In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a novice demon, Wormwood, is pleased to report that his assigned human, or “patient”, has fallen into a spiritual trough. Being a new and rather inexperienced tempter, Wormwood feels quite victorious that his patient can no longer see or feel God and is subsequently struggling with his faith. Wormwood gloats over this victory to his uncle, a more experienced tempter. However, despite Wormwood’s achievement in producing spiritual doubt, he is warned that sometimes these spiritual troughs produce an even stronger faith than before.
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Right off the bat, this deconstructs an assumption within the church that I have encountered all too often; namely, that faith can be measured by any particular emotion, desire, sense, or feeling. In reality, the whole idea of spiritual “troughs” paints the picture of someone who no longer sees, feels, or even desires God’s will at all. This person does not even hear or see God anymore. That’s what spiritual darkness is. And there’s a strong sense of abandonment that goes along with it, which is usually accompanied by a strong sense of betrayal – especially if the person has sensed and felt God’s love or presence in the past. But then for no apparent reason, it all suddenly disappears and everything that feels and looks of God in the world is completely gone, often for an agonizingly long period of time, forcing the question of whether or not it was even real to begin with. Left with only darkness, this person is sent (quite understandably, I’d say) reeling into emotional turmoil, doubt, and even moments of deep despair.
I think anyone who has legitimately suffered through spiritual darkness would agree that these elements are the very things that define such a state. Some may call it a “dark night of the soul,” where all light seems to have vanished from the world and there is no positive feeling connected with… well…anything. Emotions are tortured, or just plain dead, and there is no visible hope in God or in anything else. Some lofty church-goers may wrongly ascertain this to be a “falling away from faith”, “backsliding”, or any other catch phrase. Others may shame you, judge you, or simply avoid you altogether because your feelings and questions about life make them uncomfortable. You are challenging their own basic perceptions of God and the world. But I would argue that in those cases it is their own lack of faith, insecurity, or just plain ignorance that leads them to such conclusions. Often enough, those people would not have the strength to endure such trials or darkness anyways. In my opinion, those people would do well to stay silent and learn from those who are given a lot of suffering that would break a weaker person. Even Jesus, who lived in Heaven for all eternity before coming to earth, asked of his own father, “why have you forsaken me?” Do we really think we should suffer less?
Secondly, this statement presupposes that the crux of faith is not in our ability to sense God or, perhaps more importantly, to even believe that He is still with us. The person who God has left, quite understandably, “…asks why he has been forsaken…” God can, and often does, choose to withdraw his presence from a suffering person – not because He does not love that person any longer or because that person did anything wrong – but because God chooses not to hold their hand anymore. The person is forced to learn to walk alone and in so doing, must determine exactly how true his faith really is. In fact, this whole statement (and the chapter, if you read it) presupposes that the crux of faith is on two things which have absolutely nothing at all to do with feelings, sight, or the presence of God. It has to do with something that remains within our power and control at all times, despite our spiritual or emotional state; and that is our own free-will. Our choice to obey despite whatever it is we happen to perceive.
We cannot choose to see invisible things, nor can we choose to feel particular feelings. We may see and feel nothing but abandonment from God and subsequently, the overwhelming sense of loss that brings. But we still have choice. We can still intend to do His will, even if we no longer see or feel him and that, I believe, is the crux of faith. Feelings, or the lack thereof, have no sway over whether or not we will obey God’s will. And that, I have to say, provides a stronger and more solid sense of power than anything a particular emotion or sense of presence can bring.
I guess what I’m really trying to say, is that walking by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) is still easy when we can feel God alongside us. But if God never lets go of our hands, then our whole perception of faith is going to be based on having that assistance. Let us never set our own crutches as the standard for such faith, becoming boastful and judgmental of those who are walking without them. For those who neither see nor feel God, especially for prolonged periods of time where life continually beats them to smithereens, and yet their will and intent is still set on obedience….they are experiencing a faith stronger and deeper than most will ever know.
I pray that my heart and compassions are always bent towards those who are stumbling along in the dark. They are developing a superhero kind of faith as they learn to walk alone.