A long time ago, a guy who loved Jesus named St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” I don’t know much about St. John, and I’m not crazy about the poem, but several months ago, my counselor sent me an email article with this quote:
“The Dark Night of the Soul, as John conceived it, is actually an inner state that may or may not have anything to do with external circumstances. It is an experience of being stripped of all the spiritual feelings and concepts with which we are accustomed to propping up our inner lives. It is a plunge into the abyss of radical unknowingness. This spiritual crisis, John assures us, is a cause for celebration, because it is only when we get out of our own way that God can take over and fill us with love. But it’s a grueling process to come to this level of surrender, and few of us go willingly.”
She sent me this article, I think, because she recognized in me the theme of what this “Dark Night” represents. The phrase in that quote, “an experience of being stripped of all the spiritual feelings and concepts with which we are accustomed to propping up our inner lives,” just slammed me in the face. That’s it, I thought, the whole infrastructure of who I thought God was, and what I believed about Him, has all come crashing down.” You see, I’d built in my mind how God did things, how I related to Him, and how He related to me. I didn’t know I’d done that, but we probably all do it to some extent. I think it must be a necessary kind of reaction to the incomprehensibility of the infinite: we have to cushion ourselves with some religion.
The death of a child understandably causes a crisis of faith in many people, but I’ve noticed not in all people. Many bereaved parents I know personally or know of through their writing definitely have felt all the emotions that accompany grief, along with feeling angry toward or abandoned by God. But some also felt Jesus’ presence in the room with their dying child, or proclaimed Job’s “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” or experienced peace that passes understanding in the darkest moment of their lives. I’ve heard parents say as simply a matter of fact about their journey, “I was never angry with God.” These people have inspired me to know that faith can survive hellish nightmares. I think these people may be stronger than me, or perhaps their original faith was “propped up” with sterner stuff than mine.
But we’re all different. I admire those people, but I am not like them in this particular facet of the grief journey. For me, my faith was knocked over, stripped bare, swept away in a tidal wave of disbelief, disappointment, and rage.
So what was left?
Do you remember the best of all 80’s movies, The Neverending Story? Shame on you if the answer is no. At the end, when “The Nothing” has swept away all of the land of Fantasia, the Empress (yes, I’ve seen this movie too many times), is with Bastian in the dark and she opens her hand to show him one glowing grain of sand. “This is all that’s left of Fantasia,” she tells him. But the good news, she says, is that when Bastian makes wishes on this tiny grain of sand, Fantasia can return and become more beautiful than ever.
My inner life, my spiritual walk with the Lord, was not just “propped up” before Elliot died. It was beautifully built and ornate, a land of beauty with spires and towers and clear streams and stunning skies. I had never felt such a sense of God’s personal closeness to me: his care, involvement, plan, and power. Even the very moment I awoke from my short nap to return to Elliot’s NICU room, I remember peace permeating every pore of my being. It was as if Satan waited for the moment when I was the most beautiful to disfigure me.
Because then I walked down that corridor, full of life and anticipation and hope, and the clearest, purest faith I’ve ever felt. They said they were working on Elliot. And I did not fear; I believed. And then I saw his numbers drop. And still I did not fear; I believed. And then the doctor said there was nothing they could do. STILL, I didn’t fear; I held on to belief in what I thought God had said. And then I laid my hands on my son and prayed in Jesus’ name for God to heal him, completely convinced God would do just that.
And then he died.
And just like that, the things that had held up that pristine, innocent faith, just collapsed. I feel like I don’t have adequate words to describe it. My baby was gone. My world was gone. My faith was gone.
Or was it?
There’s been a discovery of my own grain of sand, and it started off subtly. It began one day in September when I was texting some friends who were checking in on me. I tried unsuccessfully (because it’s TEXTING!) to share my heart. Their responses were not quite what I wanted or thought I needed. This is no criticism of my friends; I believe I have quite possibly the most perfect mix of friends anyone could ask for. But I realized that no matter what my friends said, how they loved me, what they did for me, it would never be enough. I needed a friend who could be with me CONSTANTLY, caring for me RELENTLESSLY, and listening to me ENDLESSLY.
Oh. No human being exists who can fill that role.
Ah, I thought upward, it’s you, isn’t it, Jesus?
So that was the day I knew I had to allow Him in again. I wasn’t going to survive this nightmare alone.
But…how did I do it now? You know, how would I do the stuff Christians are supposed to do when my own Fantasia had been demolished? All the inner workings of how I did spiritual things had been knocked over. Phrases like “soak in the Lord” and “press into prayer” and “spend time in the Word” felt vague and untouchable. The questions in my Bible study book seemed to be written in gibberish. When I attempted to sing along at church, my throat would close up. Closing my eyes to pray felt like I was just pretending.
My routine for years had been to sit with my Bible and my journal and alternate between what I was reading or studying in the Bible with talking to Jesus through my prayer journal. It was a process I enjoyed and helped me to grow in the knowledge of and love of the Lord.
Now, however, sitting with my journal and Bible simply felt like two stacks of paper laughing at me. I couldn’t hear God much from the pages of of my Bible; I couldn’t say much to Him in the pages of my journal. Really, it was kind of like coming face to face with “The Nothing.” I felt completely abandoned by God, my own dark night of the soul.
After 21 years of being a follower of Jesus, really? There was nothing? I felt a little like Paul in 2 Corinthians 11, when he makes a point by boasting of his religious deeds. It felt a little crazy that, after all the times I’ve read the Bible cover to cover, all the in-depth Bible study and Bible memorization, Christian college, mission work, the worship songs I’ve written, the short stories I’ve created about Biblical characters, the conversations with Jesus, the conversations with others about Jesus…with all these experiences in my history, I was now at a complete loss.
I tried to read and study the Bible like I used to, and got nothing.
I tried to write in my prayer journal, but I had nothing.
I tried to play my guitar and sing, but there was nothing.
It was very discouraging. Finally, I was ready to be comforted by the Lord and seek Him in the darkest days of my life, and all my religious go-to’s were coming up completely empty.
One day in November, I think, I just sat on the floor of my closet and cried out to Him, “I have NOTHING to bring you! NOTHING to say! NOTHING to pray! I have NOTHING!” I realized that my spirit was just so, so bereft of, well, anything. The word “poverty” came to mind. I felt so, so poor inside.
Poor in spirit.
That famous phrase from Jesus’ sermon on the mount stuck out in my mind. Is this what it could mean? Probably not coincidentally, I had begun reading all the red words in the gospels (a.k.a., the words of Christ). So many people have so many opinions and interpretations of the Bible, but I felt like I needed to rediscover what Jesus has to say. So there I was, reading some of his very first recorded words:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:2.
Jesus’ next statement broke me.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:3.
For the first time, my little grain of sand lit up. For the first time since Elliot died, I felt like Jesus was near.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Why are these two statements back to back in Jesus’ famous speech? Is it, maybe, because we who mourn are so, so poor in our spirits? That we need to be reminded that there is a BETTER kingdom coming, a heavenly kingdom of which we are still a part even when we have literally nothing to bring to our King? Is it because in this poverty of spirit and season of mourning, we need the comfort of the only friend who can see us at all times?
In 2 Corinthians, Paul finally made the point in his crazy-talk that all the things he could boast about counted for nothing. That really his weakness was more worth boasting about, because that’s when Christ’s strength could fill him.
I think I’m beginning to catch a glimpse of that.
I still don’t have much to “bring” to God. Many days I am so sad, confused, angry, and just miss Elliot with a desperation I didn’t know was possible. But I have a new awareness that bringing my Nothing to Jesus is enough. He doesn’t ask me to be more or do more or have more. I’ve realized I can’t generate any more. Only He can fill me with faith, hope, and love.
My little grain of sand is growing. It’s not like it was, but it never will be again. I think maybe something more pure will remain, free from the performance and religion I was so sure I didn’t prop myself up with. I did. I can start to see that the wrecking of my heart and inner spiritual life, or the shattering of my mirror in an analogy I’ve used before, might leave room for a beautiful rebuilding.
At this point, though, I must reiterate something possibly controversial which I’ve alluded to in other articles. I think there is a misinterpretation that could arise while I talk this way about my faith being rebuilt into something new. I don’t want to indicate that I believe God caused (or planned or willed) Elliot’s death so that this could happen.
When Elliot first died, it felt just like God himself had come down from heaven to play a trick on me, that He cared nothing for me, that He cared nothing for Elliot, or perhaps that He didn’t exist at all. These were lies. But then those lies gave way to other lies that said God wanted Elliot to die just to test me and make me more like Jesus. Like the price of my spiritual growth was my precious son’s life.
Um, that’s not a very comforting thought. Thankfully, those lies are also beginning to be dispelled by truth.
I do not believe God allowed my son to die in order to make me more spiritual or refine me. If those effects do occur, it will show God’s power despite this tragedy, not that God had to cause a tragedy to show His power. Just because God can make something beautiful from ashes, or fix a shattered mirror, or rebuild a demolished city, it doesn’t mean he started the fire or smashed the glass or bombed the city.
Recently I’ve read a book called Is God To Blame? by Gregory Boyd. Much to my relief, Boyd reiterated what I already felt to be true: just because God is all-powerful, it doesn’t mean He does all things or intercedes in all tragedies. I thought He was going to save Elliot’s life. He didn’t. But He did give Elliot life. I had the privilege of being pregnant for 30 weeks, for touching and seeing my son alive for 5 days, for gazing on his beauty for many hours after he died. I don’t know why God didn’t save him. I will always have a big problem with this. But, I don’t believe God planned or willed for him to die. Sadly, there’s a strange theology lurking about which indicates God does will some babies to die. Oh, people would never say it that way, but the theology seeps out in phrases (particularly in reference to infant loss or miscarriage) like, “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “We don’t understand God’s plan” or “God always answers prayers, just not always in the way we want” or “We know it was God’s will.” Death, from the very beginning, was not God’s desire or will for his children. So why would it be His “will” for this to happen to Elliot? For my beautiful son to suffocate to death?
I don’t believe it was His will. He allowed it, and I don’t know why, but that’s a far cry from Him “willing” it to happen. Believing that God mourns with me is necessary for me to move forward. It is one of the other things that lights up my grain of sand, and I can only believe He mourns with me when I release Him from blame for causing Elliot’s death. This isn’t easy to do, but I’m working on it.
And this puts a little more perspective on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5. Perhaps this is another reason Jesus is close to the poor in spirit, the mourners, the broken-hearted: because His heart is also broken. Perhaps he cried out along with me the moment my baby boy died. When chatting with friends about this very topic, Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death has come up several times. Jesus knew he was just about to raise his friend from the dead, and he still wept. Commentators across the ages have speculated as to why this was, and surely there were many reasons. But there is a reason that is the clearest to me: Jesus Christ came to give life, and therefore he hates death.
Who knows how my grief and faith journey, which are very intertwined, will progress from here. I still have so many doubts and questions. “Normal” Christian routines like listening to WAY-FM in the car or church-going or even reading the Bible or praying still feel foreign.Sometimes I do those things and sometimes I don’t, but when I do, there is much that is different in how I do them. My impoverished spirit is very quiet before the Lord now because, like I said, I truly have nothing to bring. This is isn’t me being humble; it’s just how it is.
Somehow in the depths of being so poor inside, I have found the glimmer of hope I was needing. Hope for comfort. Hope for the kingdom of Heaven, and the day when death will never again invade our families or lives. Hope that light will dawn upon this dark night, and that, when it does, I will see Jesus more clearly than I ever did before.