Sunday’s Sermon: The Dark Sufferings of our Soul

A question that has come up during my ordination process is what Biblical character I most identify with. When it has been asked, my standard answer has been Jonah. He is the missionary preacher who ran from his calling to proclaim God’s word in Nineveh, which, of course, landed him in the belly of the whale. I identify with Jonah, because I ran from my own calling to preach.

I must be honest with you today. Jonah isn’t who I most identify with. I am more identifiable with Job than I care to admit. I can relate to Job’s deep frustrations and searching for God’s presence, because I have felt similar frustrations searching for God. Like Job, I have suffered while seeking God’s presence.

Where I have struggled is experiencing God’s presence in my fears, especially my self-doubt. This is not doubting my faith in God. Instead, this is a doubting of my own gifts and abilities. My friends and colleagues in ministry have described this as a lack of confidence in the very gifts and talents God has blessed me with. I agree with their assessment. As a result, I have produced a highly critical attitude of my own abilities and self. When I was a journalist, I called this being “my biggest critic.” In reality, it is a distrust of my own self. It is a painful burden that I carry.

For years, I have prayed for God’s presence to be felt in the deepest parts of my struggles and hurt. In many ways, I pray for the same thing Job prayed for. We both desire to feel God’s presence in our moments of pain and suffering.

I believe all of us can relate to this desire. We all have struggles, whether they are emotional, physical or spiritual. Part of our struggles is wondering whether God is present in our pain. Mentally, we know God is there, however in the depths of our soul we doubt. This is a painful feeling of absence from our Lord, which can only exacerbate our struggles.

It can be hard to admit when we struggle and question if God is with us in our pain. Many of us grew up believing you did not discuss your struggles or fears. To do so would be an admission of personal weakness. Some of us perhaps believe questioning if God’s presence is here is evidence that we may not love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Perhaps, we hide our struggles because we believe we are the only ones to have ever felt distant from God in our pain. Many men and women have struggled to feel God’s presence in their struggles. Some of these same people are considered great examples of the Christian faith. For instance, Mother Theresa is an example of someone who struggled with self-doubt and questioning if God was with her. We are certainly not alone.

We have a name for our deep longings and suffering. It is called the dark night of the soul. The dark night of the soul speaks to a deep “perceived absence of God’s comforting presence and lack of satisfaction in spiritual pursuits.” It is the despair we feel when we wonder where God is in our pain. This is painful and deeply hurtful and comes out of feeling that God has ignored our suffering.

This is what Job experienced. He lost everything that gave his life meaning. Job wondered if God abandoned him. His friends believe his pain is because of sin. Job knows better than this. He is a man of deep faith and knows that personal rewards or frustrations are not determined by our faith in Christ. This doesn’t prevent him from struggling with his faith in this time.

This is what it feels like when we suffer. We become like Job. We feel abandoned by God’s presence. We are unable to feel God’s love. It is as if someone has built a wall between us and God. It is a wall that prevents us from feeling God’s living presence.

Each of us have likely felt this spiritual wall in our lives. Have you ever wonder who built that wall? It was us. We built this wall when we act as though there is nothing wrong in our lives or that our relationship with Christ is great, when, in fact, we are struggling with deep hurts and pain. This wall becomes a barrier that allows us to hide from ourselves, from others, and from God. We do this to protect ourselves. Yet, we do not need to do this. We do not have to experience our pain and suffering alone.

We can tear down our spiritual walls that we have built. It begins by admitting that we are suffering and questioning if God is truly present. When we struggle with our faith because of a deep hurt, it is OK to admit this to God and each other. We do not have to hide from our struggles. Admitting them is not an act of weakness. Instead, it is an act of worship and a deep and humbling experience of God’s grace that brings us closer to the Lord.

Like Job, we must be honest with ourselves, with God, and others about our struggles. Job was honest in admitting his struggles and frustrations to himself and his friends. True healing begins to occur when we can name our struggles.

To do this, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable by exposing our struggles to God and others. This isn’t comfortable or natural, but doing so allows our walls to come down. By being vulnerable we allow others into our lives and open ourselves to them. By being vulnerable we allow Christ’s real presence to come and meet with us in our sufferings. It also gives us the freedom and opportunity to deeply express the grief we feel because of our stuffing.

This expression of our grief is called lamenting, which is a deeply emotional act of worship. In our modern times, we have come to believe that worship is limited to singing beautiful songs and speaking wonderful words to the Lord. This is an incomplete view of worship. Worship also includes the expression of our grief and anguish to the Lord, whether it is personal or in a corporate setting.

Examples of lamenting are found throughout the Psalms. Psalm 3 speaks to the pain of having enemies. Psalm 4 seeks relief from our times of distress. Psalm 12 speaks of the pain of community faithlessness. The Psalmists teach us what it means to let go of our frustrations and give them over to the Lord. Our Lord is capable and able to hear our hurts and pain. We were created by God as fully emotional beings, which includes the ability to be frustrated. If God has given us this ability, it means God can handle our hurts, and desires to hear our expressions of anger, frustrations, pain, doubts, and fears.

This morning, this is what we see Job doing. He is crying out to the Lord wondering where God is. He has looked everywhere for God, but cannot find the Lord. Job is frustrated and hurt, but there is something else going on here. Job is deeply in love with the Lord. Simply because he is struggling with his faith does not mean Job stopped loving the Lord. Neither do we when we struggle with our faith because of our pain. Job’s faith is such that he knows that God will hear his pain and frustration. When we struggle, I pray we seek Job-like confidence and know that God will hear our pains.

In expressing our frustrations to the Lord, we take to heart Jesus’ desire for us in Matthew 11:28-30. Jesus says we are to give our struggles over to Him. He is capable of carrying our burdens. It is a deeply cathartic experience of healing when we are able to trust in the Lord and give our burdens over to Christ. It is an act of trusting that the One who suffered for us will be present in our pain. It is also the act of knowing we are not alone. True healing and growth takes place when we trust that Christ is present in our hurts.

Trusting in the Lord is never easy. We want to hang on to our struggles and pain, because we believe by our own efforts will we get better. We are not self-healers. We need Christ’s presence and the church to walk with us in our hurts. Because we are so self-reliant in our pain we must learn to daily give our struggles over to the Lord. Giving our struggles to the Lord is not a one-time act. It is a daily act of admitting, lamenting, and trusting in the God’s presence.

We have a hope in this daily cycle. Our hope is the same hope that Job had. It is the hope that we are never alone in our pain. Job never let go of the promise that God is with him, even though he struggled to feel the Lord’s very presence. He embraces the hope that God will hear his struggles.

I want us to be like Job. I want us to embrace our struggles, to call out our grief, and to trust in the Lord’s presence. In doing so, I believe we will follow in Mother Theresa’s footsteps. She never allowed her doubts to hinder her. They strengthened her. Through her struggles, she served the people of Calcutta, India.

Our struggles do not have to be kept in the dark in ways that prevent us from experiencing a deep walk with Christ. They can be an engine of spiritual transformation. Our struggles can be used by God in mighty ways to bring us deeper in our relationship with Christ and to them spread our trusting in God’s presence in our pain to all people, so that they may experience that same sense of healing and grace in their own life.

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