The Virtue of Vulnerability in an Age of Sentimentalism, Stoicism and Cynicism

To Love is to be Vulnerable

Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their parents would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making them upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of what she really felt. She found it hard to be transparent and vulnerable.

Ryan, by contrast, came from a peaceful family, where everyone had an almost limitless ability to get along. If ever problems arose, Ryan’s parents encouraged everyone to just forgive and do something fun together (playing board games and going on bike rides were among their favorite activities). If Ryan ever got into a fight with his siblings, his parents typically responded by distracting everyone with something positive. As an adult, Ryan was very good at peace-keeping but had little skills when it came to peace-making. If any of his friends or family struggled with difficult emotions, he tried to side-step the issue, smoothing everything over with something positive.

When Ryan was twenty-three, he met Claire after she started attending the Bible church where he was worship leader. Claire was immediately attracted to Ryan, and found his happy-go-lucky personality incredibly stabilizing.

Now fast-forward eleven years down the road. Ryan and Claire have a good marriage, five lovely children and they rarely get into arguments. However, when conflict does arise, neither of them know how to deal with it, and the modus operandi for both of them is to quickly diffuse tension by saying what they think the other wants to hear. This worked well until their lives started getting more complicated.

After the birth of their third child, Claire experienced very bad postpartum depression. From there things got even more challenging as two of their boys, Stephen and Jess, showed signs of developmental disorders. Claire pulled Stephen and Jess out of school and began teaching them herself, a process that was both rewarding and incredibly exhausting.

Meanwhile, Ryan began coaching soccer at the school their oldest son attended. Through the soccer team, he began integrating in the local community and spending a lot of time with his new friends. Claire found it difficult for Ryan to be away so much. While she didn’t mind him coaching soccer, she often found herself wishing he would come home and be with her right after practice. Claire didn’t know how to explain this to Ryan without sounding selfish so she kept quiet. Sometimes all of Claire’s bottled-up emotions spilled out and she would just start crying, or occasionally even say something hurtful to Ryan. Claire always felt guilty about this and afterwards would apologize profusely. During his wife’s meltdowns, Ryan would respond by just saying whatever he could think of to help Claire stop crying, but without any sense of connection with what she was actually going through. After she was back to normal, Ryan would put on Claire’s favorite movie, or buy one of her favorite take-out meals, and then carry on as if nothing had happened. Ryan genuinely believed that he was helping Claire by distracting her from what she was feeling, yet it had the effect of making Claire feel even more isolated.

As time went by, more problems began developing. Both Ryan and Claire knew something was wrong in their marriage but neither understood what was happening or what to do about it. They felt they couldn’t go to the pastor of their Bible church for help since neither of them could even articulate what the problem actually was.

On Thursday afternoons after soccer practice, Ryan took the team to the gym. While using the elliptical machine, he typically watched TED Talks relating to science and technology. But one Thursday afternoon his attention was caught by a talk Brené Brown gave back in 2010 for TEDx Houston. Brown, whose academic background is in social work, shared the research that lead to her spiritual awakening.

Brown had been analyzing data gathered from interviewing thousands of people over many years. The data from these interviews suggested that our ability to have connection with others depends on something she termed “whole-heartedness.” At the center of whole-heartedness, however, is the ability to embrace vulnerability.

Even the word “vulnerability” made Ryan uncomfortable. But he sensed that there was something important—potentially even life-transforming—in what Brown was sharing. He continued listening to the video as Brown shared that vulnerability involves being authentic to who we really are even when it’s uncomfortable and even if it comes with a risk. “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” Brown shared, “but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”


Later we’ll return to Ryan and Claire’s story to see what happened, but now I want to switch and introduce you to another couple who also had to learn about the value of vulnerability.

When Emma married Robert six years ago, she had high hopes. Robert was every woman’s dream guy: handsome, witty, sensitive, intelligent, spiritual, financially prosperous and a strong leader. Emma dropped out of the music program at the California university she had been attending in order to be with Robert in Illinois. Emma didn’t mind giving up her musical career to marry him, because just being with Robert made her feel more fully herself.

As the years went by, Emma began wishing there might be a way to continue her education. Robert seemed open to the idea, but in practice the demands of his career and goals always took precedent. Emma didn’t really mind this because she loved Robert and wanted whatever was best for him.

Robert and Emma spent lots of time together, but it was always doing things Robert wanted: ministry activities with the church, attending college basketball games, going to the cinema to watch movies. Emma enjoyed these activities, yet she found herself wishing that sometimes they might be able to do something that she wanted to do. Living in a big city, there was always plenty of classical concerts every weekend. Emma often asked Robert if he would take her to one of these concerts, and while he always said yes, he never got around to it. On the few occasions where they scheduled a date that involved a concert, something always seemed to come up at the last minute with his work, his church or his friends. If they had a date to go to a college basketball game, however, Robert always made sure nothing interfered with it.

Emma had been raised in a family that taught that the ideal wife is always there to meet the husband’s needs: to cook what he wants to eat, to go where he wants to go, to have sex when he wants to have sex, etc.. Emma didn’t really mind this kind of set-up, because she loved serving Robert. Also, she felt most secure when the people around her were happy and fulfilled. If she began insisting that some of her needs be met, she worried that Robert might not love her as much; he might even reject her.

Emma’s fear of rejection went back to an experience she had when she was thirteen. One night when Emma was having trouble sleeping, she crept upstairs for a drink of water. It was then that she saw her father hit her mother. They didn’t know she had been watching or how traumatized she had been by the violence. Emma was too scared to talk to her parents about what she had seen, so she shared it with her best friend, a girl in the next grade named Amanda. Unfortunately, Amanda gossiped about this to the rest of the girls at the school. Emma was so hurt by what Amanda had done that she vowed never to talk to anyone about her problems again and never to share her deepest feelings. With the exception of her friend Lizzy, she found herself keeping her closest friends at arms-distance so as not to get hurt.

Thus, it was second-nature for Emma not to share with Robert some of the frustrations she starting to feel about their relationship. She wanted to be the perfect wife, yet she couldn’t help feeling smothered by the marriage. It was like the relationship was always one-sided: it was always about what he wanted, what he needed, what he thought was best. Robert seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Emma might have some needs of her own. Emma knew this was partly her fault: she just didn’t know how to explain things to Robert without coming across as sounding selfish.

“Maybe I’m just being selfish,” a self-critical Emma shared one afternoon with her friend Lizzy during their weekly get-together at Starbucks.

Lizzy’s response caught Emma off-guard. “Maybe you should stop thinking about whether your feelings are right or wrong, and just share with Robert how you feel. After all, isn’t that how people grow close to each other—by being authentic and transparent about what they feel?”

In the conversation that followed, Emma explained to Lizzy how she was nervous sharing her feelings in case she was rejected.

“I just don’t want to be hurt” Emma explained. “To open up and be real with someone about what’s really going on inside of me—that would make me feel so vulnerable. You know, Robert has never seen that side of me. He might not like me anymore. He might reject me.”

As Emma said these words, she saw Lizzy reach for her iPhone, apparently zoning out of the conversation. As if sensing Emma’s thoughts, Lizzy laughed and said, “Oh sorry. I am listening to you, but I am looking for a quote that I think might be relevant here. Oh, I’ve found it.”

Long before Brené Brown’s talk at TedX went viral, C.S. Lewis taught about the power and importance of vulnerability.

Lizzy then read out a quote from C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves. In this passage, Lewis was writing about the importance of vulnerability, explaining to his readers how love always comes with an element of risk.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell..”

After reading this, Emma was quiet for about fifteen seconds, taking in the import of these words. Lizzy broke the silence, saying, “Let me read you another passage that occurs on the next page.” Then she read the following:

“We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”Ru

Lizzy emailed these quotes to Emma, who re-read them multiple times over the next few days. Emma began to see that one of her basic problems was a fear of vulnerability, rooted in her anxiety about being hurt.

We’ll return to Emma and Robert’s story later, but for now I’d like to explore the relationship between gratitude and vulnerability.

Gratitude and Vulnerability

In 2015 when I began publishing articles on gratitude-based reframing, I came under a lot of attack from readers who had previously known me as a political journalist. One recurring criticism was that I had become an escapist, refusing to acknowledge the pain of the world. Some people even responded to my articles on gratitude by accusing me of advocating a “Pollyanna optimism” that failed to engage with the world’s suffering.

Objections like this arise because of a fundamental misunderstanding about both gratitude and reframing. True gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within an overall positive context.

Think back to what I shared in an earlier post about Viktor Frankl in the Nazi concentration camps. When Frankl told about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, he accurately identified the depths of evil to which man had stooped. Yet he was also able to put an accurate valuation on what is good in life, and in so doing came to understand that what is good is larger and more lasting than what is evil. What we have to be grateful for is stronger than what we have to grumble about. To recognize this is not to be escapist; rather it is to be realistic.

Sometimes in the self-help literature, people are encouraged just to assert they are happy even when they are not. There are some interesting studies showing often this type of false optimism not only fails to achieve the intended result, but can actually make people more miserable. Gratitude is different, however. Gratitude is not about gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they are not; rather, gratitude involves acknowledging one’s sufferings, accepting them, but then interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way.

To accept our sufferings, and to reframe them in a spiritual way, presupposes we have first acknowledged that things are not what they ought to be. For a lot of people, just being able to do that is a very big step. In our culture it is especially easy to have a picture perfect idea of our life and to project that out to the world. Sometimes before we can get to the point of reframing we have to admit that our life is a mess—we need permission to feel sad over our dashed hopes and lost dreams, so that out of our brokenness God can work something even more beautiful within us.

The psychologist M. Scott Peck (1936–2005) pointed out that sometimes this very act of accepting that life is difficult has the potential to ease our burden, for it enables us to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us. As Peck explained in his classic The Road Less Traveled,

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them…”

Here’s how this relates to gratitude. Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful. Once we have accepted that life is difficult and suffering normal, only then can we begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in Auschwitz were able to do when they saw a sunset. This suggests not merely that gratitude and suffering can co-exist, but that without suffering it is hard to ever develop a disposition of true gratitude. When life is too easy, we take our blessings for granted; we cease to view the basic necessities of life—warmth, food, shelter and friends—as pure gift.

Once we accept the fact that normal life is difficult, we are free to come to grips with the vulnerability, pain and complexity of being human in a fallen world. All too often, however, we try to eliminate vulnerability from our lives by eliminating uncertainty, or eschewing the risks involved in living a life of meaning.

We also eliminate vulnerability through technologies that constantly distract us, and which act as an insurance policy against boredom. By providing a constant stream of stimuli, our technologies can help to numb us to the uncertainty, confusion and vulnerability that lies at the heart of human experience. I understand this appeal; after all, pain is hard, vulnerability is hard, having needs is hard, even being yourself is hard. But sometimes we have to slow down and be present with our own vulnerability precisely so God can reach us in our weakness, pain and brokenness. “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)

Although vulnerability is often associated with weakness, it actually lies at the heart of courage, for a person who has accepted his vulnerability can put himself in situations where there is risk, uncertainty or the possibility of failure. It takes both courage and vulnerability to open up when you might be misunderstood, to initiate when you might be turned down, to express need when you might be rejected and to love even when you might get hurt. Theodore Roosevelt talked about this attitude of courageous vulnerability in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech. Roosevelt contrasted a soul that is cold and timid with one that can dare greatly, even if it means opening oneself up to the risk of defeat.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Without a healthy understanding of vulnerability, it is hard to avoid evils like sentimentalism, cynicism or stoicism. Sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism are all rampant in our culture, with the first two being rampant in the popular arts.

Stoicism originated with the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. Building on Zeno’s teachings, the stoics taught that the Good Life involves emotional indifference to the pain of the world. In teaching that each of us should submit to our fate with detachment, the Stoics provided a psychological buffer against the impact of emotional pain and human suffering.

Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the character of Brutus is a Stoic. Thus, when grief gets the better of Brutus, he declares to his friend Cassius, “O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs”, Cassius replies, “Of your philosophy you make no use if you give place to accidental evils.” Cassius, though himself an Epicurean, is reminding Brutus to be a good Stoic and not be impacted by difficulties that only happen by chance (“accidental evils”). Brutus responds as a Stoic, saying, “No man bears sorrow better.” Later when Cassius latter expresses more sorrow than Brutus for the death of his wife, Brutus (having recovered his stoicism) tells Cassius to be quiet and speak no more of it.

Sentimentalism, on the other hand, fails to confront the reality of pain in our world through an escapism in which everything becomes rosy. Sentimentalism numbs us to being able to feel suffering, vulnerability and pain. Like a Thomas Kinkade painting, sentimentalism presents an overly-simplistic worldview that has no framework for understanding the darker and more complex side of life.

Cynicism, on the other hand, recognizes what is wrong but also has no framework for understanding it, no framework for being able to see purpose and meaning in the hard providences God sends our way. To the cynic, evil becomes a type of cruel joke. Whereas the sentimentalist numbs herself to pain, cynicism looks evil in the eye and despairs.

Stoicism, on the other hand, approaches suffering with a “stiff upper lip”, buffering an individual against the effect of emotional suffering. Instead of emphasizing the importance of rightly ordered emotion, stoicism offers a complete escape from the realm of emotion.

All three of these false philosophies—sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism—affect a hardening in us, a tightening of the heart, a process of emotional numbing. All are defense mechanisms that eschew the type of vulnerability that lies at the heart of personal growth.

Lean into Discomfort with Gratitude

Gratitude is the answer to sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism, for it releases us to lean into our pain with a courageous vulnerability. Gratitude releases us to stand face to face with the pain, ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. When we use gratitude to reframe our sufferings, we are not denying that the suffering is taking place, nor are we painting a sentimental, escapist gloss over our difficulties. Rather, we are choosing to perceive the larger context in which that suffering is taking place: a context that provides occasions for gratitude regardless of what is happening around us. Insofar as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to be there for others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain as a form of self-protection.

In our comfort-oriented culture it has become second-nature for us to avoid those who are suffering, lonely or whose lives are messy and filled with pain. People are desperately hungry for acceptance, understanding, belonging and empathy, and when these conditions aren’t available, our society offers equipment for people to numb themselves.

By refusing to make ourselves invulnerable to the emotional impact of pain and hurt, and by embracing the vulnerability that comes with being human, we increase our capacity to feel love, joy, gratitude and empathy.

The problem is that we cannot selectively numb emotion. When we make ourselves invulnerable to the emotional impact of the pain and hurt happenibrutng around us or to us, we are inadvertently numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, the result is that we also reduce our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, such as compassion, gratitude and love.

Again we see how different gratitude is from escapism and false optimism. Gratitude gives us the power to look pain straight in the eye and instead of despairing to be at peace. Gratitude gives us the power to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. Gratitude gives us the power to dare greatly, with a courageous vulnerability that is able to stand up after defeat, striving valiantly for what is important to us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, “rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.” (Rom. 12:15)

Anyone can adopt the type of pseudo-gratefulness that comes from denying the reality of our pain, suffering and vulnerability, or pretending everything is fine when it really isn’t. The true test is whether we can be thankful to God in the midst of real acknowledged pain.

There is a common teaching, sometimes referred to as “the prosperity gospel”, which asserts that God wants us to be prosperous and that suffering should have no place in the Christian life. The prosperity gospel is the spiritual correlate to the Hallmark-feel-good-escapist-positive-thinking that has become such an epidemic in our world.

If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to find our Lord telling His listeners not to mourn. Instead He declared “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to read Christ telling us to expect all men to bless us, yet instead He declared, “Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) Notice how Christ’s acknowledgement of evil deeds (reviling, persecution, saying all manner of evil) is compatible with His positive reframing (“Blessed are you”).

Biblical writers like Saint Paul and Saint James told their readers to joy in their tribulations, not to deny that their tribulations are taking place with a sentimental optimism. But neither are we to resign ourselves to suffering through passive resignation as a stoic would. As Alfred Plummer pointed out in his Commentary on James 1,

“This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude. The effort to be resigned, and to suffer without complaining, is not a very inspiring effort. Its tendency is towards depression. It does not lift us out of ourselves or above our tribulations.

“On the contrary, it leads rather to self-contemplation and a brooding over miseries…. It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”

Vulnerability as a Pathway to Love

Remember Ryan and Claire at the beginning of this post? Their story has a happy-ending. Ryan shared Brené Brown’s TEDX talk with his wife. Over the next few months, they began exploring how their respective backgrounds had contributed to a deep-seated fear of vulnerability. That was the beginning of a journey towards greater authenticity and deeper connection with each other. Now they make a habit of checking in with each other twice a week to talk about how they are feeling even when it means approaching topics that are uncomfortable. They do this over coffee on Tuesday and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Claire shares anything that is on her heart, while on Fridays, Ryan shares whatever is on his heart. If they don’t have any issues to discuss—which is often the case on Fridays when its Ryan’s turn to share—then they simply enjoy being present with each other. Ryan has also started being present in the home more, coming home right after soccer practice to see if Claire needs any help with the children or chores. In their journey together, Ryan and Claire have been learning to stop viewing vulnerability as something bad, but instead to see it as an opportunity for deeper connection with one another. Ryan and Claire are also beginning to have a greater hospitality to tension in their relationship, viewing it as an opportunity for growth and a catalyst for further intimacy, instead of something to be avoided at all costs.

Not every person is ready to take a journey towards greater authenticity, vulnerability and wholeness. In some relationships, one partner may be ready for greater vulnerability while the other partner may not yet be ready. Growth cannot be forced, and recognizing this fact can itself be a painful act of vulnerability. This brings us back to Emma and Robert’s story, which initially didn’t work out quite as well. Taking inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ insight that “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, Emma began sharing with Robert about her feelings and needs, even at the risk of sounding selfish. At first, Robert didn’t react well: he was confused, puzzled and even a little alarmed at this side of Emma that he had never seen before. Once he even exclaimed, “It’s like you’ve picked up some crap somewhere that is changing your personality.” Of course, this reaction made Emma feel rejected and never want to open up to him again. She vowed to return to being Robert’s ideal of the “perfect wife” even if it meant that something deep inside her was dying.

Emma’s friend Lizzy wouldn’t let her give up so easily. They continued to have coffee once a week and started reading some of C.S. Lewis books together. Lewis’s teaching on vulnerability in The Four Loves as well as his comments about authenticity in some of his other texts encouraged Emma continue to take the inward journey towards greater authenticity with both herself and her husband Robert. It was a painful process, and one that eventually resulted in Emma and Robert having regular sessions with a marriage and family therapist. Because Robert genuinely loved Emma and wanted what was best for her, they were able to work through their struggles with the help of their therapist. Robert learned not to become defensive when Emma shared her feelings, and he also learned to treat her vulnerability as a precious gift rather than a personal attack against him.

Today Robert and Emma are more in love than ever before. She has gone back to school to finish her music degree and Robert is proactive in taking her on dates he knows she will enjoy. But most importantly, they have both learned that it’s necessary to be vulnerable with each other, and each has learned to listen non-defensively to the thoughts, feelings and needs of the other. As with Ryan and Claire, they are learning not to resist the uncomfortable topics, but instead to lean into discomfort as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

This lesson that both couples learned—that to reach greater love we have to walk the path of vulnerability—is the message of the cross. The supreme act of vulnerability was when Christ hung on the cross out of love for you and me, to redeem us from our sins. Christ willingly embraced vulnerability by choosing to walk the path of a condemned criminal, submitting to a form of execution that not only entailed horrendous physical suffering, but also involved public humiliation, nakedness and shame. Christ’s vulnerability on the cross culminated with the sense of total loneliness and rejection, as first His own disciples abandoned Him (Mt. 26:31-34) and then He even lost the sense of His own Father’s presence (Mark 15:34).

But Christ’s act of vulnerability on the cross was also the supreme act of love. Through the cross, He shows us that without vulnerability, there can be no love, just as without the risk of heartache, there can be no relationships, and without death there can be no resurrection.

Finding God in the Darkness

If we look at Christian mystics throughout church history, as well as many heroes of faith in Scripture, we find that spiritual growth is often born out of times of intense loneliness, vulnerability, and even apparent abandonment by God. These men and women of faith show us that the spiritual life is as much about seeking as it is beholding; as much about doubt and confusion as it is certainty and assurance; as much about the painful longing for God in the midst of exile, darkness and pain as it is about the reassuring presence of His light.

One person who illustrated this was the medieval British mystic Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416). In his book Spirituality and the Awakening Self, David Benner described the period of panful searching that was a necessary prelude to her vision of God’s love.

“Although [Julian of Norwich] is primarily associated with the mystical revelations of Love that she received late in her life, I believe her most valuable gift to us comes from the many years of darkness that preceded these revelations. This was a protracted period of suffering, unfulfilled longing, and waiting in trust; what she learned from this was at least as important as what she learned in her later experiences of Divine Love…. Julian’s life and writings illustrate trust in the God who comes to us in a cloud of darkness, desolation, and unknowing and meets us with grace that can never be received in the light, in states of consolation, or with the knowing that comes through reason or the senses. This is the grace that allowed her to wait on God with such hope and trust.”

The Russian monk, St. Silouan the Athonite (1866–1938), also spent years searching for God in the midst of anguish, grief and manifold temptations. Once as a novice, he “suddenly for an instant he beheld the living Christ. His heart and body were filled with fire of such force that had the vision continued for another instant, he must have expired. Afterwards he was never to forget the inexpressibly gentle, infinitely loving, joyous gaze of Christ full of peace…” [From Saint Silouan, the Athonite] After this vision, this special grace was removed and Silouan struggled for fifteen years against temptation, depression and even despair. But out of these painful struggles, he produced some of the most beautiful love poetry to God that has ever been written. Here is one of his poems that encapsulates his inner struggles:

Where art Thou, O my Light? Where art Thou, my joy?
Why hast Thou forsaken me? My heart is heavy.
Why has Thou hidden Thyself from me?
and my soul is sorrowful.

When Thou camest into my soul, Thou didst consume
my sins with fire.
Come now again into my soul,
and again consume my sins with fire,
for they conceal Thee from me as clouds conceal the sun.

Do Thou come and rejoice me with Thy coming.

Why tarryest Thou, O Lord?
Thou seest how my soul languishes,
and I seek Thee in tears.

Where hidest Thou Thyself?
Indeed, Thou art in every place,
but my soul sees Thee not, and aching and in sorrow seeks

Apart from a period in 1946-47 when Mother Teresa experienced a profound closeness with the Lord, the remainder of her life was lived in a condition of spiritual dryness and even darkness.

In our own era, Mother Teresa offers similar inspiration. Apart from a period in 1946-47 when she experience a profound closeness with the Lord, the remainder of her life was lived in a condition of spiritual dryness and even darkness. A posthumously published collection of letters spanning sixty-six years of correspondence between Mother Teresa and her confessors, shows that she often felt lonely, had many doubts and even struggled with feeling that God had abandoned her. In a 1953 letter she wrote, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’” In another letter she wrote, “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” Yet somehow Mother Teresa was able to channel this inner turmoil into service of others.

What we learn from these and other heroes of the faith is that when we face pain, it is always an invitation for growth. That growth might involve learning to become more dependent on Christ, being able better to emphasize with other people’s pain, learning to be thankful in all circumstances, or maybe just having the opportunity learn that the world is a much more complex and messy place that we previously thought. Whatever our particular journey might be, it is in our darkest and most vulnerable moments that we are invited to take journey towards spiritual wholeness. Some of us may never reach a place of complete wholeness and healing in this life. For still others, the wounds of our brokenness run too deep to even understand. Sometimes our suffering is so great that we don’t even know how to call out to God, yet He is there with us all the same. One of the most moving examples of this was told by Viktor Frankl in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. He tells of a student of his who was touched by God in the depths of a pain, humiliation and vulnerability that is hard to even imagine. But in his very vulnerability, God touched him in a remarkable and life-transforming way.

“In the mental hospital, I was locked like an animal in a cage, no one came when I called begging to be taken to the bathroom, and I finally had to succumb to the inevitable. Blessedly, I was given daily shock treatment, insulin shock, and sufficient drugs so that I lost most of the next several weeks… in the darkest moment of my life, when I lay abandoned as an animal in a cage, when because of the forgetfulness induced by ECT I could not call out to Him, He was there. In the solitary darkness of the “pit” where men had abandoned me, He was there. When I did not know His name, He was there; God was there.”

Further Reading