The Dark Night of My Soul: The Philosophy of Suffering
This is part 1, for part 2 (the part where there is hope), read The Light of the Moon in the Dark Night of my Soul.
As many of you know, I've been through an extended period of suffering. It’s hard to communicate it to people who have never endured chronic illness, but it truly broke me. It broke my spirit and it caused me to ask questions I’m not meant to find answers for. And as my health has improved and my life has gotten a little bit easier, instead of thanking God, I began to use that excess energy to shake my fist at Him. I finally had the guts to be angry at God Himself—to evaluate how much this suffering was costing me—and I had the intellectual horsepower to demand answers. Along with thousands of other young philosopher-types, I began the process of coming to terms with God. But for me, it was personal.
My suffering cost me everything—my life came to a complete stand-still and I had to kiss all my dreams goodbye. And I often tell people (now) that that was a blessing. Because when God emptied me, all I had were questions, and while those questions did lead me into a very dark place, His grace has brought me out.
This is the story, a short history of the life of my mind in the flame of suffering.
I began strong. My feet were firmly planted on the ground of Biblical inerrancy and epistemology, my spirit buoyed up by professors and preachers. I was carried along on a wave of spiritual energy toward godliness. I knew what my answers should be, and no amount of pain would make me betray them. But as my suffering humiliated me, slowly my will was broken and I began to doubt Orthodoxy: I began to doubt those answers—doubt even my ability to believe them. And due to the severity of my physical illness early on, I just had to live with that doubt by shoving my head in the sand and humming loudly.
My world shrank from the life of opportunity in Los Angeles to four walls in small-town Georgia. My life came to an end and I experienced the loss of many things. I saw how weak I really was, and I mourned the loss of my self and my plans and accepted a new normal. I said I'll never expect anything of myself again—just to live a quiet life and obey God and die an overlooked death. I had been reduced to nothing and I was trying to believe I was worth more than that. My greatest philosophy that first year was simply putting my hand over my mouth and looking to Christ, escaping to Him until it all went away, or until I was strong enough to attempt an odyssey for the answers.
The Christian Philosopher
Only it didn't go away, but, by the grace of God, I did get stronger. That second year I was able to read more and actually think about what I read. My doubts were clarified into ancient questions that haunted the human race as stacks of old books gave me categories for my thinking. Life was still awfully hard and lonely, but when I stepped back, I saw that this was an opportunity. For the first time in myc life I could read whole books in a single sitting. I could recite poetry from memory and memorize whole chapters of the Bible in short time. I began to experience a deep desire to think, so I applied myself full-time to solving these ancient questions about the meaning of life, of evil, and the good life.1
With this renewed power and passion came a new mission, a mission motivated by a genuine desire to figure it all out. I was done studying only the Bible. I felt like there was an entire world out there I was oblivious to, that ought to fit into the worldview the Bible presented. So I put the Bible on trial before the world’s philosophy, following in the footsteps of great Christian philosophers like Francis Schaeffer (How Should We Then Live?) and John Frame (History of Western Philosophy and Theology). They helped me navigate the history of Western Philosophy and gave me a methodology for discerning the good from the bad in the thought world. Christian philosophers helped me see what I should think and believe, and they gave me confidence that if God was truly True and really Real, then all my studies would eventually lead back to Him.
But I had to be sure. My pain was too much to bear on blind faith alone. Depression lurked. I was hurting, struggling to make sense of some dark questions about evil and God's sovereignty, questions that began to drown out all joy and goodness in my heart.
The Secular Intellectual
I started from the ground up, and did what I thought every self-respecting philosopher does and threw off all my ontological commitments (my commitment to the idea that the Christian God exists and isn't silent). At the time I thought I was being a good “scientist,” but really I was beginning to do philosophy as a means of rebellion. So I began my sophomoric task of building up knowledge into an integrated system. The problem, right out of the gate, was epistemology. As I lost myself in secular attempts at foundations, I wasn’t sure I could be sure I knew anything anymore. Definitions drew on definitions which drew on more definitions.
I realized that as a human, I was limited, and I couldn't be absolutely sure that what I thought was absolutely True was, in fact, absolutely True. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t hallucinating, insane, or missing whole worlds of data. And so one day, after a few months of this, I experienced my first (and hopefully last) true existential crisis. I laid on the floor for over two hours without moving because I wasn’t sure that I could move, or that my moving wouldn’t cause me to spontaneously combust. For two weeks I doubted I existed, convinced this thing called life or reality was all a dream, a video game, some sort of sham like a huge wool being pulled over my eyes—or that my experience of life wasn't just some mental projection of reality (yes, just like the Truman Show). I was stuck in the Vicious Infinite Regress (a place God set me free from a couple months later as I read Matt 7:24-27).
I knew I was doing the right thing in doing philosophy this way (in my raw honesty and intellectual integrity), but it didn't take long until I burnt out. I kept losing faith in myself as a scientist. Who knew if I was getting all the facts right? I regularly banged my head against the wall in frustration, because I was trying to get my mind around reality and felt my brain breaking. But more fundamentally, I began to experience the paralysis of de-motivation. And yet I refused to give up, and so I began to live in an alternate world, intellectualizing everything, evaluating its value only by its intellectual weight, cracking bitter under a load I wasn't made to bear. I became a dangerous person: a youthful, intellectual utilitarian who was deeply wounded and had zero confidence in himself. Which depressed me and left me in a Catch-22. It was up to me to figure out life, but I had no confidence in myself. It was up to me to fix life, to solve the problems of my fellow humans and be their advocate before an irrationally angry God, and yet I knew that I was totally unfit for the job. All I have are words, a tiny brain that can process only one thing at a time, a single stream of consciousness, and tears, and depression, and limitation upon limitation. I was insanely created, so small, but I had taken on the responsibilities of the Creator (although I didn’t realize this rebellion and blasphemy until later).
The Wounded Novelist
Concurrent to this, I was finding a more cathartic sort of philosophy in the art of fiction. One of the first novels to really strike me was Stoner by John Williams. It’s beautiful with a dark story of longing. Written by an overlooked English professor, the story is about (ironically) an English professor whose life is utterly meaningless. I wondered how autobiographical it was. But that book was the first time I had ever found “truth” (or what seemed “truth” to me) in secular literature. All I had known about life that past year was meaninglessness. So I connected with it, deeply, using my pain as fuel. I read it three times, and each time the deep feeling of comfort that came from it—that deep, abiding catharsis—was more powerful than anything theology or raw philosophy could give me. And strangest of all, it had come from a book by a pagan about a fallen, broken, hopeless life that included exactly zero answers to life's biggest questions. Zero Redemption. But behind the scenes I found myself drawn to an obscure and pointless life, drawn to a life without Redemption. Because in that one novel, I found a voice that connected with me in my deepest sorrow and didn't pander to me about the fairy-tale of the Christian Orthodoxy of substitutionary atonement and eternal bliss.
My pain continued to magnify my search for meaning, and I began to really chew through novels. Eventually I stumbled upon J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was harsh, but it felt good. It helped me channel my pain into a narrative and a view of the world that was wholly divergent from the Christian character and ethic. So from then on I began to seek out novelists like these, writers who were honest about the human experience—the brokenness, the pain and emptiness of life. I became a nihilistic philosopher with a taste for dark literature. Writers who were too rosy didn’t make the cut because they “didn’t get it.” They were shallow, not having matured into the cynicism of “real life.” These pessimistic, broken writers made me feel better about my life than my Bible ever had, because I was bored with fairy-tales and Redemptive happy endings. William Golding (Lord of the Flies) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) showed me evil, and I found that the deeper I looked into that depravity, into myself and the human condition, the more fascinated I became. I was increasingly more interested in the Fallen world and increasingly less in the Redeemed one.
I stayed up late and wept with F. Scott Fitzgerald as he led me to the end of my dreams (The Great Gatsby). I wept as I realized the death of my dreams and felt better about life when I realized that there was no guarantee that those dreams were true. Maybe I was just living my life for a mirage, an empty green light that I could never reach. Sure seemed like it. I read Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and connected with Fantine’s hopeless “I Dreamed a Dream” more than I ever connected with Jean Valjean’s courageous “Who Am I.” Joseph Heller (Catch-22) made me scoff at the sacred and distrust the trustworthy, and it felt good. The world was broken and always had been. Cynicism made more sense of the futility than did a brash hope in the face of despair. David Foster Wallace (This is Water and Infinite Jest) cut me open and examined the particular pieces of my brokenness, and as I read him and other New Yorker and Kenyon Review writers like Don DeLillo, Ernest Hemingway, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and others, something changed.
What changed was I began to adore (even worship) artists and writers, and scorn (even berate) preachers and teachers. I became torn in my devotions: on the one hand I worshipped God as Creator and epistemological center, and on the other I rebelled against Him and wallowed in the rebellion of self-pity. And my view of Christians changed. I wrongly began to respect non-Christians more than Christians, because they were the ones out there all alone, Quixotic pioneers heroically facing the absurdity of life without the huge safety net of a fairy-tale God and His narrative of Redemption. They were the ones living in the pain I lived in, embodying a narrative of emptiness and meaninglessness. They felt more like my true community than the church did, with their shiny, happy faces and spiritual tidings of peace and joy. It was as if Christian novelists like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien wrote novels that seemed unearthly, disconnected from the real tragic sorrows of life, something so far and away too good to be true that only children could really believe it and live by it.
And yet those who did connect at that dark level (like Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy) rarely, if ever, gave answers. It was as if theology, the Bible, and church in general were all staring up into the sky and singing nursery rhymes while the rest of us real, honest writers were doing the hard, demoralizing work of putting our heads together to come up with a solution…for all of mankind. The Christians were at rest, embracing the hand of God that descended out of the clouds, while the secularists were furiously at work, clambering to reach into the clouds to see if He was there or not.
When I got to this point, I began to really lose it because everything I believed in was crumbling. Faith, hope, and love seemed like phony facades Christians put on. Goodness, truth, and beauty seemed like taunting lures of what life should be if God could get His act together. And so my suffering had led me to the point where, instead of clamping my hand over my mouth in the presence of God, I faced off with Him, toe-to-toe, shaking my fist in distrusting cynicism. And deep down, that killed me. I was completely torn: I loved Him, and yet, in the sinful rebellion of my heart, I hated Him and all He let happen to me and my fellow humans. This wasn’t just about me—not at all. My suffering simply opened me up to really honestly face the problem of hell. For the first time I began to really deeply empathize with my fellow humans and their pain (whether here on earth or in future judgment), and that led me to shake my fist at God. How could He let this all happen?
I knew I was wrong, and I wasn’t ready to give all this up and turn to the Lord yet, and that led me to a blank place of cynicism. And as Maya Angelou said, cynicism is death: ”There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic. Because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing."
The Spiritual Cynic
My mission hadn't just run out of steam; it had imploded. I’d set out to find God, but I was left standing on the solid foundation of Biblical truth with absolutely no conviction that that Truth made sense of all my pain and the pain of evil in the world. I'd journeyed through the length and breadth of human philosophy and returned with a mess of information in my head, having lost my heart. Spiritually, I became a cynic. The Redemption of Christ began to look like a fairy-tale on the other side of a sheet of glass. It wasn’t real to me. And every morning I woke up wondering what to tell myself to believe. That the world on the other side of that glass was real, or that it was a fairy-tale sent to torment me, my own green light that I’d be better off letting go. Each day I woke up needing to indoctrinate myself with a story about life, needing to believe in a narrative far bigger than myself, and as 2015 came to a close, I wasn’t really sure which story to choose. And I was terrified at having to make that choice. I read novels to help me cope, and I read theology because I knew it was good for me.
Just as he did with Adam and Eve in the garden, Satan used my trials as temptations to derail my trust in and obedience to God's Word. And along with Eve, I too fell into his intellectual temptation:
No wonder Eve’s temptation was intellectual—not sexual, or sensual, or physical, or even, ironically, spiritual, but highly intelligent—a rationalization of her desire, her hubris. Our heads can deceive us just as much as our hearts, if not more so. But then Satan brought Eve and Adam both down because of their intimate relationship. Anything of real value lies in relationship, and yet relationships are where we find ourselves the most vulnerable.2
It wasn't until I read the famous French philosopher Albert Camus (The Stranger) that I realized just how far I'd fallen. He’s famous for absurdism, the worldview that says nothing means anything. I was Camus: I’d lost the meaning of life while at the same time trying to find it. And it was interesting how similar our stories were. He too lost his youth to illness. He too questioned everything to death and distrusted theological bromides. He too had lost hope in life as a result of losing faith in God and in himself. Several biographies later, the grace of God illuminated my heart and I saw myself as I really was.
I hit rock bottom when I realized I’d accepted a different Gospel, a good news about my own ability to make sense of life. And I was just tired of fighting. My suffering broke me; it broke my spirit. Recently I read this story about an Amazonian fighter named Jose whose spirit was broken in a dramatic run-in was a jaguar, and I saw myself in the story:
He smelled the cat. It was close. A few moments later a large black jaguar, onza negra, over two hundred pounds, glided down from a tree twenty feet ahead of him and started moving in. Jose remembered the glowing yellow eyes, as though a demon were coming for him. He knew if he ran the cat would be on him instantly. He tossed his night's catch forward onto the forest floor, then held his machete and stood his ground, moving his weapon rhythmically, preparing for the fight of his life. The cat walked straight toward him, and then changed course about eight feet away. It started pacing. Back and forth, keeping distance, but never taking its eyes off Jose. It watched the machete, followed its movements.
At first, the jaguar's pacing felt good. Jose thought that maybe it was indecisive, considering the dead rodent. The minutes passed. Jose's arm got tired from swaying. He watched the rippling muscles of the cat's legs, imagined them hurling the beast on top of him. There would be only one chance. When the cat came, he would need to dodge and strike in a blur. He would have to get to the neck or take off a limb and somehow roll away from the razor claws. It would all happen in an instant. But the waiting was eating him up inside. His whole being was on edge, poised for battle, exploding, while the cat paced, languid, easy, yellow eyes glowing, edging closer, now seven feet away, now six feet. After ten minutes the tension was unbearable. Jose was drenched in sweat, his right arm shook from the weight of the machete. He switched hands, felt the weapon in his left, hoped the cat didn't notice the new awkwardness for a minute or so while he recovered. He felt dreamy, as if the cat were hypnotizing him. Fear overwhelmed him. This man of the jungle was falling apart.
After fifteen minutes, the cat started moving faster. It edged in, coiled, watched the machete move, then turned back to pacing. It looked for openings, felt the timing of the weapon. Jose was all strung out. His nerves were frayed. The yellow eyes were taking him over. His body shook. Jose started sobbing. He barked away from the cat, and this was a mistake . The jaguar moved in. Straight in. It showed its teeth, crouched to leap. Jose had no fight left. He gave himself up and there was a crack through the night. Then shouting. The cat turned. Another crack rang out and then two young men ran through the bush screaming. Jose's son took aim with his gun, but the cat vanished into the darkness, leaving a father weeping on the jungle floor. Three years later, Jose still hadn't recovered from this encounter. The villagers say he went mad. His spirit was broken.3
I realized my spirit too had been broken, and that I had played the victim too long. I realized that for my entire life I had said with my mouth that I worshipped God completely, but in my heart made an idol out of my own ability (to play a piano better, race a bicycle faster, lift heavier weights longer, climb the rope faster, climb the mountain higher, write the best paper, memorize more vocabulary, get better grades, etc.). But when I finally threw up my hands and placed absolutely zero confidence in my own ability, I lost the will to live, because my life was over. And truly, my life philosophically was over. But then I realized I wasn’t alive to do philosophy. Or play the piano. Or fix the problem of evil. It’s not my responsibility to understand God or fix the world or rationalize Redemption in light of eternal judgment. I am alive to worship my Creator and faithfully serve Him. My problem began as a physical disability but progressed to a philosophical confusion, and that led to a spiritual hardness of heart and separation from God. I was experiencing the effects of sin, not existential angst. Dorothy Sayers wrote “The greatest sin of the Christian is to be joyless.” I thought, well if that’s true, I must be a very grave sinner indeed.
The Repentant Sinner
I realized this, in basic form, and immediately sought out my best friends and mentors. I got away from the four walls of my room and went to Savannah. I talked with godly friends there who listened and led me to even more clarity. One conversation in particular showed me my spiritual condition and helped make sense of that odd depression I’d found myself in. I saw the Catch-22: I had let my suffering lead me to question God, and I had questioned Him as if I were His superior. In my ambition to find answers, I had committed the essential sin of idolatry of putting myself over God, and what it turned out to be wasn't intellectual integrity or heroism, but foolishness and suicide. I was bearing a load I wasn't meant to bear. I felt like it was up to me to figure out how trillions of people could burn in hell forever all because they had wrong theology, how God could create everything that exists only to let it go totally off the rails, how God could create me with so much potential and ambition and shove me into a corner of isolation and difficulty. In the end, I doubted the point in life—even as a Christian—because who am I to counsel the Lord? To tell Him He's wrong and stand above Him as the people's advocate? Who am I to fight the self-existent one? What folly! And yet, I'd backed myself into a corner and couldn't live any other way.
I realized I'd come to adopt a practical nihilism in which God was a mental construct, and therefore, there was no meaning in life. Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, I'd run the gamut of life and I could say there was nothing out there to make it meaningful outside of God. There was (and still is) nothing He could give me to make it all worthwhile. Life wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the trillions of fellow humans, about history, about ideas and theology. About things I’d never comprehend, much less do or fix. What is there to live for if you know you can’t really make a difference, and even if you can, it won’t matter?
But God kept drawing me to Him. Slowly my heart softened as I learned to pray again, learned to bow my knees to His sovereignty over my life and mind. I admitted that my pursuit of philosophy was motivated by evil, by a desire to supplant Him, by running from Him and what I considered His dark providence and irrational sovereignty.
Not everyone deals with this, I know. These philosophical trials of the mind are unique to thinkers and sufferers of the faith, a good example of which is the difference between the writers John Bunyan and C. S. Lewis:
The difference between [John] Bunyan and [C. S.] Lewis’s versions of the road to faith—and the thing that makes the former infinitely easier to comprehend than the latter—is that whereas Bunyan’s pilgrim faces such spiritual traps as sloth, despair, and vanity, Lewis’s pilgrim faces a score of intellectual dead ends (stoicism, idealism, materialism, aestheticism, scientism, and so forth) that lie outside the experience of the average reader. Indeed, what makes Lewis’s work particularly challenging is that many of the “isms” he critiques have been abandoned, even by the secular humanists who once championed them.4
I began to see cynicism as not a more mature criticism of faith but an adolescent knock off. With God as my captain, I was free to trust Him, but I had to come to the end of myself and resign all responsibility for Redemption over to Him and Him alone. Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling) showed me Faith is the doubt of doubt, the idea that maybe even my doubts aren’t right, maybe I’m not even capable of doubting.
What began this blog post was this sentence in C. S. Lewis’s book Surprised by Joy, “No one is more likely to be arrogant than a lately freed slave.” When I read that, I saw myself. I was the slave set free from the four walls of my room, and I was the one arrogant enough to challenge God. I began this philosophical and spiritual journey of suffering clamping my hand over my mouth, but by and by I began to shake my fist at God. And as He pursued me through my darkness, He brought me to the end of myself so that now I stand with my hand firmly planted over my fool mouth again—this time with tears running down my cheeks, and a very large doubt of doubt to sustain me when I begin to ask questions I’m not meant to have answered.
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:3-5)
Thanks to Kyle Singletary, Richie Setser, Donna Henderson, Taylor Reynolds, and Ted Kluck for reading drafts of this essay. And thank you Lord for pursuing me, even when I didn’t want to be found.
- I found out later that this same curious mental clarity was experienced by Louie Zamperini on his raft, when he spent over 40 days without any stored food or water, adrift on the Pacific ocean. There, his mind was sharper than it ever had been. ↩︎
- Carolyn Weber, Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir, loc 2621. ↩︎
- Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning, pg. 165 ↩︎
- Louis A. Markos, A To Z With C. S. Lewis, loc 802. ↩︎