We like a God who speaks. A God who is vocal, who gives us butterflies and causes the hair on the back of our necks to stand on end. We love the passion, the goosebumps, the feelings of euphoria during worship or particularly poignant sermons. We love when God’s presence manifests itself, and we seek worship experiences and preachers who give us those feelings. We love the idea of “falling in love with God again.”
What, then, do we do when those feelings don’t come? How do we react when, standing in the middle of a crowded room, hearing proclamations of the nearness of the Spirit, we feel nothing but silence and distance? Who is to blame? Is it our fault? Have I some sin left unresolved; unaccounted for? Has God left us? Was God ever really there?
The questions revolve in ever-tightening, concentric circles. Our spiritual world growing darker by the day. In these moments, we find ourselves coming back to a simple yet damning question: Who are we if we cannot feel God?
From the end of my freshman year of college until I graduated, I didn’t once hear the voice of God, nor did I or feel the Spirit stir. I felt like a fraud. I attended breathless worship “experiences” and prayed countless prayers. I fasted. I read large portions of the Bible. I prayed. I sat in quiet time. I confessed sins to accountability partners. I prayed. I sat in theology classes to satisfy my declared major. I prayed. I preached. I prayed.
I felt nothing. Not a single word or feeling. Not even a light breeze.
If you read my journal pages from those college years, you’ll see page after page filled with pleadings to God. “Help me hear you. Help me know you.” Those words, over time, eventually transitioned to begging. “What have I done, God? Where have I gone wrong? Show me what I did wrong, and I’ll make it right.”
By the end of college I felt confused, lost, and abandoned. While my ministry-major peers talked about spiritual experiences and parsed the finer points of theology in class, I wondered if God was even real. Compounding the confusion were ministerial licensing interviews, where I had to talk about who God was to me. The answer, if I was honest, was, “I don’t know anymore.”
I had been preparing for a life of spiritual service and, all the while, questioning whether the whole thing was a lie. I felt like a fraud because I believed myself to be the only who experienced this darkness. Since I was raised in a denomination that is heavy on revivals and religious experience, I had not been introduced to St. John of the Cross, or Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, or Barbara Brown Taylor. I knew nothing of C.S. Lewis’s doubts (only of his fiction and apologetics), nor did I understand that many Christians experience darkness in this way.
Mother Teresa changed all that.
As a Christmas present during my senior year of college, I received Come Be My Light. In it, we read the private letters of Mother Teresa to her spiritual director. In it, we learn that Mother Teresa, who outwardly exuded spiritual gravity and charisma, was inwardly tormented by spiritual darkness for thirty years. From the moment Mother Teresa began her work in Calcutta, she experienced “such terrible darkness within, as if everything was dead.” After serving the poor, lamenting their passing, and offering dignity to the least loved of humanity, Mother Teresa was met with nothing when she retreated to her time alone with God, and it broke her heart.
Eventually, she found solace in the silence, pledging to “smile at his Hidden Face in the midst of this suffering to the end of my life.” Toward the end of it all, Mother Teresa wrote: “If I ever become a Saint I will surely be one of darkness. I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” Darkness drove Mother Teresa to greater faithfulness.
We live in a church culture that worships the loud, pursues the exciting, and expects God to be bright and vocal. Pastors teach their people to claim the supernatural, to expect the emotional. Spiritual teachers describe God’s movements as majestic, sweeping, and awe-inspiring.
God uses the powerful, but God also uses the mundane. God uses silence to break down our spiritual walls and idols.
It would be wise to remember, though, that God is not restricted to the grandiose. The loud and bright are not God’s only means of participating with us. For every Bible story filled with tongues of fire, we also have stories where God arrives as a quiet whisper in the wind. For every clear encounter on the road to Damascus, we also experience the desolate cry of, “God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yes, God uses the powerful, but God also uses the mundane. God uses silence to break down our spiritual walls and idols. We so often can be tempted to worship the experience more than the one who makes us whole. I love how Mother Teresa’s spiritual director described this process. He said:
With regard to the feeling of loneliness, of abandonment, of not being wanted, of darkness of the soul, it is a state well known by spiritual writers and directors of conscience. This is willed by God in order to attach us to him alone, an antidote to our external activities, and also, like temptation, a way of keeping us humble in the midst of applauses, publicity, praises, appreciation, etc., and success. To feel that we are nothing, that we can do nothing, is the realization of a fact. We know it, we say it, some feel it. That is why stick to God and like the little Bernadette at the end of her last retreat wrote: God alone, God everywhere, God in everybody and in everything, God always.
In the spring of 2008, having completed the journals of Mother Teresa, something within me shifted. Where once I felt isolated and alone—adrift in an ocean, without a guide—I finally found myself with a companion. Someone who struggled with spiritual isolation yet walked in a faith that changed the world. In a world of spiritual giants offering easy answers and mountaintop experiences, Mother Teresa, the Saint of Darkness, became my guide, and my darkness lessened as the years went by—although I’ve never forgotten what I learned during those three dark years.
We are not our experiences. We are God’s beloved. And that is enough.