Archive for January, 2012


Finding God in the dark

In a recent book on Mother Teresa titled “Come Be My Light,” we read the private letters and prayers of a godly woman who was deeply aware of her spiritual struggles. She described her feelings of emptiness, loneliness and darkness throughout a significant period in her life. Her spiritual experiences are comparable to that of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic who wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Teresa felt the pain of longing for God while sensing the purging work of God in her soul. It seemed as if God was absent and silent. Yet, this season of purging was somehow a necessary preparation for a deeper union with God.

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them …When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

— Mother Teresa, addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated.

The Psalmists also describe similar laments of a soul crying out to God, longing for a deeper connection and communion with the Holy One. In Psalm 42, for example, we hear soul talk, a spiritual soliloquy: “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” Day and night, the psalmist thirsts and longs for God while others taunt by asking, “Where is your God?” The soul cries out in pain, in suffering, in desolation. Like Mother Teresa, godly believers have been troubled by their feelings of inner loneliness, dry emptiness and heavy darkness. It seems there are seasons in the spiritual journey when our hearts long for a deeper communion with God but somehow God seems distant and silent. It seems during such times, the soul is purged of natural and spiritual imperfections. Our desire to love God for who He is may be affected by our preoccupation with those experiences and desires which God gives.

For most Christians, prayer, worship, solitude and contemplation are valuable spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to God. However, our attention and focus should not be directed towards those disciplines. Instead, we learn to pray by being present to God rather than being more self-conscious of how we pray or the words we use. We learn to wait on God by being silent and still rather than being more concerned with our physical posture or location. Paradoxically, we may also experience a profound purging of our sinful thoughts and inclinations. We sense the immense light of God’s holiness overwhelming our sense of sin and darkness. We feel the weight of God’s glory and goodness overwhelming our infirmities and superficiality. We feel the purging power of God’s love overwhelming our pain and brokenness. Indeed, the more we long for God’s presence, the more we feel the emptiness and inner loneliness within. We are invited to find God in the dark.

Looking back at our family histories, we discover the various sources of influence on our current experience, relationships and identity. Our cultural background, social context, and personal beliefs affect our understanding of what has happened in the past as much as how we respond in the present. Our parents and grandparents, along with our siblings, may have contributed to our sense of worth, belonging and love. But they could also generate family tensions, strife, rivalry, hatred, bitterness, regret, anger and rejection. We may not realize how certain family patterns carried over from past generations might actually shape present relationships and emotional responses.

But is it possible that the negative effects of our family history remain unchanged over several generations? Do we inherit the flaws, failures and frustrations of our forefathers? Are we helpless victims in the vicious cycle of destructive behaviour? Can we overcome the sinful tendencies of our past? Do we underestimate the negative and harmful influence our family of origin might have on our present situation? What can we do to break free from the power of the past in order to live the life of love God intends for us?

Consider the following dimensions and reflect on how they influence your life today:

  1. Money – Is money your most important source of security? Does making money validate your ability or self-worth?
  2. Conflict – Do you avoid conflict at all costs? How do you cope with fighting and anger?
  3. Sex – Is this a taboo subject? Do you hold on to stereotypes about gender and sexuality?
  4. Grief and loss – Do you find it hard to express your feelings of sadness or loss?
  5. Anger – Do you repress angry feelings? Are you able to express anger without hurting others or yourself?
  6. Family – Do you feel totally obligated to your family? Do you find it hard to be honest about what goes on within the family?
  7. Relationships – Do you trust people easily? Are you afraid that people will disappoint you? Are you vulnerable?
  8. Different cultures – Do you only feel safe and comfortable with people of the same culture? Do you hold personal biases or prejudices against people of different cultures?
  9. Success – What are your personal indicators of success? When do you feel a failure?
  10. Feeling and emotions – Do you feel constrained in expressing certain feelings? Do you react emotionally before thinking about it?

As we review our past, especially our family histories, we might discover some deeper issues that continue to affect our sense of self-worth and identity. We may have inherited destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour. Our pain, suffering, and brokenness remind us of our human condition as people in need of God’s grace, mercy and love. Through the power of Jesus Christ and his love for us, we can break free from our past and experience healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Understanding our past and inviting God to deal with our brokenness will set us free to embrace a new sense of emotional wellbeing as well as a new awareness of spiritual vitality. We are invited to release our fears, our past hurts, our regrets and our bitterness to Jesus. There is nothing in our past that cannot be redeemed by Christ and turned into good according to God’s mysterious power and purpose.

As we explore the pathway to a balanced and healthy spirituality, we realize the importance of nurturing emotional health in our life. It is possible to grow emotionally healthy without a personal commitment to Christ. But it is also possible to be zealous about spirituality and remain unaware of one’s social, emotional and psychological deficits. When we integrate emotional health with contemplative spirituality, the disciple of Christ experiences a holistic transformation.

What is emotional health? How do we describe contemplative spirituality? I wish to share an outline of both as presented in Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006:45, 46).

Emotional health is concerned with the following:

  • naming, recognizing, and managing our own feelings
  • identifying with and having active compassion for others
  • initiating and maintaining close and meaningful relationships
  • breaking free from self-destructive patterns
  • being aware of how our past impacts our present
  • developing the capacity to express our thoughts and feelings clearly, both verbally and non-verbally
  • respecting and loving others without having to change them
  • asking for what we need, want, or prefer clearly, directly, and respectfully
  • accurately self-assessing our strengths, limits, and weaknesses and freely sharing them with others
  • learning the capacity to resolve conflict maturely and negotiate solutions that consider the perspectives of others
  • distinguishing and appropriately expressing our sexuality and sensuality
  • grieving well

Contemplative spirituality focuses on spiritual practices and concerns such as:

  • awakening and surrendering to God’s love in any and every situation
  • positioning ourselves to hear God and remember his presence in all we do
  • communing with God, allowing him to indwell fully the depth of our being
  • practicing silence, solitude, and a life of unceasing prayer
  • resting attentively in the presence of God
  • understanding our earthly life as a journey of transformation toward ever-increasing union with God
  • finding the true essence of who we are in God
  • loving others out of a life of love for God
  • developing a balanced, harmonious rhythm of life that enables us to be aware of the sacred in all of life
  • practicing the spiritual disciplines for our life today
  • allowing our Christian lives to be shaped by the rhythms of the Christian calendar rather than the culture
  • living in committed community that passionately loves Jesus above all else

By nurturing emotional health and contemplative spirituality, we will discover the fullness of life that Jesus promised.. We are commanded by Jesus to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength as well as to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Mark 12:28-34). Loving God well, loving others well and loving ourselves well are essential to living the Jesus life.

We enter the new year with mixed feelings. The economic outlook seems shaky and uncertain. Our collective optimism about the past year has been tempered by sombre and cautious sentiments about 2012. The recent baptisms on Christmas Day have certainly inspired us and given a sense of positive excitement about what God is doing in our church community. The fourfold priorities for WVBC in 2012 and beyond serve to direct our energies and resources toward outreach, spiritual formation, community-building and discipling the generations. We have reasons to be positively engaged in 2012.

We need to address the ongoing challenge of becoming an authentic community of disciples who love Jesus and who love one another. What are the traits of a healthy spirituality that will ensure substantive growth in character and compassion? What are the symptoms of an unhealthy spirituality that will erode faith, hope and love? We shall explore these questions over the next eight weeks in our pulpit series: “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.”

I am aware of the frustrations and disappointments associated with superficial Christian living. I am mindful of the times when our souls are dry and our emotions are draining. I am alerted to the struggles of sincere followers of Jesus Christ who experience insecurities, the need for approval, addictions, self-loathing, feelings of failure and depression. I am concerned for those who have given up on the church because they are weary of Christians who are angry, compulsive, defensive, arrogant, opinionated and too busy to care.

Simply having the best intentions to become a good Christian is not enough. Our best efforts and sincere expectations could still leave us in a state of pain, discontentment and perplexing mess. I believe that God reaches deeper into our emotions, memories and spirit so as to transform us in our inner life and person. There are layers of our emotional life that have been impacted by a legacy of past hurts, relational crises and mental anguish. Shame, secrets, lies, betrayals, unresolved needs for love and acceptance, disobedience and unforgiving spirit simmer beneath. I believe we need healing and transformation. But it must begin with an honest realization that emotional health is vital to spiritual wellbeing. We cannot experience spiritual maturity without emotional maturity. I believe the work of divine love and grace in our lives include the work of healing, forgiveness and renewal through the Holy Spirit.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he lists ten symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality. Reflect on the following and allow the Spirit to speak into your heart:

  1. Using God as a way to avoid the difficult areas in my life God wants to change.
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness and fear.
  3. Dying to the wrong things.
  4. Denying the impact of the past on the present.
  5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments.
  6. Doing things for God instead of being with God.
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict and thus avoiding conflict.
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure.
  9. Living without limits and boundaries.
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey and experiences.