A Journey Through Darkness
I will always remember the heat. It felt like I had entered an inferno and there was no escape. I was 18 years old at the time, and this was my first trip to the beautiful country of Tanzania. It was my first time outside the western hemisphere. I thought I knew heat and humidity, but I was proven wrong as soon as I stepped off the plane in Dar es Salaam, one of Tanzania’s major cities. It was then that I experienced a scorching kind of heat.
After arriving in Dar es Salaam, I then traveled through the gorgeous countryside to visit other towns. On one overnight train journey, I took the top bunk in a small train cabin while a friend took the bottom bunk. Exhausted from the travel up until that point, I fell asleep while it was still dusk. At approximately 2:30 in the morning, I was sharply awakened by a violent convulsing of the train. To understand something of that experience, imagine yourself riding an extremely bumpy roller coaster. Then picture someone grabbing hold of you while you are buckled in your seat and shaking you incessantly for the rest of the ride. That was what this shocking jolt felt like.
What made the experience even more disorientating was that it happened in utter darkness. I remember not even being able to see my hand in front of my face. And if the darkness and the shaking were not enough, I then heard a crowd of stomping feet running down the hallway outside my cabin and loud shouting and chanting in Swahili, a language I did not understand. I began sweating from the anxiety. The darkness and chaos of the moment was palpable.
When I think back to that unforgettable train journey, I am thankful that I had a good friend with me on the trip. He and I spent those early morning hours and the rest of the day praying to God for protection. We found out later in the day that there were different mechanical malfunctions in the middle of the night that caused the train to shake back and forth at a rapid pace.
Two words that aptly describe that frightful night for me are darkness and chaos. These two words are unwelcomed yet very real companions to the human experience. They are also found all throughout the Bible and carry rich meaning in the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. We learn of these two realities on the first pages of Scripture:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
“Darkness” and “water” are two realities introduced in the very beginning of the creation story—and two realities which the original listeners needed to face. It is helpful to remember that for the early listeners of Genesis, the language of “the waters” signified chaos. For the Jewish mind, water was a place of death, disorder, and destruction.
In his book Out of the Depths, the late Old Testament professor Bernhard Anderson takes us into the ancient Jewish mindset:
Israel inherited a picture of the universe that depicted the world as surrounded on every hand by “the waters of chaos” which, at the time of creation, the Creator subdued and pushed back in order to give creatures space in which to live and to perform their God-given tasks. The earth is portrayed as a kind of island, suspended over the waters of the “deep,” within which is located Sheol, the kingdom of death.1
Israel understood that the waters of the deep represented chaos. Yet it is into this watery chaos that God performs his creative power. Genesis tells us that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The waters indeed have formidable power, but even this power answers to Yahweh. In verse 7 of Genesis 1, Yahweh commands the water to be separate from the sky. The water obeys Yahweh’s command.
If we enter into the Ancient Near Eastern mindset for this reading, I wonder if there would be a sense of shock for the early listeners. “The sea takes its orders from this God?” I hear some saying. What we see in Genesis 1 is a raw explanation of reality and a full-on demonstration of the power, wonder, and glory of God. Yahweh is the one true God and chaos will bow to Him.
Earlier this year, I was a in a country far from my home in the United States. After speaking to a group of university students, one student came to me and said, “Do you believe that we will see peace in our country this year?” I knew very well that the country of which he spoke had endured great turmoil and instability in recent years. Through a translator, I simply said that his question was far beyond my skill or ability to predict. He appreciated my response but kept pressing me on the question. After listening to him further, I looked at him and said, “In this world, God does not promise societal peace or peace specific to a geographical area. But he does assure us of his peace in our hearts—this is a peace that lives inside us irrespective of peaceful situations or times of turmoil.” We continued to have a meaningful and spirited conversation around this topic for several minutes.
After leaving that event, I soon realized that the words I shared with that student were words that I needed to hear. All of a sudden, I came to realize that I had unknowingly deemed certain circumstances in the world and in my life as simply beyond God’s reach. I still believed that God was in control of the world, but there were parts of my Christian faith that had accepted defeat. Certain events in my life had transpired in a way that I did not expect or anticipate; these events made me feel that it was not just my plan that had been defeated. I began to believe that God’s power had been defeated. After having this conversation with this student, God was reminding me through my very own lips that He ruled over everything, even the places of chaos and darkness in this world. I realized afresh that even in the places bereft of hope, He was still there and He was still active. Whether it be the turmoil and tension in different societies or the chaos that we feel inside our hearts at times, God was reminding me that He rules over it all.
I find it so hugely encouraging that Christianity acknowledges that the darkness and chaos we experience in life are real. We see that in the life of Israel, the Scriptures, and throughout the history of Christianity. But we also see that darkness and chaos do not have the last say. The chaotic power of the watery depths do not overpower Israel’s God. Not even the power of darkness can out-muscle Yahweh. The Psalmist writes that even when he was convinced that the darkness would cover him, and the light about him be night, a new reality breaks through: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you”(Psalm 139:11). Interestingly, darkness in the biblical world “is associated with the primeval ocean covered in darkness (see Gen 1:2; Job 38:8-9) and is usually seen as a negative power of chaos threatening life and human existence.”2 But just as we see from Yahweh’s rule over the darkness and chaos in the creation account of Genesis, the psalmist dramatically states here that Israel’s God “transforms darkness to light, chaos to order, death to life.”3 The sheer immensity of God’s power in the words of the psalmist bring me great comfort. It is a comfort that becomes lost in wonder and a wonder that leads to worship.
One of the most beautiful and compelling things about the Christian faith is that it does not hide the complexity of life nor its scars. The stories from the Bible tell the stories of God, people, and events without suppressing the truth and unwieldy power of darkness and chaos in life. But that is not where the drama ends! Gratefully, the grand story of Scripture points us to a loving God who responds to our call in darkness and chaos.
I think back to that train journey in Tanzania. Since that trip there have been times of darkness and chaos in life that I have witnessed up close and from afar. But I take courage knowing that even in darkness, God’s light and love can break through—that even in the fiercest moments of chaos, God’s peace makes its home in me. To echo the words of Francis Schaeffer, “God is there and He is not silent.”
Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, Revised and Expanded Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 111.
2 Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 556.
This article appears in the 27.2 edition of our award-winning magazine, Just Thinking. Click the button below to download a PDF of this edition.
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