Last week, I was on an early morning run in my neighborhood. The streets were quiet and the sun had just risen over the tops of the trees. I was enjoying the cool air, soaking in the silence before a day of homeschool began the moment I stepped foot in my front door.
As I ran, I glanced down and noticed a random puzzle piece in the middle of the street. Just one.
I felt a pull toward the piece, and retraced my steps to run back to pick it up. As I held the piece in my hand, I wondered what the full picture of the completed puzzle pieces looked like. also wondered who had dropped it and how disappointed he or she would be when they discovered it was missing.
And then I thought about how often I feel like that lone puzzle piece in my climb with the Lord.
The reason why climbing is often such hard work because we cannot see the top and we do not know how long it will take us to get there. All we know is that we are going up. All we know we is that what is required of us is the next step when we can’t see the way.
Most of the time when I hike, I climb without being able to see the top of the peak I am trying to summit. I walk without any sort of end view in sight and constantly wonder if I am on the right path. Jason figured out years ago in our marriage, that when we hike, I have to hike with a map in my hand. Have to. I am in constant need of knowing where we are on the path. I don’t know if this strangeness stems from the fact I once became lost on a mountain in Switzerland. I had just graduated from college and was smart enough to know I wanted to spend my last summer of freedom in Europe but dumb enough to put myself in some pretty precarious positions. I set out alone one clear morning in Zermatt, Switzerland, in jeans, tennis shoes, and a light weight fleece (not waterproof) to climb a trail to obtain a beautiful, back view of the Matterhorn. I ignored weather postings about incoming fog and rain, and set off thinking about how blue, sunny skies trumped any gloom and doom weather forecast. Wrong.
About an hour in to my hike, clouds quickly began to roll in and darken the view of the sun. Fog and mist wrapped around my ankles and quick as a wink, I couldn’t see further than the next step in front of me on the path, nor could I see the drop off on the open side of the mountain next to me. I turned around and cautiously began to make my way back down, and what took me one hour to ascend took me over two hours to get back down. By the time I got back to my room, my fingers were frozen stiff, my jeans wet and heavy from the damp weather, and my fleece soaked through. I had to allow at least forty-five minutes go by for my fingers to unthaw enough to untie my shoe laces. I vowed I would never again set out on a hike without being adequately prepared with clothing and equipment and without paying attention to the weather forecast.
I think more time than not, that’s how most of us climb. Ill-prepared. Ignoring weather signs. Alone without needed travel companions. Unprepared with necessary climbing clothing and equipment. We climb tentatively, unable to see anything but the next step in front of us, holding life’s lone puzzle piece in our hands.
Or maybe we are prepared. We climb with the latest gear on our backs, a full pack of water, state of the art shoes, and an up-to-date map in our hands.
But things happen. Puzzles fall apart. Pieces fall out the car door when we aren’t looking. Or sometimes, even, when we are. And when that happens, a dark night of the soul descends. We climb with a sense of dread, wondering if the veil of night will ever lift.
A verse I have learned to pray often when seasons of darkness descend is Song of Songs 4:6: “Until the break of day, when the shadows flee away, I will walk to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.” In other words, when I am walking in the dark, my prayer is that I would continue to walk in the dark. To keep going even when I cannot see the way. Because deep down I know that it’s not that there isn’t anyone climbing with me; it’s just that I cannot see His face.
In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes letters from a senior devil to a junior devil, teaching the junior devil how best to tempt humans and make them fall. In one letter, the senior devil writes this to his junior cohort: “[God] cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble ideas is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, thought faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs – to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with, the better. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our case 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.”
It may not seem like or feel like it, but the times when we walk and cannot feel God’s presence or see God’s face yet continue to walk His path are the times He is wooing us to Himself, strengthening our wills to obey and our hearts to love Him and receive His love in even greater measure than ever before. The challenge is just to continue to walk, to take the next step, when all we are holding in our hands is the one puzzle piece that we can see, separated from the full picture that only God holds.
Take a moment to read the following poem, the fourth poem in our series of six, and answer the questions in the quietness of your own heart or with pen and paper in hand.
Now comes the darkness
Night of all deepest despair.
I cannot see where I am going
I am blind by all my fear.
I stumble, trip, bruised in the darkness
No one here to hold my hand
Loneliness, it presses closer
Paralyzes, from the heart down.
I call to You –
But all seems silent
Where are You, my Lord of Love?
You beckoned me upon this Journey,
Yet on the path, I feel alone.
All at once, I hear the summons,
“Take one more step, you’ll see the way.”
And so in faith-fraught, fearful courage
I step along the ancient way.
And once I step, when fog has lifted,
Now the next step beckons me.
So through the night
I step, and follow,
Faith-filled path of mystery.
- Have you ever experienced a dark night of the soul in the past or are you currently experiencing one now? If so, why do you think the darkness descended and how are you doing on the path?
- In Song of Songs 4:6, the verse I referenced earlier, myrrh in Scripture almost always represents sacrifice and frankincense represents prayer and intercession. Ascension always requires sacrifice. Just think back on the temple sacrifices. Their smoke ascended upwards and was a pleasing fragrance to the Lord. And think back to the sacrifice of Christ. The aroma of His death was pleasing to the Lord, for it ascended heavenward and fulfilled the requirement for our sin. Your sacrifice as you choose to ascend the mountain of the Lord, even in the midst of darkness, will be to strengthen your will and to determine to keep walking, even when you do not feel like it. It will be a commitment to keep in close contact with the Lord, through prayer, through intercession, through staying in His Word, even when you do not feel like doing so or experience the immediate benefits of doing so. But God doesn’t waste anything. Ever. He sees “your will to walk” and is pleased, “even with your stumbles.” If you have stopped walking and stopped communing with the Lord during your dark night of the soul, stop right where you are, repent, choose to look up and out to Him even when you cannot feel Him, and begin to walk His paths again through a commitment to obeying His Word and listening to His Voice, even when you don’t feel like it.
- Psalm 84:10-12 says, “For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord gives grace and glory; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, how blessed is the one who trusts in You!” Humility is never a bad thing; it is always a good thing to be reminded how dependent we are on the Lord, even for our very next step and our next breath. And in our humble places, we remember that the Lord gives grace and glory. He never wastes anything, nor does He withhold anything from those who love and trust Him. Keep walking; keep taking the next step. The dark night will not last forever; the Son will rise with healing in his wings, and when He does, you will experience the blessing of someone who has chosen to trust in Him. Close today with a commitment to trust the Lord as a sun (one who gives light) and a shield (one who gives protection), even when you cannot see the way. And close committing to trust in Him for every good path, every good step, every good way. No good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless.