Where can I go from Your spirit? And where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. –Psalm 139:7-8, NASB
A lot of my ponderings about God in the darkness have come from this verse. And as I finish up my ramblings about this before moving on to something else…it might be wise of me to remind you of the disclaimer I made in Part 1, i.e., that these are reflections, questions and ponderings, not a statement of doctrine or belief. Take it for what it is… 🙂
There are two things that come to mind with this passage. First–the obvious message from these verses is that God is everywhere, that it is impossible to escape His presence. Not that we should ever want to. But it’s important to recognize, I think, that while God is light, He is not just in the light. He is in the darkness, as well. He created both day and night, and made their cycle a permanent fixture “while the earth remains.” (Gen. 8:22) And as Psalm 139 says a few verses later…”darkness and light are alike to You.”
In the previous posts, I’ve thought in particular about the ways we Christians avoid certain things for fear of the darkness, whether it be certain movies, certain kinds of music, certain places, certain themes. We’ll turn off the news because it’s all “bad news”. Some of us have thrown away our televisions to escape bad influences. Maybe we fear the demonic, or maybe we fear defilement…or maybe we’re just trying not to feel “bad” or “down.” Call it what you will…it is the darkness (whatever we consider to be “darkness”) that we are trying to avoid.
But here’s something to consider: God does not avert His gaze when bad things are happening. He sees every sin committed, hears every negative word uttered, sees every atrocity, every tragedy, every form of evil. He sees it all, and does not avoid it. One might ask, “Then why does He not do something about it?” That’s a lifetime question for another post: suffice it for now to say that He does things we know not of…but at the very least, God is present. He does not shrink away from those things we consider defiling or dark, and I personally believe it is His intense love for us that keeps Him among us when we are at our worst.
Does this mean that we should follow suit and fill our eyes and ears and minds with every evil that God sees? Of course not–because we could never bear the burdens God bears. However, I believe there is a difference in motive between legitimately guarding our hearts and simply disengaging from the dark and grotesque because it makes us uncomfortable. One is wisdom, and the other is selfish–and I think we do confuse one for the other. Just as God is present in the darkness…sometimes people need to know we are present, too.
Another thing to consider…one commenter sent me an email referring to the “dark night of the soul”, that place of testing where we feel overwhelmed and alone, and God does not seem to be present, although He is. Space can’t permit me to elaborate here, but I’ve gone through a season like this, and I can usually tell when someone else has, too. It’s something that can only be appreciated when you have gone through it, and it also seems that it is a necessary part of the journey for anyone who genuinely wants more than a surface relationship with Christ. I say this because, if I can be totally honest–I don’t find too many Christians who bear the fruit of this experience. Those who do, will speak of it freely. Those who have not experienced it tend either to talk about some “rough patch” in their lives as though they completely understand–or to avoid the conversation entirely because, again, it makes them uncomfortable. They don’t want to go there. And there are also those who will intellectualize and say that there is no such thing as a “dark night of the soul”, that this is the invention of mystics.
I say all this because it occurs to me that perhaps the dark night of the soul is more voluntary than we realize. If we spend so much time avoiding the darkness, we will do all we can to avoid this season as well. What we might not realize is that God is in that darkness, and as long as we avoid it…we are potentially cheating ourselves of a level of growth and a depth of intimacy with God that we would not know otherwise. We might think we are protecting ourselves by this avoidance of “darkness”, but we might be surprised to discover Whom we are “protecting” ourselves from.
The second thing that comes to mind from these verses is more speculation than anything…
This idea that God is in “Sheol”, if we’re honest, might be a bit of a stumbling block to us. “Sheol” in Hebrew means the underworld, a place of punishment–essentially the Hebrews’ primitive concept of hell. (It doesn’t just mean the place of the dead–there is a definite negative vibe to this word.)
Now, I realize that there are some Christians who either downplay the existence of hell or question its existence entirely. So while I don’t judge those who struggle with this (and consider some of them to be my friends)…I believe that hell does exist, that eternal punishment is a doctrine of Scripture, although I do recognize that Scripture doesn’t give many specifics about what hell is or what it is like. (I wrote a post about this awhile back, if you’re interested.) Just so you understand that what I’m about to speculate on assumes the existence of hell. 🙂
What is a more significant point of discussion for me is not whether hell exists…but the very idea that God is there–that we couldn’t escape God by going there!
This challenges my own pre-conceived ideas about what hell is, because I’ve always pictured hell as a place devoid of the presence of God–a place of eternal separation from Him. To me, that was the whole reason it was such a place of torment. After all…while we live and breathe here on earth, God is here with us, whether we recognize Him or not, whether or not we even believe in Him. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” The very breath in our lungs is evidence of His presence and grace. Even being aware of God, I can’t imagine what it would be like if He weren’t around–how absolutely awful that would be. That is how I’ve pictured hell and torment–an eternity without Him. (I can’t remember if I was ever specifically taught this, but it seems to fit the typical evangelical idea.)
But what if the premise is wrong here? What if the reason for the torment of hell is not because God isn’t there–but because He is there?
In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, He gives us a brief glimpse into the underworld. He describes the rich man finding himself in Hades and in torment, and seeing Lazarus safe in “Abraham’s bosom” across an impassable chasm–able to see him, but not able to get to him.
What if that’s what hell is like–being able to see God, but not able to get to Him? Or what if it’s sort of the opposite–that people in hell actually want to escape the knowledge of God, but cannot do so? Either way–what if this is the source of the eternal torment, the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” Jesus described, is not because of God’s absence, but because of His presence…serving as a constant reminder, either of what you wish you had, or what you wish you could forget?
Again, no conclusions here–just stuff to think about. 🙂
This is (probably) the concluding post for this series; we’ll get on to something else next time. However, it being my blog and all, I reserve the right to change my mind if I come up with something else profound to say about this. 🙂 Meanwhile…links to the previous posts are below. And feel free to discuss and comment about any of this…just be nice. 🙂