When we begin to despair in life — about marriage, or lost loved ones, or sickness, or work, or ministry — darkness falls like a fog.
Spiritually, we struggle to make sense of our surroundings. The eyes of our heart squint, searching for even a fragment of the light of Christ. In those days (or weeks, or years), we will be tempted to try and dispel the darkness — to alleviate the discomfort of waiting on God — by lighting our life a thousand other ways. Instead of navigating the deeper darkness by patiently following the voice of God, we will look for a torch of our own making.
Isaiah warned a despondent and wandering Israel against walking by theirs: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11). God’s warning is clear: if we walk by the light of our own torches when darkness falls, we will eventually be burned by them.
Torches We Bear
Years ago, I experienced an especially dark season when I fell back into sexual sin after years of defeating temptation. The fall cost me greatly, and it (graciously) landed me in a desperation I had not known before. The bitterness of those days was a kindness that led me to enduring repentance, vigilance, and purity. But the days were often bitter and dark. I tasted the consequences of my own sinfulness, especially how it hurt the ones I loved. I often had a hard time looking God (or anyone else) in the face.
I was tempted to despair. What if I never win this war? What if these relationships never heal? What if I forfeit future ministry? What if I fall again? In moments like these, Satan interrogates us with all the wrong questions, trying to drown out God’s voice with daunting fears and doubts. Whether the darkness is self-inflicted, like mine was, or falls outside of our control, like it often does, the descent of darkness can simultaneously leave us more desperate than ever and yet deaf to God — the savior, helper, and counselor we need when the lights go out. So, instead of relying on him and his word, we often learn to cope, to crawl through the darkness on our own.
How do you soothe yourself in the throes of the unbearable? Maybe you medicate with distraction, defaulting to simple and superficial pleasures that keep your mind from the darker realities you face. You watch, or eat, or shop, whatever it takes not to feel, even for a few seconds. Maybe you prefer to wallow in self-pity, experiencing comfort only when you obsess over your pain. Instead of building a tower of Babel, you carve out a canyon to try and hide from reality. Maybe you take your despair out on others, turning the broken shards of glass in your heart into weapons. If you see someone else suffer, you don’t feel so alone anymore. It feels like justice — or at least equality.
We’re not proud of the torches we light. They not only expose the quiet idolatries we cultivate, but they also uncover just how unprepared we are for trials. They illumine our besetting sins and our weaknesses. And, as Isaiah warns, they damn us if we depend on them. We’re ashamed of them, but we trust them, at least when we’re desperate.
Bleakness in Life
Why do we abandon God in the darkness? When life does not go the way we expect or want, we can be tempted to become bitter (or at least suspicious) toward God. When life turns for the better, we may run gladly into his sovereign, all-knowing arms. But when life turns for the worse, the same infinite power and wisdom may seem suddenly dangerous, careless, aloof. He is absolutely and completely sovereign, so isn’t he ultimately to blame? The thought can leave us looking for a match to strike.
When God’s people begin to resent how he rules, grumbling, complaining, and falling into despondency, he responds, “Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer?” (Isaiah 50:2). I warned you, and I was patient with you. Where were you when I called? Their distress is not owing in any way to God’s neglect. No. “For your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isaiah 50:1). The bleakness of life is owing to the blackness of sin, often our own. Not to any wrong in God.
When life gets hard, God does not want us to begrudge his plan; he wants us to bank on his love. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:1–2). God is able to save us from whatever we face. He wants to carry our anxieties because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:6–7).
His ear is not closed to us. His heart is not dull toward us. Yet we refuse to have him, because the darkness in us and around us has hidden him from us.
Walk (Not) by Sight
As the crowds closed their ears to the Lord’s invitations and warning, lighting up their God-despising torches, Isaiah says a listener arose from among the deaf — a servant strong enough to suffer injustice and compassionate enough to care for and sustain the weak.
While so many, disillusioned by despair, covered their ears and resented their own Lord in their hearts, this servant boldly says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4). While others were striking matches, he followed his ear, through pitch-black darkness, to the words of life. When he could not see the light, he listened for it instead.
Then he says in the next verse, “The Lord God has opened my ear” (Isaiah 50:5). In the darkest hour, God did it for the Lord’s servant. In a far darker hour, he did the same and more for Christ (John 17:8). If you can hear his voice in your dark hours, it’s because he has done it (Matthew 11:15). He has opened the ears of your heart. Do not despise his voice; do not reach for a torch of your own making. No, let this extraordinary hour of darkness teach you how to walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Walk by Another Light
If we walk by the light of our own torches, we will be burned. How, then, do we persevere in our darkness of desperation? Isaiah lights the other path. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10). Trust him, rely on him, listen to him. Toss aside the torches you’re tempted to trust in, and walk by the light of his voice — the voice we hear only in his word. Repent, believe, and take the next step.
If you can hear his voice, he has awakened your ears to hear. And among all that he says to you, he promises, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2). No matter how dark it gets, I will be with you. “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you” (Isaiah 41:10).
And when we sit in darkness, surrounded by obstacles and enemies, and even our own failures, we can say, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8). When we’re laid low and made desperate, tempted even to despair, he will be all the light we need.