In the evenings I brewed tea — oolong, peppermint, occasionally chamomile — and sat in the corner chair. The autumnal chill reached under the door, stretched into my living room where I wrapped my hands around a near-scalding mug. This was my place of prayer, which is to say, it was the place where I entered into the darker places of my heart.
It was 2013, and I was only 50 days into a shaky sobriety. I’d given up the bottle that September, and in the wake of drying out, the voices prattling away in my noggin amplified — voices of doubt, voices of pain. My son, Titus, had been fighting a mysterious illness, and despite all praying, pleading, and groveling, God had opted to remain quiet. God had opted to bless Titus with continuing sickness. And it was this conspicuous absence of God, his failure to answer my prayers, that fueled my drinking problem.
On that nippy November evening, I sat in my prayer chair, but before the spiritual salutation left my lips, the voices from the darker places of the heart interrupted. “If you had enough faith, your son might be healed,” I heard, and the implications rose: I was not a man of strong faith.
I followed deeper into the dark places, sat in the bleak blackness and prayed a Franciscan prayer: enlighten the darkness of my heart. It was the evening that God would finally enter the darkness with me. This is how I recorded it in my journal:
I hear the echoes in the cavernous spaces of my heart and I sit with them. I listen to the accusations: that my faith is too small, that God is a liar, that he might not be God at all. I sit with them, allow them to say their piece, listen as they try to tempt my will to throw a temper tantrum, to kick against God’s shins.
I close my eyes and listen.
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
I hear it. I sit in it.
Go back to the mesquite trees.
I hear this too, and I imagine myself in my childhood grove, braiding strands of long grass into a rope, which I will attach to my Han Solo action figure so that he can rappel down the knotty side of one of the trees. I hear the wind, how it whispers through the grass and tells me I am not alone. I hear myself singing the songs of my youth while my hands are at work: humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up. I always loved that song.
In those days, I was with God, and despite the world’s best attempts to either upend faith or saddle me with the pressure of mustering enough faith to prove my fidelity to God, I know the truth. God is still with me now.
The voices in the darker spaces grow higher pitched, but fainter. They are desperate liars, and I can hear the voices thinning. I sit in prayer, repeat the words of Christ at Gethsemane: not my will but yours. I pray it, and then sink into the mystery of knowing God, of God knowing me.
In the days of early faith, my proofs of God were in the wind, the simple songs, the whispers that the “ears of my ears” were born to hear. My proofs were the generosity of the church ladies, the midnight prayers of my parents over my dreams, the way the thunder rolled across the Texas plain, making me feel so small. The open sky, Kool-Aid at vacation Bible school — the nearness of God was palpable in these. God was close in the days when it was okay to rest in my smallness, when I needed no theological answer for every trauma of life. God was close when my will was, by its nature, bent low before an immeasurable mystery.
Yes, I will bow low like a child, bend my will to the will of God. And in the surrender — Lord, not my will — in the meeting of God, whether in Gethsemane or Eden, I’ll pray with more abandon. Perhaps I’ll rejoice in knowing the measure of Emmanuel, God with us in darker days. Perhaps I’ll see light breaking through the cave mouth, coming broader and brighter like the rising of some inner sun. Perhaps I’ll see that the God who was then and is now and is to come, whether in life or death, in sickness or healing, is here.
Yes, his promise is that he has never left me nor forsaken me. The thought steels my legs, props me upright. The thought brings me into the beauty that is God’s presence, and the words of E. E. Cummings’ great poem come before I can turn my thoughts back toward Scripture or prayer or any other sanctioned spiritual discipline: I thank You God for most this amazing day.
That November night was the culmination of months of prayerful practice, of exploring the darker places of my heart. There is pain crouching there, waiting. But when we enter into the darkness, when we ask God to bring his light of truth into the caves of our own souls, this is what we find: sometimes God is quieter, more mysterious, and less tangible than we’d prefer; ever and always, though, He is abiding.
This post is an adapted excerpt from Seth Haines’ book Coming Clean (Zondervan 2015).