Triumph In The Night
TRIUMPH IN THE NIGHT
When you think of a true saint, perhaps the name Mother Teresa would come to mind. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work with the poor in Kolkata, India. She died in 1997. Just recently, Pope Francis approved her for Catholic Sainthood. Now, in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition, we believe that every believer is a “saint,” but in practice, I think many of would say that there are some Christians that are more saintly than others.
When the skeptical world claims that we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, many would point to Mother Teresa as an example of someone who talked the talk and walked the walk. But as Time Magazine reported in a 2007 article, in letters released after her death, Mother Teresa confessed to not feeling God’s presence for over fifty years. Even when she received the Nobel Prize, Mother Teresa struggled with these doubts. Less than three months before she received the Nobel Prize, she wrote to Reverend Michael Van Der Peet, a confidant and friend, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me–The silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear.” Admired by all the world, in secret Mother Teresa suffered for over 50 years from what St. John of The Cross called, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
“And Lead Us Not into Temptation but deliver us from Evil.”
How many times have we prayed this prayer and the rest of the Lord’s Prayer without thinking? How many times have we prayed this prayer as an empty recitation, without understanding, which is the exact thing Jesus taught against? I don’t know what you have thought listening to these sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, but for my part, my studies on this prayer have convicted, inspired, challenged, and disturbed me. They have called me to a deeper waters of faith. I’ve been hanging out in the shallow end because at least there I can feel the bottom. But the Lord’s Prayer calls us to the deep end of faith, to a spiritual awakening. And yes, sometimes this awakening can feel like a death, sometimes we lack the eyes to see, so we struggle in the darkness. My heart hurts when I hear Mother Teresa’s struggles, because they are my own, they are those of anyone who chooses to walk the road of faith. But I think what Jesus tells us in the Lord’s Prayer is that we can triumph in the night. As the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 declares, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Today I want us to understand 1. What the time of trial looks like. 2. How our belief in God influences how we behave in our time of trial. 3. How we overcome during the time of trial.
When reading this part of the Lord’s Prayer, one might ask, if we pray that God not lead us into temptation, are we suggesting that God can tempt people? Apparently, the author of the book of James, who was familiar with Jesus’ teachings, heard this question before, because in James 1: 13 he declares, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” But as you may recall from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew tells us that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Devil ( Matthew 4:1). The Greek term “tempted” can either be translated as “trial” or “temptation,” and is translated differently throughout the Scriptures. Indeed, perhaps it is a matter of intention. God’s intention versus the Devil’s intention. God is all powerful, we believe, and the Scripture is clear there is an evil personal presence known as Satan or the Evil One. Sometimes God allows Satan to attack us, as in the book of Job, for reasons we don’t understand, or perhaps because we have strayed from God’s purposes. God’s intent is for good, the Devil’s for evil.
Even Jesus knew the absence of His Father when He cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” This is a quote of Psalm 22. So in a strange way, even in His darkest hour, Jesus is quoting scripture, He is affirming His calling while crying out in pain. Not even the Son of God was immune to the Dark Night of the Soul.
This is because while God is good, God is also free. We cannot control Him. Just because we can’t feel God’s presence doesn’t mean God is not present. This theological truth doesn’t make the experience any less painful. Why would God put us through such a time? St. John of the Cross, a monk of the 16th century, theorized that the silence was a purifying silence freeing us from exterior results, the importance of our works and accomplishments, and of interior results loving our experience of God over God Himself (Foster, 21).
Richard Foster, author of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, the book that we will be studying in Sunday school starting next week, argues that this time of trial or testing also has the added purpose of revealing the state of our heart. Foster gives the example of Judas, who we are told stole from the common purse. Judas had issues with money. And in time, God brought that to light. In Foster’s words, when we pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” we are effectively praying, “Lord, may there be nothing in me that will force you to put me to the test in order to reveal what is in my heart.” When we are going through this time of trial, even if we never know the reason, as Job shows us, as the Psalms show us, anger, lament, crying out honestly to the Lord, sighs too deep for words – these are all valid forms of prayer. God does not want us to put on a happy face for everyone, nor does He want us to make a big deal out of our ordeal and wallow in our sorrow. He simply wants us to be honest with Him. It is through honesty in prayer that we can work through lament and complaint and get to thanksgiving and praise.
How we conduct ourselves during our Dark Night of the Soul is largely dependent upon our second point, what we believe about God, because prayer is essentially about our relationship with God. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, defines prayer as “a personal communicative response to the knowledge of God.” The Scriptures tell us that we are all made in the image of God and all of creation testifies to God’s glory. So to some extent, every human being has an innate desire to reach beyond ourselves and pray. But the Bible also tells us that how we pray is largely determined by our knowledge of God. Not every way of knowing God is equal and not every way of praying is equally effective. Keller argues that Christian theologians have tended to have two views of prayer. Catholic theologians have tended to see the purpose of prayer as to promote a mystical union, to promote communion with God (Keller, 2). Thus we can see how Mother Teresa’s lack of experience of union with God can cause her to question her faith. But many Protestant theologians have seen prayer as a means to pray for God’s will, the coming of God’s Kingdom, having little to do with experience. It is more an exercise of our intellect and our will to will God’s will.
Keller argues that there isn’t a reason to choose. He argues that if we read the Psalms, we get a real sense of experiencing God’s presence while also lamenting the lack of God’s Kingdom. This is what Keller would call a prophetic mysticism. We welcome both experience and truth. The Truth of God’s Word allows us to properly interpret our experience. It is this understanding of Spirit and Truth that allows us to endure and even triumph in the Dark Night of the Soul. If we base our theology of God completely off the book of Job, as many do when they suffer, then we might come to see God as arbitrary and unconcerned with our needs, even though at the end of the book God rebukes Job’s friends for persecuting him and restores Job’s fortunes. We must acknowledge the mystery of God, but we must also believe that Jesus reveals the Father to us, and the Father He reveals is one who wishes to give us good gifts, especially the Holy Spirit. Job never learned why he was being tried and he did not know the full character of the God who spoke to him in the whirlwind. But Jesus tells us the character of that very same God. As He says in the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, God is not like a judge who will not hear our requests till we batter Him down with our pestering. In the words of the parable, “will not God give justice to his elect who cry to him day and night?” This is a rhetorical question, the answer being yes, yes, God will give justice. As Psalm 30 declares, mourning may last the night, but hope comes with the morning.
The New Testament gives us the example of a man who triumphed in his time of trial and an example of one who failed, that being Jesus and Peter. Some may argue that Jesus was God and this is how He overcame temptation. But the letter to the Hebrews is clear, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” Jesus conquered his trial as a man. Even when He was forsaken, He quoted Psalm 22, which ends with God’s servant being vindicated. Even upon the cross, Jesus did not give in to the time of trial.
Peter, on the other hand, was a different story. All his pious language, zealous feelings, and good intentions could not save him. Indeed, Jesus saw it coming. As Jesus tells Simon Peter in Luke 22:31, “Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again strengthen your brothers.” By that time, Jesus saw that it was inevitable that Peter would deny Him publicly. Peter was unprepared for what was to come despite his best intentions. But Christ knew that there was something in Peter that could be saved from the shame of failure. The same weakness that made Simon stubborn could be transformed to make him faithful. And as the book of Acts shows us, when faced with trial again, Peter did not falter but stood firm. For his previous trial had revealed to him his weakness. It had revealed to him where he needed grace.
Could Peter have not denied Jesus? It seems at the point that Jesus spoke these words there was little choice. Indeed, the idea that at any point we are free to rationally choose between good and evil just is not the Bible’s view of free will. We are subject to what Martin Luther might call the bondage of the will. Due to the sin within us, the weight of our choices, we come to a point where the “path of escape” as Paul talks about becomes less and less clear till we are handed over to our sin, as Paul puts it in the book of Romans. We have all come to that trial of our character where we have failed. Looking back, we think we could have done differently. But if we are honest with ourselves, often we fail because we were simply unprepared.
How was Jesus able to triumph as a man and Peter wasn’t? And how was Peter able to overcome trial the next time it came around? How was a man who denied Jesus in the darkness of the night able to triumph later on when he faced trial?
First, we must make prayer and spiritual disciplines a regular part of our Christian walk. As Richard Foster put it, “you can’t learn to pray all the time till you pray sometime.” The Gospel’s record before Jesus performed miracles, before He made major decisions, before He entered the trial, He prayed. No one expects that a soldier will automatically know what to do in a battle. Basic training lasts for 10-16 weeks depending upon what branch you are applying for. Special Forces training can last for up to 19 weeks. Mother Teresa shows us that faith without works is dead. But she also shows us that works without faith is deadening to our Spirit. Big failures in our lives never occur in isolation. They are usually the result of little choices. Choices we make without even thinking. We don’t think about it because we are busy. We don’t think about it because we don’t set aside time to study, pray, fast, fellowship, and all the other spiritual disciplines that make up the Christian life.
Second, I think we must see worry not as a sin but as an affliction. I am a worrier by nature and I have such shame about that because I know the Scriptures tell me not to worry. As Antony Lee Ash points out in his book Pray Always, Jesus had anxiety in the Garden, but He did not sin. As Ash points out, worry is like a rocking chair, it takes a lot of time but it never gets you anywhere (Ash, 126). If worry is a sin, it is something we can repent of. But if worry is an affliction, it is not something we repent of but something we pray through. We do this by giving thanks in difficult circumstances. We do this by remembering the work of the Lord in our lives and asking the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts and give us peace. I have come to see that controlling our tongues, being slow to speak, as the book of James advises, goes a long way to lessening anxiety. I am a verbal processor by nature. I need to talk to people to work through things. But I have learned that few things are so urgent that they can’t wait a couple of hours, perhaps a day or two, for me to calm down, for me to pray and have peace. I won’t claim to have God’s guide for living a righteous life. I just know the Scriptures tell us that when we are following God’s will, we will often have peace in our spirits. It is a dangerous path to make decisions in anger or agony.
Finally, I would say from Scripture and experience, the Lord has taught me that is important to be the same person you are in secret as you are in public. This is why Jesus often recommends that we go to our prayer closet and pray in secret. Scripture tells us there is power when two or three people gather to agree with prayer, but Scripture also tells us that God is present in a different way in solitude than He is to us when people are watching. This is particularly important for spiritual leaders like myself. The Scriptures tell us that we are all sinners. But the Scriptures also tell us that leaders of the flock are held to a higher standard (James 3:1).
But how in the world are we spiritual leaders to live a life of integrity? If Mother Teresa can’t do it doesn’t seem to give much hope for the rest of us. Just this morning I was in a time of trial. I have often spoken of night terrors that come upon me where an Evil force comes to mock me. I cry out in Jesus name. I can’t say I particularly won the battle this time. But when I awoke on the radio was the story of Helen Keller. You may remember her as the deaf and blind child who learned how to sign in the play Miracle Worker. What you may not know is that Helen grew up to be a woman who advocated for the rights of the blind and the disabled. What you may not know is that she could tell people apart simply by shaking their hands. What you may not know is that she startled people with her calm and her presence. What you may not know is that she had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Cut off from the world she was forced to seek him in the secret place. And she found him. To quote Helen from her book Light in my Darkness, “I know that life is given us so that we may grow in love. And I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence.”
It is possible to live a life of integrity in the darkness. It starts with falling to our knees. This isn’t Tim Keller tells of the 17th century English theologian John Owen’s warning to young and ambitious ministers like myself,
“A minster may fill his pews, his communion role, the mouths of the public, but what the minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”
My prayer for us, my people, at the start of this New Year, is that we shall triumph in the night. And if we should fall, if we should falter as the tempter sifts us like wheat, my prayer is that may we return, to strength each other.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.