I've been encouraged lately by the stories of people experiencing severe illness and yet overcoming physical limitations to exude joy and evidence connection with God.
Joni Eareckson Tada has been an encouragement to many, many people over the years. She doesn't hide the period of darkness she experienced after the diving accident that left her as a quadriplegic, nor the continued challenges she faces given her disability as well as multiple bouts of breast cancer. The tagline of her "Joni and Friends" website is, "Sharing Hope Through Hardship."
Joni often points to Isaiah 50:10 as a verse that has stayed with her from those beginning days as a quadriplegic and that she now uses to encourage others:
Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God.
It's an interesting verse. As many commentaries point out, darkness in the Bible is usually used to describe evil. The imagery is that of night, where dangerous and mysterious things can happen. However, this verse takes a slightly different take. Sometimes we are in the midst of darkness not due to choice. Sometimes we're just plunged into it.
Our theology is poor if we think that bad things won't happen to us if we're really good and good things will happen to us if we try hard enough to be good. Sometimes it's bad out there. And sometimes it's dark. And sometimes it's bad and dark.
Brene Brown, in The Gifts of Imperfection, writes, "The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It's our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows."
I love how Joni takes encouragement from a verse that openly acknowledges that sometimes things are bad--sometimes we are walking in darkness--and also gives us the secret of the answer: trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon God. As Joni says in her blog post on Isaiah 50 (https://www.joniandfriends.org/isaiah-50/), where she talks about her biographical movie:
You know, my whole point in doing that film was to reach people who feel utterly defeated by their trials. Like me in those early scenes in the Joni movie, they feel overwhelmed by disappointments that totally alter their lives. Even Christians feel that way. And I wanted the Joni movie to convey a message of hope to those who feel hopeless. People for whom depression settles over them like a thick blanket of darkness, and you can’t see any light or any hope or any answer. In the Joni film, it shows those early days when my paralysis left me groping in the dark, unable to see anything from God’s point of view. But it also shows how I was helped by digging deeper into God’s Word. I was especially helped by Isaiah chapter 50, verse 10. Listen to this: “Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” In the Joni movie—for that matter in my own life—I was never able to piece together the puzzle of my suffering in order to make sense of it all. What I did was reach out in the dark with hope and trust, and what do you know? In the dark, I found the hand of God. No answers to my questions, no neatly packaged replies to all my inquiries, no blueprint of a plan or a finished puzzle that made sense, no rather, my hope and trust led to the God of all hope. And He became my light in the darkness.
He becomes our light. This is in contrast to verse 11, where we're told, "But all of you are kindlers of fire lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment."
Yikes! We may think it a small thing to take matters into our own hands, to decide that when you can't trust anything or anyone else, you can at least trust yourself and be your own light. We may think this is far more benign than say, coping through substance use or fits of anger or breaking down in despair. But is it? We may be taken aback by the language describing God's anger, but it's there for emphasis. Walking in the flame of our own fire is definitely a bad idea, and the anger of God is reserved for the things that actively destroy us, and this is one of those things. While it looks like this option gives light, it does the exact opposite.
Brian Bell tells a compelling story (excerpted here: https://www.preceptaustin.org/isaiah-50-commentary) to illustrate Isaiah 50:10-11:
Even believers who fear God and obey His voice can still end up in the darkness of perplexity!...Darkness not of the heart, but of the mind. I picture being in the middle of a pitch-black warehouse. A voice says, “I know this place pretty well, take my arm and I will lead you out, but only do as I say." You have a lighter in your pocket you offer to light the way. The voice emphatically says, “NO, it’s best without the lighter's light!” You don’t understand the voice's sharp rebuke. You find yourself stumbling in the dark, bruising your shins and tripping as you go. Getting more and more frustrated why you can’t use the lighter. When you get to the other side, you find the door. Going outside the building you read, “Caution, Odorless Gas Inside." The lighter would not have been a good light, though it sure seemed it at the time. First thing to do is nothing. This is difficult but sit tight...When you hit spiritual fog do the same thing! Keep your life’s ship anchored, or tied to the dock. Trust in the Lord, wait on Him, and he will give you the light you need, when you need it!
We can probably think of additional real-life examples where taking matters into our own hands in a dangerous situation is what could actually get us killed. The same tips apply spiritually. This is what it means to wait on/trust in the Lord. We don't forge ahead when we can't actually see! We also don't have to wander around in the darkness, ruminating on just how very dark it is while we keep bruising our shins!
It's interesting that Isaiah 50:10 doesn't actually promise us that God hands us the light in the darkness. As Joni says, we may never know the why behind the suffering. This clarity may not be granted to us. And there may be no answer to the what you can do about it. There may be nothing one can do, depending on the particular circumstances. This is a psychologically deflating place to be. But these are the moments when true faith can be exhibited, and this is partly why, as many great minds in Christianity over the centuries have noted, that sometimes we experience darkness. These times are faith builders. Joni Eareckson Tada is not the amazing disability advocate, teacher, and super encourager that she has become without her diving accident. She openly trusts the Lord and points to His light--the graces she displays have their origin in Him.
It's unfortunate that modern American Christianity often takes its cues from the modern American work culture in that we put pressure on ourselves to be supermen and superwomen. We can do it all, and don't need anyone's help to do it, we think. And yet, those of us who are Christians at least give lip service to the adage, "When we are weak, He is strong," based on II Corinthians 12. Verses 9-10 read,
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
This is more than a mere adage. Paul is actually boasting in his weakness! It's hard to imagine this today. How rare is it for Christians to confess weaknesses to one another let alone so-called outsiders? Paul writes about actually delighting in these things. We American Christians do all we can to avoid pain, hardship, and distress. We look back at the monastic communities in the medieval church and their willing embrace of suffering and think that they were unnecessarily masochistic. And perhaps some were, when they lost sight of the whole point being unity with Christ rather than a super-human attempt to attain perfection on their own. But the message that suffering produces growth and is actually necessary for it, is one that many of us have forgotten.
II Corinthians 12:9 is the Bible verse that sits on my fireplace mantle in my living room. At the time I bought it, I was just looking for an option that seemed less trite than some others--the hipster within me just recoils and choosing things that are so typical and exactly like everyone else! And yet, as I considered before clicking on that purchase, I thought how this verse exactly epitomizes what I aspire to, spiritually. I had no idea the kind of year I had in store for me when I placed this verse in our living room. And, yet, it is now one of the most prominently displayed features in that room.
I also remember singing a song based on this verse. In the music group in which I met my husband, we had an all-female quintent sing, "His Grace Is Sufficient." Here is a lovely choir in the Philippines singing it: https://youtu.be/tsMZEvjiBPM I still have the chorus memorized:
And His grace is sufficient for me. And His love is abundant and free. And what joy fills my soul, just to know, just to know. That His grace is sufficient for me.
This is the message of Isaiah 50:10-11. We don't have to know the why. We don't even need the total answer in what we personally need to do. His grace is sufficient, and our main job is to actively trust in His Name--the full character of who He is.