Living in the Land of “Nevertheless”
A Reflection on Isaiah 9:1–4
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan —
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
John Steinbeck wrote, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” Taking a somewhat less optimistic approach, Florence + the Machine railed, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
In the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
There is something austere about these words. On a closer look I see an unsettling and unwelcome message about the inevitability of darkness and shadow.
We wish we could fly from the darkness and into the light. However, real faith must gain traction in an ambiguous world, a world with rough edges and pot holes and shadow — a world where God is obscured every bit as much as God is evident, and where faithfulness often means an uncomfortable familiarity with distress and gloom. Anything less would turn our faith into a crutch, and rob it of its power.
However much we want to focus on the sweetness of the morning, or the sparkle of light after a long darkness, we know that much of our lives are spent groping in the shadow, muddling forward as best we can.
To speak of faith in this way is to say that the cost of true discipleship will entail struggle and victory, agony and elation, doubt and faith. It is to say that God is not obvious, God is not predictable. It is to say that faith itself is stretched in the gloom. It is to say that the God of the Scriptures is a hidden God who speaks into the darkness as much as God speaks into the light.
It is sometimes shocking how intensely realistic the Bible is about the pervasive shadow of death and distress in the world. After hearing much of the TV preachers pronouncing health and wealth on those who give money to their cause you would think that a life of faith and devotion was filled with sunny days and affirmations. But the Scripture never shuts its eyes to the shadow that makes Christian faith the most challenging of adventures.
Before Isaiah can talk about a great light in chapter 9, he talks about the death and darkness of chapter 8:
The Lord will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured. Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob.
Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.
If we are at all to understand the Scriptures, we must learn to wrestle with this darkness. Whatever else our lives might be, they are not easy, neither do we have the power to shape them according to the fairy tales of our imagination.
That perfect husband or wife of our dreams does not exist.
The security of luxury and wealth is a phantom.
The happiness that comes from fame is fleeting.
At times we are plunged into the darkness with such force that it seems amazing our legs do not snap. Father Andrew Greeley forces us to view the distress and shadow head-on:
Life is filled with so many senseless events. Mindless tragedies fill our newspapers every day — airplane crashes, the murder of innocent children, insane terrorism, natural disasters. And much in our own lives seems without purpose or meaning — a rainstorm on a picnic day, a bad cold when we are having a party, a handicapped child, the early death of a parent of spouse, a broken marriage, a car that won’t start in the morning, a wrong number in the middle of the night, the treason of friends and envy of neighbors.
Why do such things happen? Is there any point and purpose behind them? Or have we been left to our own devices in a dark universe, with an absentee god — a frigid wasteland without compassion or care?
For some it gets even worse. Sometimes the darkness shuts its jaws around one’s soul. Here, God is not just missing in action, but a cruel tyrant. After the brutal and painfully slow death of his wife Joy, CS Lewis wrote:
“What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, “good”? Doesn’t all the… evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?”
Lewis, a man whose faith and spirit are almost legendary, decried, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.’”
That’s how it is sometimes. We seem as though exiles in a foreign land, stripped of our humanity, desecrated by enemies and lost. A premature death, a job lost, a future denied, a relationship shattered, injustice observed.
God forgive God.
How about you? How about me? If you are trying to build an impenetrable fortress around yourself it will only be a matter of time before your defenses are blown away like sand on a beach. No use pretending otherwise. In a world like ours faith does not come easy. It never has and it never will. At least not a faith that is as real as our terribly real world. No, our only hope is often hanging onto every glimmer of light as hard as we can, trudging through the shadows in a world that is both unfair and cruel.
Life in the land of the shadow of death is real.
Just as real as this is, there is something else that is real too. Even as we walk in the gloom and shadow there is light. Perhaps in the midst of death and pain and loss the light is hard to see, it is faint, and obscured, but it is there nevertheless.
After describing the foreboding realities of exile and despair, Isaiah added “nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
That light — the light of dawn — is a glow off in the distance, it peeks, it barely lifts its head — but it is there. You can’t control it, you can’t make it rise on cue, you can’t even force it out from behind the mountains — but it is there.
“Something quite unexpected has happened.” CS Lewis wrote,
It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. And I’d had a very tiring but very healthy twelve hours the day before, and a sounder sleep; and after ten days of low-hung gray skies and motionless warm dampness, the sun was shining and there was a light breeze. And suddenly at the very moment when, so far, I mourned Joy least, I remembered her best. Indeed it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use the words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
There’s a notice on your door. Your utilities will be shut off in three days unless you can come up with the money. You drop your head and say to yourself, “God, what now…” As you go through your mail with dread, you find a card. “It’s not my birthday.” Inside is a check — unexpected, unaccounted for, but undeniably for you. It happens. Not always, but there are moments when providence peeks around the corner and a light dawns in the darkness of night. There is no formula, it is not predictable. Most of the time the grace we need in the darkness is the grace of hope and perseverance.
Your co-worker, for whatever reason, has made your life miserable from day one. Rumors, lies, treachery — even sabotage. You have prayed and prayed and prayed for that person. “Lord, convict me of any wrong I have done. Give me the grace to love and forgive.”
Then one day, after years of trouble, you see her coming your way. You want to escape. You look to the left, nowhere to go; you look to the right, you’re trapped.
And all she says is, “I’m sorry — I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
You know how it is don’t you? You’ve seen it in your own life, too. You’ve seen light popping into the darkness, you’ve looked back over your life and have seen God’s presence sprinkled like dew in what was an arid desert. Sometimes, even when things are at their darkest, you know — you know — that God is right there with you, that you are loved. And in the darkness you can say, “It is dark, death is all around…Nevertheless, God is with me, God is working in me. Nevertheless.”
In the comings and goings of our days there is more than enough of the shadow of death to make us wonder how on earth a good and loving God could be behind it all. But there are also those moments of God’s light that break into our darkness so that we are willing to stake it all on God, come hell or high water. There is not enough certainty to remove all of the darkness, but looking back over the span of our days, whether from the vantage point of the shadow or the mountain top, we have seen enough glimmers of God’s grace to say our prayers and hold on with a tenacious trust.
The story of Isaiah is God’s history with the Jewish people over a long period of time. Even when doom is all around, when everything that was held dear would be crushed under the heels of an invading army, even then, Isaiah can say “nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress… the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
That is the response of real faith. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Nevertheless, “thou art with me.”
“Calamity,” Beaumont wrote, “is the human’s true touchstone.” Walking through the darkness and shadow, with gloom and despair all around — in those difficult, arduous times God can still be doing His best work. Purifying, growing, and reaching out to places in our lives that we hide even from God.
The greatest mystery is this: that it can be the shadow of calamity that let’s loose the fire that tries the gold, the wind that tests the tree, the water that sweeps away everything in life that is not anchored, not grounded, not imbedded in the firmament of our souls. In fact, it can be in the presence of storm and darkness and danger that God is most at work in you and most present with you.
Always the mystery remains. That’s the way God wants it. God will not force
our faith. We might wish it were otherwise. We might wish that God would reward the religious with riches and security, but that is not the case. Instead, our God became for us a great light, but a light that was despised and tortured — entered into our world as a real person with real faith and real struggles. He took up common cause with us, walked through the valley of the shadow of death with us and for us. And now we can scream into the most threatening moments of our lives with a faith that goes beyond certainty,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Even as we live and minister in a world that can be harsh and unforgiving, we do so not on our own but by the power of the One who said, “Remember, I will always be with you.
When the darkness is all around, when the situation seems irredeemable, know that you are loved — that your life, with all of its tumult and uncertainty, is being held with loving hands and from that place of security, you, too, can be God’s “Nevertheless.” You, too, can be the light of God’s grace.