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 the belief 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.
In the darkness of this place, there’s a strong feeling of abandonment and betrayal by God – especially if the person had sensed and felt God’s love or presence in the past. But then for no apparent reason, God’s presence seems to disappear along with all its benefits. This goes on for so long it forces the question of whether or not His love and presence were real to begin with. Left with only darkness, a person descends into emotional turmoil, doubt, and moments of deep despair.
I think anyone who has legitimately suffered through spiritual darkness would agree 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 anything else. Church-goers often ascribe the sufferer as “backsliding” and offer condemnation or exhortations just to “do better”. 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 level 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 than the son of God?
Lewis’ character 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 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 our perception 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 always 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 believe this is what it really means to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Walking is easy when we can feel God alongside us and assisting us with His presence and love. But if God never lets go of our hands, then our whole perception of faith is going to be based on having His assistance and we will never know what we are capable of without it. Let us never set our own spiritual crutches as the standard for faith and then judge 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 dust, 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.