The Face of Darkness
Adapted from Stuart McAllister’s chapter “The Role of Doubt and Persecution in Spiritual Transformation”in Ravi Zacharias, ed., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.
A friend once said to me, “Life is hard, God is good—don’t get the two confused.” His words hit me with a force that made me think long after they were spoken. The longer we walk with God and face the pressures of life and change, the more we appreciate grace but also come to recognize how dependent we are in an ongoing way to complete the journey.
I have now walked with God for forty years, most of it in what we may call “fulltime Christian service.” I continue to discover that although each stage of life is new, each invites us to face it with faith, hope, and resolve. Hebrews 12:1-3 tells us “we are surrounded by such a great of cloud of witnesses” who have completed their race. We are exhorted to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” so that we may not succumb to the very real danger to “grow weary and lose heart.” I find these words very significant in this season in life, because finishing well requires courage and commitment as earlier challenges did in their own way.
As a new year or new season of life dawns, one way I have found helpful in looking forward to what lies ahead is to first look back: to reflect on the challenges experienced and God’s mercies, which as Scripture reminds us “are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23). As such, I hope the following personal story serves as an encouragement that fixing our eyes on Jesus is our only sure guide, for he is truly “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”1
It seemed like yet another routine border crossing in what was then Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. The year was 1981; Leonid Brezhnev was the head of the Soviet Union, and half of Europe languished under the Communist vision and control. As a young, enthusiastic, and eager Christian, I had joined a mission whose primary task was to help the church in Eastern Europe. This involved transporting Bibles, hymn books, and Christian literature to believers behind what Winston Churchill called the “Iron Curtain.”
It was indeed an iron curtain: a vast barrier made of barbed-wire fences, mine fields, exclusion zones, guard towers, heavily armed soldiers, and dogs. Although designed allegedly to keep the West out, it was in actuality a vast system of control to keep those under this tyranny in. On this occasion my task was to transit through Czechoslovakia into Poland to deliver my precious cargo of Bibles and books to a contact there.
The literature was concealed in specially designed compartments, and my colleague and I had gone through our routine preborder procedures. We checked everything to see that it all appeared normal. We checked that everything was closed, locked, and secure. We bowed our heads and prayed that God would protect us and make seeing eyes blind—not literally, but unable to detect our hidden cargo. We then proceeded to the border crossing between Austria and Czechoslovakia.
It was a cold, bleak, early winter day. It all seemed normal. We entered Czechoslovakia, and the huge barrier descended behind us. We were now locked in. As usual, the unfriendly border guards took our passports, and then the customs inspector arrived. I had been trained to act casual, to pray silently, and to respond to questions. I sensed this time it was different. The man ignored me, concentrated on the structure of our vehicle, and was soon convinced we had something concealed. I became quite tense.
My colleague and I were separated. The guards demanded we show them what we had, and they tried to force me to surrender the keys to the vehicle. I resisted verbally, conscious that they were armed. I was a Christian and did not want to give anything away, yet I had to try to act as a normal tourist would in such circumstances. They eventually took the keys from me and locked my colleague and me in separate rooms. The guards broke into the special compartments in our vehicle, where they discovered the Bibles and literature.
I prayed for wisdom. I asked God to guide me and to lead me in whatever came next. For several hours I was interrogated. Who sent us? Where were we going? Did we work for a Western government or agency? I had determined based on previous experience that if caught, I’d concentrate on witnessing, as all the other details they needed were in my passport. They were neither amused nor interested. Several hours later, we were collected by some plainclothes officials and driven to a prison outside the city of Brunn.
My colleague and I were handcuffed, not allowed to speak to each other, and put in separate cells with people who spoke no English. The small rooms smelled of disinfectant and had only two bunk beds and a hole in the floor that served as the toilet. The light was kept on all night and some basic food was brought three times a day. The rules were rigid and enforced: no sitting or lying on the beds during the day. This meant shuffling backward and forward for hours in a highly restricted space, then facing a difficult night as we sought to sleep under the glare of the constant light.
Time became blurred. Was it morning, day, evening? I found myself alone, in a hostile place, without anything to read, without anyone to talk to, without any idea when or if we might be released, and with seeming unlimited (and empty) time on my hands. There is nothing like empty time and constricted space to bring to the surface feelings, questions, and doubts.
I did not choose this path for adventure; I was well aware of what we were up against and what might happen if we were caught. I was surprised by my intense feelings brought on by boredom and uncertainty—how long would this imprisonment last? Contrary to some of the more starry-eyed testimonies I have read, I did not experience overwhelming grace or a profound sense of God’s presence. I did have the assurance that he was there, that he knew what was going on, and that “my times were in his hands” (see Ps. 31:15). My feelings, however, became a source of torment.
Why? For some reason I had an initial impression that we would be released quickly and expelled from the country. As the first few days passed with no communication and I had no idea what was happening, I began to wrestle to some degree with doubt. It was intense, it was real, and it was filling my mind and clouding my thoughts and my heart. My doubts seemed to focus on uncertainty as to what God was doing and whether I could actually trust what I thought was his leading. I also was struggling with how much I might be asked to face. I only had prayer and memories of those in Scripture who had faced similar things and the training sessions we had passed through in our team sessions in Vienna to resort to, so I struggled to regain focus and to rest and trust in God.
I can well remember a point of surrender. After several days, I resigned myself to the possibility that my imprisonment could last for years. I might not get out for a long time, so I had to make the best of what was and to rest in God. It is a point where we accept the hardship, where we still believe in greater good, and where we surrender to what seems like inevitability. I think I came to relinquish my sense and need for control (I had none anyway) and simply accept that God would be there as promised, and therefore, to rest in him.
I had crossed an important point that I subsequently discovered in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Richard Wurmbrand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vaclav Havel. Scholar Roger Lundin remarks,
To Bonhoeffer, this is the distinctive “difference between Christianity and all religions.” Our suffering, wrote Bonhoeffer only months before his 1943 arrest, teaches us “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless.” The interpretive key to human experience is to be found not in our preference for Eden but in our power to share in the sufferings of God and the world: “We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune” (Letters, 17). This is what it means to see with a “god’s-eye” view of things. From such a vantage point, Bonhoeffer asks, “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”2
In Matthew 11:1–4, we read the account of John the Baptist in prison. From the early part of the Gospels we often assume a picture of this robust prophet sent in advance of the Messiah, announcing boldly the one who is to come. Here, however, John is in prison. He does not know what will happen or how long he will be there. He faces a life that is out of control and unpredictable. From within the dark prison, he hears of Jesus’ miracles and he begins to wonder. He is now not so sure and sends a messenger to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (v. 3).
We cannot ignore John’s earlier experiences and his announcement of who Jesus was in John 1:19–34. This same John is now in prison, now in very different circumstances, and he has doubts. Yet notice that Jesus does not launch into a harangue or respond, “How dare you doubt.” He tells the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matt. 11:4–6). Jesus provides some information and invites John to reflect on what is happening and to draw his conclusions from the great narrative of redemptive history and prophecy that John was aware of and of which Jesus was clearly implying he was a part.
That is, John’s circumstances did not just descend on him in a vacuum. He was imprisoned because of his commitments and convictions, and above all, because of his identity and calling. His life was marked by God; he had a clear sense of destiny, and yet he did not know—nor did he expect—that it would turn out this way. Moreover, some time later he faced the day when an executioner in response to an embarrassed ruler came to take his head. This reality is a far cry from the easy believism or “Christianity lite” that is often trumpeted as the normal Christian life. John faced, and paid, the ultimate price of his calling.
As those raised in comfort and convenience, the very nature of all this may frighten or repel us. If the message we have believed or the model we have been taught has raised false expectations, then we are going to be subject to doubt and fear, and worse, reject the whole thing. The gospel and Christianity are concerned with reality, and hence with truth. By this I mean what the true nature of life really is and means. Christianity is not an escape system for us to avoid reality, live above it, or be able to redefine it. Christianity is a way that leads us to grasp what reality is and, by God’s grace and help, to navigate through it to our eternal home.
Nothing quite hits home during our soulful experiences of doubt, pain, frustration, and disappointment. A friend of mine used to say, “Trials will make us bitter or better,” and I have seen this demonstrated in many lives. Trials, persecutions, and problems may surface unresolved fear.
Perhaps we fear that all we believe is just an illusion, a lie, or a mere projection of our deepest desires (as Sigmund Freud asserted). Or perhaps we fear abandonment; we keep on believing God is there, but he seems to ignore us. Or maybe we fear that we do not have what it takes to suffer or endure, and so we face the personal battle of failure and ultimately, shame.
To anyone familiar with apologetics, C.S. Lewis stands out as a prominent figure. His philosophical reflections in The Problem of Pain are well known and stand within the long tradition of Christian thought on this topic. His work A Grief Observed, written in the furnace of intense suffering upon the sickness and death of his wife, Joy Davidman, reveals another dimension to this whole equation. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain:
Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We “have all we want” is a terrible saying when “all” does not include God. We find God an interruption. . . . Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.3
Like the psalmist, Lewis is honest; he expresses anger, doubts, and questions. He asks God for comfort and assurance, yet at times he feels as if heaven is closed for business, the doors locked and double bolted.
In such circumstances we are forced to face what we mean when we speak of faith. Do we have to believe in spite of the evidence to the contrary? Do we believe no matter what? How do we handle the deep and pressing questions our own minds bring as our expectations and reality do not match? For me, in my time in prison, I expected God to do certain things, and to do them in a sensible way and time. I expected that God would act fairly quickly and that I would sense his intervention. My reading of Scripture, my grasp of God’s promises, my trust in the reliability of God’s Word, the teaching I had received, and the message I had embraced led me to expect certain things, and in a particular way. When this did not occur in the way I expected or in the timing that I thought it should, I was both confused and angry.
Was God ignoring me? Was there some higher, hidden purpose that I was to somehow fulfill yet was denied any access to what it was? Had I been sold a lie? God in his mercy allows us to express our fears, our doubts, our anger, yet he also leads us to face the true nature of reality, of his character and ways, and the true nature of spiritual warfare. What did I learn in the furnace of doubt?
First, I learned the role of prayer. I found that prayer is an active, ongoing, and vital conversation with God in the midst of struggle and doubt.
Second, I learned the role of reflection. I thought about the great stories of the Bible and God’s promises. In this, my memory of Scripture, songs, testimonies, and promises was crucial. What did they mean, and how did they apply here and now?
Third, I learned the role of struggle. As much as I disliked it, there was no denying that struggle was all through the Bible, in the life of Jesus, and across church history.
The great story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3 captures this lesson powerfully. Though prisoners of a militaristic empire, these three believers find themselves in the employment of the top government. Then the king passes a decree that puts their primary loyalty to God in question and demands their full obedience. Yet their convictions will not allow them to deny their God, compromise their faith, and commit idolatry. When faced with their uncompromising stance, King Nebuchadnezzar does what many power-addicted rulers do: he threatens them with an all-or-nothing choice. “Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…. ‘If you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?’” (Dan. 3:13–15).
In this cameo, we see a scenario that has been repeated across history time and time again. It is okay to believe so long as you know and accept the limits permitted. You can believe what you want privately, but when a public demand intersects with your “personal” convictions, you are expected—no, you are required—to conform to society’s demands, and to do so quickly and without reservation. There are many examples of this.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was quick to grasp the totalitarian nature of the Nazis and the way that theology, church leadership, and state power could all be used to demand total subservience to the Nazi state and its policies. As with many in the time of the Roman Empire, the issue was who was king: Caesar or Christ? Hitler or Jesus? Bonhoeffer not only resisted Hitler’s policies, but he was also actively involved in an attempt to stop him. Bonhoeffer’s theological reflections, honest questions, and prayers before God invite us to weigh the implications of truly trying to follow Christ, even unto death.
Alister McGrath astutely observes,
God is revealed and human experience is illuminated through the cross of Jesus Christ. Yet, as the believer contemplates the appalling spectacle of the suffering and dying Christ, he is forced to the recognition that God does not appear to be there at all, and the only human experience to be seen is apparently pointless suffering. If God is to be found in the cross of Christ, then he is hidden in the mystery; if human experience is illuminated by that cross, then the experiences which are illuminated are those of suffering, abandonment, powerlessness and hopelessness, culminating in death. Either God is not present at all in this situation, or else he is present in a remarkable and paradoxical way.4
When the time came to face the hangman’s rope, Bonhoeffer committed his soul into the hands of God and went quietly to his death. Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego gave an astonishing answer to the king and his ultimatum, and thus revealed something even more potent: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18).
Here is a classic case of speaking truth to power. These men were thrown into events that they had no control over, yet their history rooted them in God and gave them the courage and determination to choose the right thing in spite of the obvious consequences. I am confident that silent prayer, deeply ingrained memories, and their reflection of God’s character contributed to their ability to stand. Specifically, these three men knew that God was real, holy, and in control. They recognized that their lives were in danger, yet they were not willing to compromise. They knew God could deliver them, but they did not know if He would. Either way, they would not compromise or dishonor God.
Maybe we want to psychoanalyze Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and ask why they were so extreme. Perhaps we assume they were just among the courageous few we see occasionally in history. I don’t think so. I think this narrative in Daniel 3 is given to cause us to reflect deeply on the nature of reality and truth. If we don’t have some sense of what is really real, then we cannot live truthfully or in correspondence with reality.
Once again, Alister McGrath captures this well:
In effect we are forced to turn our eyes from contemplation of where we would like to see God revealed, and to turn them instead upon a place which is not of our own choosing, but which is given to us. As the history of human thought demonstrates, we like to find God in the beauty of nature, in the brilliance of an inspired human work of art or in the depths of our own being—and instead, we must recognize that the sole authorised symbol of the Christian faith is a scene of dereliction and carnage.5
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego learned that this is a God-created and a God-governed world. Because it is created, they knew that living in conformity to God’s will was the only way to truly function. Their view of reality was fuller than that of Nebuchadnezzar, and because of this they were confident that doing the right thing was the right thing. Because God governs the world, they knew that justice was ultimately in God’s hands, not the king’s. They were, therefore, willing to make a hard choice no matter where it would lead.
Since I had never given any conscious thought to worldviews in general or mine in particular, I was unaware how many unexamined assumptions I was living by. I did not realize how little change had penetrated my heart, and under pressure the gaps were painfully revealed and felt. From the perspective of time, I can now answer these questions meaningfully, but I needed the experience of doubt and hardship to show me how much I did not know or was not rooted in the biblical answers to these core questions. A worldview that merely answers questions intellectually is insufficient; it must also meet us existentially where we have to live.
Persecution, struggle, and pain force us to face what is the nature of reality. How do things really work? What kind of a world is this? As I went into the Czechoslovakian prison, it was with several deep convictions. I believed that God really exists, that he is the Creator and sustainer of the world, that he oversees reality, and that he is present with us by the Holy Spirit. I believed (and still believe) he is a God of purpose, and his will is paramount in history. Even if we cannot discern what is at stake, God is present and working in strange places and in unseen ways.
Yet significantly, the beliefs that brought comfort also became part of my struggle. What should I expect from God? How might he intervene and in what way? I found that I had to let go of demands, expectations, and frustrations, and to embrace uncertainty, helplessness, and silence, even though it was hard. The limitations of my human perspective seemed to press in on me at times with a weight I wished I could overcome. I was to a large extent unable to grasp how deep and how sinister were the implications of living in a disordered, disrupted world until these unwanted experiences surfaced levels of doubt or questions, until then hidden from my own consciousness.
Without devaluing any of the individual suffering that occurs, we need a big-picture view of suffering as well, in which we consider the whole drama. Indeed, one of the reasons Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could respond to Nebuchadnezzar with such boldness was their assurance that God is the Creator and sovereign over all, who holds all history, rulers, and events in his hands. This ability to see beyond, to believe in the face of darkness, to triumph through suffering is a vital aspect of the Holy Spirit’s transforming role in our lives and in the reframing of our view of reality, and therefore, of truth.
As a Christian facing such difficulties, the battle with our emotions becomes crucial. Did Daniel’s friends experience fear and doubt? Did John the Baptist? Did Bonhoeffer? The answer, I think, is yes. It is part of what it means to be human. Yet it is also one of the vast hurdles to be faced in our time. This is the age of therapy, the domination of market values, where looking good and feeling good replace being good and doing good—and most people don’t know the difference. Feelings and emotional states have been elevated and promoted to such a degree that the domination of emotions and the demand for good feelings, all the time, is imbibed with the air that we breathe.
In a very real sense, part of the journey of transformation in the believer’s life is becoming aware of our false expectations and the true nature of the world we have to live in and face, which the Bible reminds us is still afflicted by dark powers and forces (Eph. 6:10–12). Throughout our lives and our journeys, we are compelled to ask questions of our beliefs, our values, and our experiences. Perhaps the question is, how does God work in forming us and transforming us? Do these experiences of pressure, suffering, and doubt actually contribute to our growth, and more, are they (in reality) part of the ways and means God employs to achieve his ends?
God’s intervention does not always come in ways we expect (though sometimes it does); however, it does come. It may be a direct experience of grace; it may be mediated through another person, book, or sermon. The point is, in a God-governed and purpose-driven cosmos, nothing is in vain and nothing should be ignored or neglected. Bill Smith, a friend of mine and Director of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Atlanta, often exhorts people to cultivate the “gift of noticing.” By this he means actively looking for God’s presence and grace in the everyday things we often ignore.
It may be in the beauty of creation, in the smile of a friend or a spouse, in the aroma and taste of a good meal, in the joy of robust laughter, in the pleasure of a good book or movie. When we work at noticing, we begin to “see” more, to enjoy more, and to celebrate more.
Daniel’s three friends became aware of a presence in the midst of the furnace and in the midst of their trial. Bonhoeffer also wrote touchingly of his experience in the Nazi prison and in the face of death. It was not just the ability to endure, but the transforming work of God in their lives that was crucial and practical. We see God at work in the big picture, even at times as we may lose perspective or sight in the details. To me this is one of the greatest lessons and the biggest challenges we face.
As I sat thinking, praying, and hoping in the custody of the Czechoslovakian authorities, I was surprised one day when the door opened and I was summoned forth, signaled not to speak, and then led out to a waiting car with my colleague, whom I was just seeing after ten or eleven days. We were driven in silence to the border. We were handed our passports and our severely damaged vehicle, and we were then expelled from the country.
We crossed into Austria and were able to talk for the first time in nearly two weeks. We shared our stories, and we stopped and prayed. We heard missing details; we discovered ways that God worked in us. We shared how we could witness and testify. We spoke of our struggles, our doubts, and our overall confidence. We did not doubt God was there, or that he had a purpose in our arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. We sensed that somehow, in some way, we were part of an ongoing cosmic drama in which these events played a small but meaningful role. It was not an experience we would choose, and it was not the way we expected, but it was God’s will for us at that time and we could see and testify that it had changed us.
It would be presumptuous to turn our limited experience and insight into a major pattern for all, yet in the midst of it we were able to detect broader strokes, hidden meanings, and real possibilities. Like Joseph so many centuries before, we could look back on all that happened, reflect on it and say, “They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Stuart McAllister is Global Support Specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia.
1 Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” (1719).
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters, 17, 370, quoted in Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 40.
3 C.S. Lewis quoted in Richard Purtill, C.S. Lewis’s Case for the Christian Faith (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2004), 53.
4 Alister E. McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 102.
5 Ibid., 104.