In darkness, God will meet us. This is the claim of Psalm 139. There is nowhere we can go where God is not; darkness and light are the same to him (Ps. 139:12). What kind of being is God, that darkness does not affect him and light emanates from him? When your life has been one of immense blessing and privilege, it is difficult to grasp what the psalmist states so confidently.
Pause for a moment and attempt to answer these questions for yourself. If you’re able, attempt to write the explanations; the mouth reveals our soul to others, but the pen reveals our soul to ourselves.
Juxtaposed to these passages of God’s omniscience and omnipresence are the famous passages about God’s personal involvement with our identity and destiny. God is described famously by the psalmist as “knitting” us together in our mother’s womb, implying a deep and intimate design that only he could author. This prompts the question: if our identities are uniquely tailored, has God also uniquely tailored our trials and adversity?
These questions are difficult for us western, free, and prosperous Christians to answer. But for many Christians who lack these things, God’s love within their suffering is as evident to them as a mother’s love for her children. Our explanations fall short in because its reasonability is found in experience, not mere argument.
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.
If you enjoy comparative readings, allow me to make a suggestion. Read the following passages together: Psalm 19, 2 Chronicles 33, and Gulag Volume 1 pages 482-83. Here, we see the Psalmist declare his knowledge of the Creator that was gleaned from the heavens. In the Chronicles, we read of Manasseh who, rather than worshiping the Creator to which the heavens declared, set up altars for “all the stars in the sky” (2 Chron. 33:6). In Gulag, we read the story of an astronomer named Nikolai Aleksandrovich Kozyrev who saved himself from insanity in the Gulag “. . . only by thinking of the eternal and infinite: of the order of the Universe—and of its Supreme Spirit; of the stars; of their internal state; and what Time and the passing of Time really are.”
Psalm 139 once again provides a foundation for grasping the significance and overlap of these three passages: “If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be.” Sheol, or the place of the dead, is an appropriate analogate for the Gulag. Nikolai and Manasseh both found God in the darkness.
The Prison and the Soul
Solzhenitsyn, in a way only he can, describes the effects that the prison has on the soul.
“. . .The soul of the lonely prisoner begins to emit, like the halo of a saint. Torn from the hustle-bustle of everyday life in so absolute a degree that even counting the passing minutes puts him intimately in touch with the Universe, the lonely prisoner has to have been purged of every imperfection, of everything that has stirred and troubled him in his former life, that has prevented his muddied waters from settling into transparency. How gratefully his fingers reach out to feel and crumble the lumps of earth in the vegetable garden (but, alas, it is all asphalt). How his head rises of itself toward the Eternal Heavens (but, alas, this is forbidden).”Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1 (p. 483). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.
Is it possible that this is, in some respect, how Manasseh also found the effects of pain and prison life? Solzhenitsyn describes in detail what the scripture summarizes in Manasseh’s story: that prison and pain are cleansers of the soul and a purifier of the mind. Through its fires, the soul begins to ‘radiate’ and recognize that the universe’s true purpose is to reflect the glory of its Creator.
The Lord confronted Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. So the Lord brought against them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria. They seized Manasseh, put hooks in his nose, bound him with bronze chains, and carried him away to Babylon. In his pain Manasseh asked the Lord his God for mercy and truly humbled himself before the God of his ancestors. When he prayed to the Lord, the Lord responded to him and answered favorably his cry for mercy. The Lord brought him back to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh realized that the Lord is the true God.2 Chronicles 33:10-13
Here we see Manasseh crying out for God. Similarly, we see Nikolai crying out for God to help him, of all things, to solve an astrophysics problem. According to Solzhenitsyn, Nikolai “began to discover a new field in physics” but he was not able to continue his work. So he prayed, not to end his suffering, but to solve a problem that God had uniquely gifted him to undertake:
But [Nikolai]’s line of mental exploration was blocked by forgotten figures. He could not build any further—he had to have a lot of figures. Now just where could he get them in his solitary-confinement cell with its overnight kerosene lamp, a cell into which not even a little bird could enter? And the scientist prayed: “Please, God! I have done everything I could. Please help me! Please help me continue!”Ibid. 484.
Before we read further, let us recall the mysterious passage of Psalm 139: darkness and light are the same to God; there is nowhere we can go that he is not; he knows our days and has been intimately involved in our creation.
At this time [Nikolai] was entitled to receive one book every ten days (by then he was alone in the cell). . .Half an hour passed after his prayer; they came to exchange his book; and as usual, without asking anything at all, they pushed a book at him. It was entitled A Course in Astrophysics! Where had it come from? He simply could not imagine such a book in the prison library. Aware of the brief duration of this coincidence, [Nikolai] threw himself on it and began to memorize everything he needed immediately, and everything he might need later on. In all, just two days had passed, and he had eight days left in which to keep his book, when there was an unscheduled inspection by the chief of the prison. His eagle eye noticed immediately. “But you are an astronomer?” “Yes.” “Take this book away from him!” But its mystical arrival had opened the way for his further work, which he then continued in the camp in Norilsk.Ibid. 484.
You may not understand why God made you the way he did. But for all your flaws and beauty, it may be the case that you will not recognize the glory of God manifested in you until he calls you to bear your cross, set your feet among the coals of hell, and in that moment of suffering, share a moment with you and reveal how he not only tailored your soul, he knew the intensity of the fire, and the unique piece of his glory your identity would reflect. But what if I fail?
Does God promise to only show his glory through perfect vessels? No. Those that endure are beautiful and reflect a unique aspect of God’s creative handiwork. But for those who try and fail to endure the fiery trials he has planned for them, God will demonstrate his glory through their redemption — preserving his original creation and accomplishing through your redemption what you could not on your own.
In all these passages, we discover that suffering is a necessary part of becoming what God intends. We are unfamiliar with the pervasiveness of suffering in the west, especially when much of the suffering we are expected to endure is at the hands of other people — Christian and non-Christian alike. These sufferings can range from exile by our family and friends to, God forbid, a Gulag or labor camp; often these sufferings are a direct result from the Christian convictions that ground our moral and political beliefs. But we who know God can trust that in the darkness that covers us, he is there. If we spread our bodies on the floors of hell, he is there. Should we fail, we must remember he can, from our very bones, raise us up and bring new life. In the end, darkness and light are the same to him; our identities were fashioned in love and order; our days are numbered and the trials he has prepared for us are uniquely tailored to reveal his fingerprints on our soul; with a God as mysterious as the I AM, should we be surprised that his fingerprints may only be illuminated in the fires of hell?
May God give us strength to love our neighbors as ourselves, to endure the trials he has prepared for us, to praise him for our unique giftings for the times of today and for the generations of the future. And when we fail, let us not forget that he is a redeemer; his mercy is always there for those who ask. God bless and Happy Thanksgiving.
Amen, brother! Keep up the good work!
David! What an encouragement to see your comment at the end of the work day! God bless you brother, and once again thank you for encouraging me to explore Anglicanism. God bless!
12/1/21 – – response to Daniel – isolation of the Gulog.
The elimination of distractions can come in the ordinary life if or when all hope is smashed or all plans have been destroyed. Thus, an individual is granted the privilege of the emptying of self as all that defined self is stripped from life. This is the time opportunity & when embraced opens up relationship with Jesus that we cannot comprehend before this joyous opportunity.
We see Manasseh stripped of all that defined him. All authority, all pleasures, all personal choice and all acceptance of others was taken from him.
12 The Lord had said to Abram,
– Leave your country: Abram was a rancher & he knew this country where he ran his livestock. Handling livestock is more successful when the rancher knows the places for water & how the springs change with the seasons; when the rancher knows how grass changes during the year so that the animals have the best food for their growth. God says to leave this place where you know how to make a living.
– your people: Abram was asked to leave the people who could help him in his business. These people would be a source of counsel when he was faced with difficult decisions. He was left to himself alone.
– your father’s household: Abram was asked to leave his closed relationships. He was the head of the clan after his dad died. This was status in the family & the community. He was further isolated.
– go to the land I will show you: Your joking, right? Leave everything & go to an unknown place. This further reduced Abram to having no resources of anything on earth.
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
– This is all well and good but the short term is totally unknown.
Gen 12:10 – – Now, there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.
– This is a totally logical choice because Abram did not know this new country & he faced a great reduction of his herds and possibly the complete loss of his animals. Abram would care for the animals as any good rancher.
– Gen. 11:1-4 tells a similar response to the unknown by building a city that they thought would help them stay in contact with each other but the result was being scattered rather than gathered.
– Abram acted in what seemed like the best choice but he was called to the end of himself and the end of all human, earthly wisdom & ability. Luke 14:33 – – any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
– Abram found himself in the best possible situation. The total nothingness of human effort then allowed him to begin learning the unfathomable resources in his God. We should rejoice all the more when we see all of this earth crumbling away for that allows our Lord to step into our lives and he can do the things that we cannot imagine. However, the first step in Abram’s first step into the unknown with no hope or guarantee that anything would work as we conceived our lives. However, submission to the total love and care of our Lord and King allows us to see his work and forget all our thoughts about how we should be living.
– The key, as always, is to know a bit of the love the God that passes understanding for it is that love and the care that emanates from that love that will keep us secure in the darkest of times.
I might recommend books but there are so many. So, each individual has the opportunity to explore the writing of those who have blazed the trail ahead of us.
Standing in the dark but facing forward is one of our greatest opportunities. We have the privilege of having no vision so that we might learn to see Jesus even if all earthly senses fail. It is in that darkness that we learn to really live for life is not measured on this earth, but life is measured by our Lord both in this earthly life and in eternal life.
Possibly light will be discussed later.
Good thoughts. Christians who do not know God’s law or his Son will never find themselves in a situation where they must rely on God. We forget that suffering comes to all persons, but suffering for Christ is often times a willful acceptance of suffering based on our decision to follow him. Great thoughts. Thanks for reading.