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Have you ever felt abandoned by God? If you have you know it hurts more than any other loss. Why? Because we see God as a secure refuge: as one who loves us even if all others fail. And then even he walks away from us. Nothing and no one is left to be trusted—so our souls are utterly darkened.
This sense of abandonment is not new. In the early modern era it was known as the dark night of the soul. The imagery expressed the heartfelt hopelessness that eclipses the light souls must have in order to navigate the roiled waters of life. It hurts like a fresh burn no balm can ever reach.
Listen, then, to the cry of a man who once felt this abandonment. Then reach out to embrace him in his pain.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The speaker—as most of us instantly realize—was Jesus when he was on the cross in the ninth hour of the darkest of all days. He, above all others, understood the dark night of the soul as he became utterly sinful by taking our sins upon himself. And because he carried our sins his father turned away from him, unwilling to look upon sin. Our death became the Son’s death for our sake. For that he was abandoned, left to swallow death on his own.
Allow me now to step out of the exploration of this darkness in order to ask another question. What should we do when depression hits us and we feel this darkness ourselves? The answers are not easy.
My first and strongest suggestion is that our questions need to be asked before a time of darkness comes. When we’re in a dark night of the soul the noise of the pain is so loud that our hearts find it all but impossible to hear God’s counsel. Now may be a good time to start asking and listening.
A key answer is that God is not the author of evil. He is not the source of our pain. Adam and Eve can be blamed for that. They first followed the serpent’s claim that separation from God and his love is harmless. He lied. And that lie is at the heart of every sin we embrace to this very moment. We experience evil because the world trusts the enemy’s claim that he is trustworthy and God is not. So God gives us over to our preference. Every time we treat God and his ways as optional—so we can ignore and despise him at our own whim—we are embracing Satan. And his ambition is to devour us, drawing us ever deeper into his own black hole of moral darkness.
The unexpected corollary to God’s righteousness is that he allows evil to go forward. And he rules the process. Three Old Testament episodes repeat the point: Joseph’s years of enslavement, Job’s trial, and Habakkuk’s debate with God. In each case God overrules evil—he owns it and uses it for good—and in each case the only question is whether those who suffer are prepared to live by faith. Or whether they recoil from God and come to treat him as evil because of their personal experience of suffering. The challenge God set before Habakkuk was that one can be puffed up, or one can live by faith (2:4). The prophet responds as a man of faith (see 3:16-19) as do a pair of New Testament writers including Paul who cites Habakkuk 2:4 more that once.
The truth is that God never abandons us. Instead the Father sent the Son to enter the black hole of sin and death for us and he came out of it alive. He conquered death once and for all. So the dark night of the soul is not a place where we believers travel by ourselves. We have the Good Shepherd alongside us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with us. And faith is not a function of “seeing” beforehand how things will work out in the end, but of our holding onto Jesus as the pioneer and sustainer of faith. His love is greater than death. And he’s not afraid of the dark.