Your Darkness Is Not Dark to Him

When my daughter Eliana was 6 years old, I wrote her a lullaby that included these words:

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me.

These four lines are packed with profound meaning for me. I rarely can sing them without tears. They refer to an extended season of what Christians call spiritual darkness, or a dark night of the soul, or a faith crisis, which I experienced the year before Eliana was born.

Since I told this story in some detail a number of years ago, I won’t recount it all here. I do, however, want to recount the moment God brought light into my night, because it was a transformational moment when I experienced the biblical truth David describes in Psalm 139:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:11–12)

I say it was a transformational moment, not merely because light pierced my darkness, but because it drove home David’s poetic point: that just because “the light about [us] be night” and we, for various reasons, lose sight of God, it does not mean the Light is gone. In this moment, I experienced that God really is faithful to keep his promise to be with us when we walk through the valley of deep darkness (Psalm 23:4) — whether we perceive him or not.

Though the Night Falls

One spring day in 1997, for reasons too complex and distracting to describe now, God, who had been the Sun of my world since my youth, suddenly became eclipsed in the sky of my spiritual sight. I couldn’t perceive him at all. Existential darkness covered me; the light about me was night (Psalm 139:11). And my faith was in a full-fledged crisis.

This terrifying experience was foreign to me. But as I desperately ransacked the Bible and books searching for answers, it quickly became clear that this experience wasn’t foreign to saints in Scripture.

In one sense, this should have been clear to me prior to this crisis, given how often I had read the descriptions of dark nights like mine in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and so on. But in another sense, it’s understandable why it wasn’t. When we haven’t personally experienced such disorienting blackouts (and the disturbing doubts that typically accompany them), it’s almost impossible to imagine what “darkness without any light” is really like (Lamentations 3:2).

Now, I found myself walking through a “valley of deep darkness” (Psalm 23:4). I found myself praying with Heman the Ezrahite, “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (Psalm 88:6). I found myself crying out with David in desperation,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)

And I found myself wondering what incomprehensible darkness covered Jesus when he made this desperate cry.

“God sometimes ordains dismayingly dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes.”

The Holy Spirit used my darkness to illuminate for me the Bible’s clear witness that, for various and deeply good reasons, God sometimes ordains dismaying dark nights of the soul to descend on his children for redemptive purposes. And God had provided these scriptural witnesses to help people like me “not be surprised at the fiery trial . . . as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Their experiences gave me a frame of reference as I sought to navigate my way in the dark.

And We Cannot See

Navigation, in fact, became a helpful metaphor to me during this time. To explain what I mean, let’s look at David’s description of spiritual darkness with more context:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
     Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
     If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
     and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
     and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
     and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
     the night is bright as the day,
     for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7–12)

In beautiful poetry, David says that it doesn’t matter where he goes — whether to the dwelling of God or the dwelling of the dead, whether to the place where the sun rises or where it sets — God is there with him. And if we widen the lens to include Psalm 139:1–6, we’d hear David say God isn’t merely with him, but God fully knows him. God is acquainted with all of David’s ways, even his thoughts. When David is in such a dark place that God seems absent, God is fully present with him and fully cognizant of him. For there is no such thing as darkness to God.

‘Various Trials’ Theological Seminary

Why was David able to make such profound theological assertions? Because he received his theological education in the seminary of “various trials” (James 1:2), where his courses were “many dangers, toils, and snares” — and spiritual darkness. He practiced theology as if his life depended on it.

So, when David exulted in God’s continual knowing and guiding presence, even when deep darkness descended, he wasn’t waxing poetic over some romantic ideal; he was speaking of a reality he had experienced. Hard-won experience had taught him to navigate life by trusting God’s reliable promises, not his unreliable perceptions and emotions — especially in the darkness.

I remember when the thought “fly by the instruments” hit me while trying to figure out how to navigate my stormy darkness. When pilots fly planes into dense, dark clouds, they lose all points of perceptual reference. Their normally reliable perceptions suddenly can’t be trusted anymore, since they can feel like they’re flying horizontal and straight when they’re actually spiraling gradually toward the ground. Survival in this situation depends on trusting what the plane’s navigational instruments tell them over what their perceptions and emotions tell them. They must fly by the instruments.

That’s what David learned in the realm of faith — and so must we. One of the hardest and most valuable lessons we learn during our stormy, cloudy, spiritual nights is to trust what the instruments of God’s promises tell us over what our perceptions and emotions tell us. Such seasons force us to exercise faith. Which is why so many faithful biblical saints learned to “walk by faith and not by sight” during seasons of great desperation (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Why We Long for Light

As necessary and valuable as it is for us to learn to trust God in the dark — that he’s with us and fully knows us when we cannot see — we still deeply and rightly desire to experience that truth. We long for God to “lighten [our] darkness” (Psalm 18:28) because “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We long for light because we long for God.

“We long for light because we long for God.”

And so, on Saturday, August 23, 1997, while alone in the house, I threw myself on the living-room floor and pleaded with God (again) for light and deliverance. I prayed something very specific: “Lord, if you just somehow whisper to me that you’re still there, and I’m your son, and this whole dark season is something you’re allowing for your good purposes, I think I can endure anything. All I need is for you to whisper to me that I’m your son!”

And God answered. He answered in such way that all the attempts my inner skeptic has made to explain it as something other than an answered prayer seem so improbable as to be incredible. (If you’d like to know specifically how, I describe it here; in short, God spoke not through an audible whisper but through a friend directing me, unaware, to a specific passage of Scripture.) And when God answered, he brought light into my night. In his light I again saw light (Psalm 36:9).

Then, quite unexpectedly, one more aspect to this story occurred, which only made it harder to explain away.

When the Time Is Right

Several months after these events, my wife and I joyfully discovered we were expecting our second child. When we found out we were expecting a girl, we began searching for the right name. We ended up choosing Eliana, which in Hebrew means my God answers. We chose it as a memorial to that moment of answered prayer.

Eliana was born on Saturday, August 22, 1998. The day after her birth, I got to thinking, “It was somewhere around this time last year that God answered my prayer.” So, I got out my journal and realized Eliana had been born exactly 365 days after that answered prayer, on the corresponding Saturday one year later. A shiver of awe passed through me, and grateful praise filled my mouth.

God had been faithful, not only to his promise to cause “light [to] dawn in [my] darkness” (Psalm 112:4), but also to his promise to be fully and attentively present in my darkness, even when I couldn’t perceive him. And that’s why, even 25 years later, it brings me to tears almost every time I sing,

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And though the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light when the time’s right for you and me.