spectrum, at the infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and other levels quite beyond our comprehension. There are colours we have not seen, and there is glorious worship and music that we have not heard. But the Lord hears His angels and the morning stars singing together (Job 38:7), and He sees all the light and all the colours and so so much more. Never a moment goes by in which He is not celebrated in light and sound.
We cannot reproduce that which can only be experienced in Heaven, but may this powerful extended time of singing in the Spirit that Carol led some years ago enable us to draw near to that light, and to have courage as we make our way through the times of darkness, and turn those times of weeping into the springs until each of us appears before God in glory. (Psalm 84:6-7)