encountering God in the darkness

A couple of time a year when I was in seminary we would have “Quiet Days,” which were basically half-day retreats that third year students had to attend.  It was in the music of one of these Quiet Days that I experienced God speaking.

Two different pieces of music were played that day, and we were to meditate or pray while we listened.  I was not particularly connecting with the first piece – a Christian pop song – but the mournful sounds of a choral adaptation of Barber’s Adagio for Strings resonated with me immediately.  There is a certain reverence about the piece, but it also gives you the eerie sense that you are confronting something very dark. I noticed that this feeling struck a particular chord within me, and that I felt a deep connection to God in that confrontation with darkness.  I am talking about a kind of existential moment, a standing at the edge of “the abyss,” contemplating the futility of human efforts, the radical corruption of human desires, the “nothingness” of human existence and achievement.

I have faced depression on a couple of occasions in my life, and I believe that those experiences changed me profoundly.   I am not a particularly mournful or pessimistic person, but, I still pause in those “existential moments,” and feel an incredible resonance within me.  It is very difficult to describe.  The words of Ecclesiastes 1:8 spoke so clearly to my experience at the height of my depression:

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.  

While I don’t struggle with that feeling regularly, I have never really left it behind, and the brief moments when that weariness has resurfaced in my life have been some of the most profound encounters I have had with myself, and with God.

Aside from the music, I remember connecting with the Psalms we read that day, and with the practice of praying the Psalms, which I have done since experiencing the daily offices in my first year at Wycliffe.  During my depression, I was comforted to find an expression of my experience in Ecclesiastes, and in a similar way I have found it liberating to be able to pray with the emotion found in the Psalms.  Strange as it may seem to some, I find that I feel closest to God in those moments when I contemplate the loneliness and futility of human life with honesty. Somehow I know that God is there, because, as the Psalmist prayed, Christ also prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In God the Son’s decent into that “abyss” of human darkness, he established his true presence in the God-forsaken places of this world. I am, therefore, surprisingly comforted when I find myself in such a place, knowing that, in spite of the profound sense of darkness I feel, he is indeed there, and I, in Christ, can make the same cry with authenticity.

I do connect with God in feelings of joy and thankfulness, of course.  Often, however, the shallow “happiness” that is sometimes characteristic of evangelical worship fails to resonate with my experience.  There is an unfailing optimism (“Christians should be happy people!”) among many which is only possible when the problem of sin and suffering is gravely underestimated.  Coming to terms with human depravity was a watershed moment for me, not only in terms of understanding myself and God, but also in terms of understanding the broken world in which we live.  I am not in any way discouraged by the profound brokenness of the world, or by my own depravity, given the sufficiency of Christ’s work.  Rather, I feel a great sense of freedom in resting my hope in him alone.

I was particularly thankful during that Quiet Day, that I could experience that dark encounter once again, and still feel that powerful resonance within me.  I am thankful that I have not left that experience behind, though I am no longer confined by it.

John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 2: Prevenient Grace

I began this series last week by talking about the importance of the image of God for John Wesley’s theology.    As an heir of the theological legacy of the protestant Reformation, Wesley also believed in total depravity.  This means, not that human beings are totally evil, but that sin has corrupted every aspect of the human person, such that there is no aspect of our existence which is not affected by the Fall.  Those who accuse Wesleyans of being “soft” on sin have misread Wesley’s theology at this point.

While it is true that Wesley was somewhat more “optimistic” about humanity, his optimism sprang not from a weak understanding of sin, but from a high view of grace – hence Wesleyans sometimes speak of the “optimism of grace” (more on that later).

In other words, while Wesley believed human beings to be completely depraved and helpless in and of themselves, he believed that God had not left anyone to merely fend for themselves.  God’s grace, for John Wesley, permeates all of creation, not only the Christian church.  As an unconditional benefit of the atonement, extended to all humanity, God’s Spirit is actively at work in all creation, drawing people to himself through his grace.   This is what Wesleyans call “prevenient,” “preventing,” or “preceding” grace – it is our experience of God’s grace “going before” us, enabling us to respond to God’s call on our lives.

The following quote from Wesley’s Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,”  §III.4, is illustrative of how Wesley used this concept:

… allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. Every one has, sooner or later, good desires; although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root, or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And every one, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.

Wesley used the idea of prevenient grace in “broad” sense to refer to the restraint of evil throughout the world (similar to the Calvinist idea of “common grace”), and in a more narrow sense to refer to grace drawing people to faith in Christ.

Because Wesley affirmed total depravity, he had to claim that any good action, no matter who performed it, must attributed to prevenient grace. In other words, “First. God worketh in you; therefore you can work: Otherwise it would be impossible” (Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” §III.3).

Again, we see the universal dimensions of God’s mission to the world shining through in Wesley’s thinking.  Just as all people were created in image of God and now suffer the debasement of that image by sin, so also God is actively pursuing all people by his prevenient grace.

This means that the church’s missional activity is always preceded by God’s prior gracious action.  God is already at work in the lives of every person we come into contact with.  The witness of the church remains essential, however, as God’s chosen means of spreading the message of salvation.

Prevenient grace also provides us with a way of affirming the good in people outside of the Church.   God’s grace is at work in all peoples, in all cultures.  Therefore we can affirm the good in people of other religions, without denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only saviour; because whatever good is there is due to the grace of the triune God, and is ultimately a benefit of the universal atonement.

Prevenient grace therefore provides an essential piece of a Wesleyan theology of the mission of  God, which extends the hope of salvation to all people, not merely an elect few.