When The Darkness Closes In

In that moment I wasn’t missing God; I was missing the other pieces.

Of the things I look forward to forgetting when this recession ends, near the top of the list are all the overused phrases that have forced their way into our vernacular. I just turned off the radio after hearing an advertisement from a local landscaper offering a “rain-gutter bailout.”

In the midst of the headline fodder and unimaginative jokes, however, people’s lives are really changing. I should know. One day, I was working in my office like any other; the next day I was packing up my stuff and rethinking my life.

Suddenly I was adrift. I was no longer doing what I had thought I was called to do — what I thought I was best at. What was next? I had no clue.

I started looking for work right away, even the kind of work I had hoped I would never have to do again. The weeks dragged on and the days all began to feel the same. As rejection letters piled up and one college-aged hostess/receptionist/clerk after another said, “We’re out of applications,” frustration and uncertainty began to settle like debris in the stagnant pool known as depression.

Christians Don’t Get Depressed

Do you ever feel like, because you’re a Christian, your pain is unfounded or inexcusable? After all, you’re saved and going to Heaven; what right do you have? Times of struggle, loss or discouragement can be difficult for the Believer because the Believer is so often expected not to experience them.

What do you often get when discouragement comes to the surface? A platitude, maybe. A reminder to “count your blessings.” There’s also the ever-popular rebuke: “You should be serving more,” or “It’s not about you!”

One thing I’ve realized is that I’m always scrambling for answers in pain. It’s not just as simple as why I’m hurting, but what I’m supposed to learn, who I’m supposed to let this pain turn me into, and so on. There’s no shortage of people willing to try for the answer, either. I’ve been that person for others; it’s a power trip.

I’ve heard that pain is God’s way of getting your attention about something you’re not doing for Him. I’ve also heard that if you are not experiencing pain in the form of disappointment, struggle, persecution, etc., you’re probably not really following Christ. “Comfort and satisfaction are big, red warning flags,” is how it was put.

Someone’s always got an answer — there has to be an answer. There are thousands of books that will help you figure out what it is and what you should do about it. And yet the one who seems least interested in answers is God. And that’s saying something, since He has them all.

Ignore it, invalidate it, avoid it, shame it — we’ll do anything with pain other than feel it. We just can’t be OK with the fact that Jesus is Lord but there is still so much pain and doubt in life. And that’s just life.

What It’s Like For Me

Depression affects people in unique ways. In times when I’m hit by something much more potent than “the blues,” it manifests in a sort of social anxiety. I’ll get claustrophobic in a place like a movie theater, a mall — or church. There’s no real reason, no specific dread that occupies my mind; only the same emotion as if there were. I crave nothing but quiet and solitude. The experience is hard to describe, other than to say it can be very uncomfortable and even disheartening.

All that mattered one particular Sunday was that I was in that place again, sitting in church, teetering on the end of my last nerve and not knowing how I got there. I sat in a back corner trying to resist the urge to get up and go home.

The worship service started. There are times when you just don’t want to stand up, to sing, but you should anyway. And there are times when you can’t.

With unintentional opportunism, the worship band began their set with Matt Redman’s Blessed be Your Name. It’s a courageously written song, so easy to sing on the upside of life — and often such a challenge when you find yourself faced with living up to the words.

The verse came up: “Blessed be Your name / on the road marked with suffering / though there’s pain in the offering….”

Like I said, there are times when you simply can’t sing along with the happy hymns. This was one of those days, but I knew this song and I knew this part of the verse was coming. And I knew it was important. My chest got heavy, like my lungs knew I was trying to sing and would not have it. Lost in the overwhelming sound of the magnified music and the hundreds of voices, I managed a weak whisper: “When the darkness closes in, still I will say / Blessed be Your name….”

It’s rare that God gets physical with us. I’ve seen people fall down during prayer, heard them talk about the tingly feelings they get during worship. Some people even believe that whenever they get goosebumps, it’s the Holy Spirit. I’ve tried many times, and so very hard, to get goosebumps from worship. I don’t anymore, because in that dark moment He touched me and it wasn’t anything like any of that.

I felt it inside my chest, in the place that had gotten so cold and heavy when I first thought I wanted to sing the song. In the center of the visceral manifestation of my anxiety and depression came this electric feeling. I don’t want to treat this like a say-the-magic-words type of thing, but as soon as I whispered that line of the song, this feeling appeared. It radiated through my body; it was like emotion and physical sensation completely one.

I’d had this experience one other time. I was fourteen and sick with chicken pox. It was two in the morning and my skin was burning head to toe. I was so exhausted, but in such misery I couldn’t sleep. I prayed to God to make it better, and this singular feeling entered my body. Almost at once I fell asleep.

And here it was again. Good, a little frightening, strange and unmistakable. You can make of it whatever you like, but I felt Him. I felt strongly that He was telling me to remember, to recall His loving touch and all that it means even when it is not so evident. And I felt Him saying thank you, thank you for saying those words.

I didn’t hop to my feet, didn’t sing out loud, didn’t weep. In the midst of feeling God in such a special and intimately familiar way, I was struck by a feeling of needing so much more. This saddened and scared me. I savored this moment, I was so grateful — but my heart still asked, “What now?”

God is Not Enough

I felt on the verge of anathema. You might think I am, reading those words. But despite the fact we repeat the opposite many times over in song every Sunday morning, God is not everything we need — and we each prove it every day.

Every physical need we have can be traced back to the sun. Everything we use, touch and consume ultimately owes its existence to that one bright and constant source. The sun is the source of all life and movement here on earth, but you could not have just the sun and be satisfied. You could not live floating in space with it.

The other day someone told me they believed God was saying to them, “My command is that you need Me and only Me!” I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what I really thought, which was, Good luck with that.

Is that what the Christian life is? To learn to live in a self-containing God-bubble, where we neither need nor want anything but God? That can’t be, because nobody lives that way. And frankly, I don’t think God is so stuck on Himself.

You have to spend time with God, but it’s not like spending time with a human. God can’t give you a hug or break up your routing by taking you out to dinner. You can’t bounce ideas off God and get feedback.

Don’t think that I’m saying God is insufficient to fulfill all our needs. Again, like the sun, He is the ultimate source of all that sustains us. But if we do not receive everything we require straight from the Throne, it’s because He wants it that way. Even when sin had not yet entered the picture, when God made His first human and was in perfect harmony with him, God decided it was not enough.

God didn’t just give Adam God; He gave him a garden full of not only beauty but also purpose. Adam lived to look after God’s creation, to give everything its proper name — and Adam still needed more to be everything God had built him for. In short, Adam needed God and he needed purpose, he needed a future and he needed other people.

In that moment I wasn’t missing God; I was missing the other pieces.

When the Church Fails You

Around the time I lost my job, the small group of guys from church that I met with every week began to gradually break up. A few of the guys were getting married, a couple were switching job situations. Everybody seemed to be moving into a new season, and that led to a decreased interest in and availability for the group. Basically, this left me starting over socially in a large church where I had few acquaintances — on top of losing the connections I had known through my previous job.

I could write a series of articles on Church drama. I have been through numerous congregation splits. I’ve seen adultery, conspiracies and petty parish politics wreck relationships over and over again. I’ve visited churches that preached destructive theology. There are also churches that just don’t bother to minister relationally at all. However, none of this was the case this time.

People say a lot about what’s wrong with the Church these days — I know I do. But at the core, the Church’s biggest problem is that it’s made of people. We are the most unpredictable, imperfect variant you can add to an equation. Even when we’re not being bad, we’re just not in control of life.

Relationships and community can be lost by any number of evil means — but sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. In this instance, everyone was in a season of moving forward, while I was in a season of picking up pieces. Not an ideal time to lose community.

The cycle of relationships is bittersweet; if we are not mindful, the bitter part of that can make us bitter. No matter why seasons change, the hard thing is to choose to believe it’s worth trying again, to refuse to give up on the Church and on people. You have to risk investing and being vulnerable yet again — knowing the cycle will always turn.

Jesus’ Pain

I’ll admit in the darkest moments of depression it is hard to get much consolation from Christian truth. Cynicism and feelings of disillusionment can be a struggle. Sometimes I feel a little envious of people in the Bible. Think what it must have been like for the ones in the Gospel who went straight up to Jesus, waving their arms and begging for mercy — and He fixed their problem with a word. Not quite the experience we have today, is it?

What comfort do we have in Christ, then, if we are separated by so many centuries from his Man? Especially when life has separated from the people who are His hands and feet to us?

In the garden of Gethsemane is a dark and mysterious scene. If you’re not familiar with it, read Matthew 26:36-44 and Luke 22:39-46.

When these passages are taught, the focus is always on Jesus’ end resolution, “not as I will, but as You will.” This is probably the most important lesson to learn here, and it’s certainly the most central to our hope in salvation.

Have you ever stopped just before that, though, and simply meditated on Jesus’ pain? Here is a moment incomparable to any other. Christ, the flawless Lamb of God, opens His anguish to our listening ears.

I do not know all the theological undertones and perspectives on this scene. I don’t know for sure if Jesus was really scared of the physical pain, or feeling crushed beneath the weight of the world’s sin, or not desiring the experience of the Father’s wrath, or any number of things I cannot imagine. It’s more than enough to marvel at: Jesus saying that His sorrow is squeezing the life out of Him; Jesus saying to the Father that He does not want to go down this road.

I don’t think Jesus ever did anything for show, or just to fulfill a prophecy for prophecy’s sake. There is endless contemplative matter in this pure expression of Jesus’ genuine agony. He said “Your will be done,” but He also needed to say the first part because the feeling was real.

I don’t invoke this scene as a comparison to make our pain look small. It’s cold and condescending when people do that. But here is God willing to taste the worst of human pain — not so that He could say He understands — He already could have said that — but so we would know it. We would always have the proof, in this desperate and unfathomable cry from the Son to the Father.

Jesus is with us in every loss, in every anguish. He knew we would have to face it, but He would not stand for us to face it alone. In the worst pain, that is what we need — even more than an answer to whatever question or a healing to whatever wound. One truth has the power to sustain us through everything: God knows, God cares.

Copyright 2009 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Mike Ensley

Mike Ensley writes from his home in Orlando.