The Shadow We Cannot Shake

What to Do When Darkness Remains

Some spiritual darkness feels so woven into the fabric of our souls, so enmeshed in our personality and wiring, so deeply rooted and subtle, that escaping it can feel like trying to run from our own shadow. An ingrained and abiding lack of assurance, a distorted relationship with body image or food, the twisting temptations of unwanted desire — such darkness has a way of hounding at the heels.

Perhaps you feel, as I have, like “a man in a shipwreck who sees land and envies the happiness of all those who are there but thinks it is impossible for him to reach the shore,” as Henry Scougal once described the experience (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 108). You see clearly enough what a life free from your darkness would look like, but every attempt to reach that happy shore has left you wave-tossed and battered upon the rocks. So you look wistfully from the deeps, still desiring deliverance, but no longer trying so hard. You settle into a life of treading water.

Some years ago, as this fatalistic spirit began to settle on me, I struck upon a piece of counsel that offered a mighty and needed shake. John Owen (1616–1683), addressing spiritual doubters in particular, writes,

Be not . . . heartless or slothful: up and be doing; attend with diligence to the word of grace; be fervent in prayer, assiduous in the use of all ordinances of the church; in one or other of them, at one time or other, thou wilt meet with Him whom thy soul loveth, and God through Him will speak peace unto thee. (Works of John Owen, 6:614)

“Up and be doing.” Certainly this is not the only counsel the spiritually stuck need to hear (nor is it the only counsel Owen offers). But in my own entrenched struggles, I have found great help from this gentle but firm hand on the shoulder, this kind but resolute look in the eye, this warm but weighty voice telling me I am no prisoner to my past or present and bidding me not to grow weary in seeking God.

‘Up and Be Doing’

Perhaps you read counsel like the above and sigh. “Read the Bible more? Pray more? Go to church more? I’ve already tried all that.” A similar sigh has passed through my own lips more than once. I’ve already asked, sought, and knocked, I’ve thought to myself, but it just hasn’t worked. Eventually, however, my mind drifts back to Scripture’s own examples of long and earnest seeking, and the words “I’ve already tried that” fall limply to the ground.

We could consider the Old Testament refrain to seek the Lord “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29), or the prophets’ resolve, come what may, to “wait for the God of my salvation” (Micah 7:7), or the psalmists’ example of crying out “day and night before you,” even from the deepest, longest darkness (Psalm 88:1). But perhaps the Gospels offer the most powerful call to rise, lift up our heads, and seek God with fresh diligence.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” Jesus tells his disciples. Fewer words hold more promise for those seeking a deliverance as yet ungiven. Fewer too hold more challenge. For when Jesus illustrates the kind of asking, seeking, and knocking he has in mind, he offers the parable of the impudent friend, that noisy midnight knocker who wouldn’t leave without his loaves (Luke 11:5–9). Of the various charges that might be brought against my own prayer life, I fear impudence is rarely one of them.

Meanwhile, the Gospels give us living portraits of the same point: women who break through crowds to touch the hem of his garment (Mark 5:27–28), fathers half-beaten by unbelief who nevertheless carry their sons to Christ (Mark 9:24), mothers who persist in their petitions, undaunted by refusals, until they receive their request (Mark 7:24–30). Such desperate souls asked and sought and knocked — and asked and sought and knocked again — until the gift was given, the treasure found, the handle turned.

Compared to such as these, how much of my own seeking has happened from half a heart, from a split soul, with one foot stepping toward God and one dragging lazily behind?

Draw Near to God

To be sure, Jesus does sometimes surprise his struggling people and, quite apart from our diligent seeking, grant the deliverance we need. Our Christian lives began when he raised us, Lazarus-like, from the tomb — and sometimes, our Christian lives progress when he blesses us unsought, or sought only feebly.

But we have no warrant for presuming he will do so. The spiritual world, like the physical world, has its causes and effects, its means and ends, its principle that “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Neither creation nor Scripture gives us a category for a sanctified sluggard, whose spiritual crop grows without diligent plowing and planting, weeding and watering. Our Spirit-dependent efforts cannot earn God’s blessing — only Christ can — but very often they are the divinely appointed means of experiencing his blessing.

Knowing that God uses our diligence as a means of deliverance, we might ask questions like these when darkness persists:

  • Am I actively killing every known sin, including those that seem unrelated to my main struggle, and by comparison small (Romans 8:13)?
  • Have my prayers for deliverance looked anything like that holy impudence that knocks and knocks again (Luke 11:8)?
  • Do I meditate upon God’s word day and night (Psalm 1:2) — and in particular, am I intimately acquainted with passages that address my struggle?
  • On Sundays, do I listen to sermons and take the Lord’s Supper expectantly, looking to my Lord “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master” (Psalm 123:2)?
  • Have I kept pursuing Christian community, surrounding myself with Spirit-filled people rather than shrinking away into the shadows (Hebrews 10:24–25)?
  • Have I sought specific counsel from wise and trusted saints, inviting them to take a flashlight into the cellar of my soul?

Questions like these make me mindful of God’s mercy, which so often has met my half-hearted seeking with wholehearted kindness. He is a blessed and blessing God, always “ready to forgive” and give more than we ask (Nehemiah 9:17; Ephesians 3:20). Yet as I think about my own persistent struggles, these questions also remind me just how much territory remains to be explored in the promise of James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Seeking from the Depths

We should beware, at this point, of reducing the deepest struggles to a mere matter of trying harder. Nor would I wish to imply that all who have sought some deliverance unsuccessfully have simply not sought earnestly enough. Sometimes, the shore remains out of reach not because we haven’t swum hard enough, but because the sea is long. Jesus promises that those who seek will find; he does not promise they will find immediately. So, in reality, our seeking may last much longer, and our progress may advance much slower, than we hoped.

“Sometimes, the shore remains out of reach not because we haven’t swum hard enough, but because the sea is long.”

Spiritually speaking, we may feel somewhat like the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood, stuck in a place of undesired darkness despite our best efforts. Why did God let her sickness linger for twelve years instead of ten — or two? We don’t know. We do know, however, that in the fields of God’s kingdom, no seed of diligence, buried and watered with patient perseverance, remains fruitless forever (Galatians 6:9). God has never told his people, “Seek me in vain” (Isaiah 45:19). Nor does he show us the happy shore to merely tantalize us in the water. He shows it because it really can be ours — maybe not immediately or all at once, but really.

So, in the midst of long seeking, don’t lose heart. Your God sees you. His ways may soar high above your understanding, but they are never unwise or unkind (Isaiah 55:8–9). And if you go on seeking him, if every time you fall you rise up again and be doing, the sun will sooner drop from the sky than you be put to shame (Isaiah 49:23).

Our Hand on His Hem

Diligent seeking also holds its dangers, of course. And chief among them may be this: as we pray, and read, and gather with God’s people, and hear counsel, we may rely more on these means than on the One who made them. We may hang our hopes for deliverance not upon Christ, but upon all our efforts to seek him, like travelers too focused on the road to see their home.

Here again, a mind immersed in the Gospels may be our best guide. For in all our seeking, we are doing spiritually what so many Gospel characters did physically: getting as close to Jesus as we can, certain that he is our only hope.

“All our best efforts are only the hand on the hem of Christ’s garment, and all the blessing belongs to him.”

Our prayers may rise like Bartimaeus’s cry, but they are not the voice that bids us see. Our Bible reading may kneel us like the leper before Jesus, but it is not the touch that heals us. Our Sunday worship may stretch out an arm like the sick and anguished woman’s, but it is not the power flowing. All our best efforts are only the hand on the hem of Christ’s garment, and all the blessing belongs to him.

But oh, what blessing awaits those who do cry out and keep crying, kneel and keep kneeling, reach and keep reaching. In all our hardest wrestlings, we are not bound to the narrow fences of our own personality, our own power, our own past: we are bound to Christ himself. And in him, the long and desperate darkness can finally begin to lift, and the shipwrecked saint can finally draw near to shore, carried on the waves of his strength.