Spiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.
Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.
He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).
What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:
With the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.
Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).
The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:
You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.
The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:
O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.
The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.
To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.
Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is). Continue reading
I’ve been co-editing a book for the past year or so that is a guide for an evangelical reading of Christian Spiritual Classics. As a part of our research for this volume, I came across a new book edited by Arthur Holder called Christian Spirituality: The Classics. At first, if I’m honest, I was a bit worried when I saw the title! It was a little too close to our volume for comfort, but when I received the book I realized it was doing the exact opposite of what we are. Holder’s overall goal is to take the ever-growing interest in spiritual classics and provide a reader that covers the great bulk of them. Each chapter is written by a different scholar who follows an outline template, offering helpful continuity throughout the volume. The authors cover thirty texts, starting with Origen and ending with Merton. Each chapter gives a broad look at the author and context, provides an overview of the content, addresses the reception of the text throughout history, and then explores various ways these texts can be meaningful for today.
In an attempt to be broad, I fear that Holder missed some opportunities along the way. One must wonder how Cassian’s Conferences or Institutes fail to make it into a volume like this. Continue reading
I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.
For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9). In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’. However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17). By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31). In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).
I’ve been meaning to put down some thoughts for a while now on IVP’s newer volume Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, but have found it difficult to do so. This volume is last years Wheaton Theology Conference which focused its attention on spiritual formation. There is a lot of good stuff here, but it is a bit random, so I will simply make some highlights. Jeffrey Greenman begins the volume with a look at some of the classic issues in spiritual formation as well as the contemporary challenges. This is a helpful introduction, in many ways, and seeks to, along the lines of McGrath (in his Christian Spirituality) delineate evangelical distinctives. Greeman suggests Bebbington’s quadrilaterial as a way to do so.
Lawrence Cunningham provides a trinitarian read of Catholic spirituality, focusing on the concept of “the way” as a trope for the Christian life. Following Cunningham’s suggestions, Kelly Kapic offers a trinitarian read of Owen’s spirituality, taking time to focus on Owen’s Communion with God. Kapic states,
God in Christ by his Spirit has extended himself to us, drawing us into his loving embrace, into a divine giving and receiving, and this divine movement necessarily has a trinitarian shape. Owen’s premise is fairly simple: we have communion with God, and yet there is no God but the divine persons. All our approaches to God are always approaches to a divine person: this movement does not take us away from God since this is the only way we actually worship him” (102). Continue reading
It has been a LONG time, but continuing our look at Ngien’s volume, we now turn to the meditation on blessings. Luther offers 7 images of evil and 7 images of blessing that are to guide our meditation. The first image is of “internal blessings” which are those blessings the believer possesses within themselves (beauty, strength, intelligence, etc.). These attributes are, as it were, “salted” with “the relics of the cross” in this world. “Evil,” Ngien continues, “is the seasoning necessary to preserve the savor of blessing” (58). The second image is delineated as “the blessing before us.” These are the future blessings in which we can find our comfort. Like Christ therefore, who for the sake of what was before him endured the cross, believers can rest in the blessings which are promised but not yet grasped.
Thirdly, Luther suggests the “blessing behind us.” Since redemption is fundamentally God’s work, truly by grace, the believer can boast in the work that God has done and continues to do. Continue reading