This Sunday’s readings teach us a little of what is meant by “the dark night of the soul.”
The first reading, from Isaiah, is short and to the point. “Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my LORD has forgotten me.’” It is no uncommon event to feel like God is absent. In the Bible, this happens on the grand scale. Here, Zion, the temple of the Lord’s presence, at the center of Jerusalem, has been sacked by invading armies. Calamity! In fact, this only points forward to the deeper calamity: Jesus himself will be led to quote almost the same words, from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me!” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34).
But we too feel forsaken. We don’t see God. We don’t see him when our lives seem to overwhelm us, when the world around us is not as it should be, and when the world inside us is not as it should be! We don’t see him even though we try to pray, and love him, and want to see him.
The good news of the Cross is that Jesus has been there. He is not unfamiliar with this situation. The reading from Isaiah concludes with God saying, “I will never forget you.” “Suddenly,” says another prophet, “the Lord shall come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1). He has not abandoned us. He will never abandon us.
Then why does he abandon us? Perhaps Paul offers us an explanation in the reading from First Corinthians. “It is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” God wants us to hold his treasure. First, to love him above all ourselves; second, to preach him, and not ourselves, to others.
Paul has to say, “It does not concern me in the least that I be judged by you or any human tribunal.” But oh, he is judged. He too could feel abandoned. He does his best – “I am not conscious of anything against me” – but others judge him, and attack him, and put him down.
But by these attacks he is purified. “It does not concern me” is precisely the point. He has to learn – we have to learn – to worry about what really matters. To trust in the Lord, and seek him. It is precisely through the Cross that he draws us closer to himself. He says, “what is it that you live for? Physical comfort? Reputation? Self-regard?” If you want those things, pursue them. But if you want God, seek him, and him alone. He is worth the loss of everything.
The closing of our reading from Paul is delightfully double-edged. When, “the Lord comes, he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” On the one hand, Paul is saying, ‘I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what anyone thinks, I just want to be faithful to Jesus.’ He is the only “judge” who counts.
On the other hand, he says, ‘I too, will not judge.’ It isn’t our judgment that matters, it isn’t our place to say how things “ought” to go, or what is going on in other people’s hearts. If we truly love God above all else, we leave it in his hands.
Our dark nights are ways of learning to trust in God, to know that his presence to us, and his goodness to us, are according to his measure, not ours. Sometimes he loves us in ways that we don’t expect – sometimes he loves us with the Cross, or by sacking Jerusalem. We have to learn to accept that love, too, to know that his plan for us is always perfect, his generosity is always better than what we would have planned. He is there even when we are hanging on the Cross.
In other words, as Jesus says in this Sunday’s Gospel, we cannot serve two gods. We have to decide who we live for. And then – the two edges of Paul’s sword – we are willing to lose other things, and we are also willing to accept that God’s ways of loving us are not always according to our measure. His plan is better.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” God will provide. Not the way we expect, and often not as comfortably as we might hope. But more profoundly than our wildest dreams.
The Cross is our salvation. He joins us there to show us that this is not abandonment, this is training.
What are some unexpected ways that God has loved you?