The Darkness of God

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
– Wendell Berry

There is a place in the heart of God so bright it feels dark. As the sun blinds you when you gaze into its light, so it is with the radiance of God. When you look at the Son, everything goes dark. When you turn your face away, Son-spots cloud your vision. Whether you turn towards or away, everything looks different. And as you journey closer and closer to the light, you lose your very self in the brightness—the darkness—of God.

It’s a place of disorientation—thick swathes of darkness swirl past you, pulling at your feet, wrapping and entangling your limbs shade by shade. There is an uneasiness here, knowing there is no way out of this place, but further, deeper into darkness.

Eventually, the darkness seeps into your soul, emptying you out. It’s a place of purification—you go looking for tolerable light in other places, other people, other things, but the comfort they offer is cold and dim, sharpening the edge of despair, carving out the walls of emptiness a little deeper and a little wider.

It’s a place of loneliness—though others can point the way, no one can come with you. This is a solo journey into the heart of God.

Finally you realize you cannot suppress the emptiness any longer. By now the darkness has seeped into your bloodstream; your veins threaten to tear you apart from the inside out. Surrender is your last option.

So you stop running and you stop hiding and you dive headfirst into the darkness as wave after wave pummels you from the outside and your cells split with grief on the inside. You sink deep into the emptiness, let it swallow you whole, and there, beneath the surface, all goes still.

This is the silence of the grave. This is the darkness of transformation.

This is where your pupils constrict and your vision begins to adjust.

You peer into the depths of your heart and the emptiness remains, but it’s unrecognizable: it looks different, it feels different, it weighs different. No longer does this emptiness reek of despair; this emptiness is fragrant with hope and desire. This emptiness quietly trusts that it will be filled.

*

Perhaps this language sounds strange and uncomfortable. I’ll admit—it seems heretical to speak of the darkness of God when we know that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), but there are passages in Scripture where God purposefully leads his people into darkness, where the glory of God causes blindness.

Take Paul, for example, who was literally blinded by a bright light on the road to Damascus. By the time the scales fell off his eyes and he regained his sight, he had been so deeply transformed that his zeal to persecute Christians inverted into a zeal to preach the gospel. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God hid him in the cleft of a rock and covered him so he would not see the face of God, or else he would die. Even so, Moses’ face shone, unbeknownst to himself, with the glory of God when he descended the mountain. Although God blinded him temporarily for his own protection, the light still had a visible effect on him.

Even further, Isaiah describes the experience known as the Dark Night of the Soul, permitted, perhaps even initiated, by God Himself: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys his servant? If you are walking in darkness, without a ray of light, trust in the LORD and rely on your God” (Isaiah 50:10). Here we see that a person who walks in perfect fear and obedience may still encounter darkness, situations where the presence and the light of God fade. There is no option but to walk in blind faith, trusting that what was true in the light continues to be true in darkness.

To sum up, the darkness of God—or, perhaps more accurately, the blindness that ensues from looking into the light—is a grace. This blindness protects us from the holiness of God that would destroy us. This darkness is a place of transformation, where we learn trust and object permanence, that God is good even in darkness, that God remains present even when we cannot see or feel him. Somehow, in the darkness, we are purified in ways we do not recognize even though the radiance is evident on our faces. Somehow, we become what we behold: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

*

For a very long time I was lost in the darkness of God. Despite knowing the facts—he was with me, he was not angry with me, his love for me was steadfast and true—the darkness hemmed me in on all sides. I held on to a promise that seemed like impossibility: “I will win her back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there” (Hosea 2:14). I knew God had led me purposefully into darkness with intentions of love, but this was no courtship filled with roses and promises and extravagant declarations of love.

For months, every cell within me resisted the darkness. Slowly it worked its way through me, hollowing me out. The old rhythms—Scripture and prayer and worship and relationship and rest—lost their substance. Sunlight felt cold; conversation circled the same shadowy topics; weariness saturated me through and through. I wandered through my days like a ghost, caught between worlds. Hours stretched long, while seasons changed with a blink of my eyes.

Finally, I surrendered. Now my eyes are gradually adjusting to the light surrounding me; what seemed hazy, ominous, and uncertain is beginning to take shape. The edges are sharpening, the details are coming into focus, and I am beginning to see that the darkness washing over me wave after wave was always his love drawing me deeper.

And, within me, deep within, a true transformation is taking place. The emptiness that sought to destroy me is being transfigured into a vast, cavernous desire for the one I have seen only in shadows and glimpses. Long ago, he set eternity in my heart, and I feel eternity swelling within me, pushing out the walls of my heart.

And the truth settles deep: he led me into darkness to answer the prayer I prayed long ago: to become one with him, to be filled with the fullness of him.

Yes, the darkness is lightening, but a thick, shadowy haze remains: what does it mean, look like, feel like for my one physical being to become one with the infinite, eternal, holy God, to carry the fullness of him? This is only the beginning–there are deeper layers of purification, more intricate mystery here, further shades of darkness to press through, but now at least I comprehend the cry of my cells.

But most beautiful of all: there is hope here.

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