I have to admit I don’t especially enjoy the unknown, uncertainty. I’d rather have a clear picture of where I am and where I’m going. My strengths of vision and strategy tend to compel me to always want to be moving toward clarity and purpose. Looking through blurred lenses doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, when I wore eye glasses, I was always cleaning the lenses as the day progressed (kind of like I do with my iPhone). I just happen to like to see things clearly. I’d prefer not being in dark zones where I can’t see very well.
And then I read the following profound statement from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. It challenged me and immediately brought to mind some powerful scriptures that reinforce this truth.
“It is the basic principle of spiritual life that we learn the deepest things in unknown territory. Often it is when we feel most confused inwardly and are in the midst of our greatest difficulties that something new will open. We awaken most easily to the mystery of life through our weakest side. The areas of our greatest strength, where we are the most competent and clearest, tend to keep us away from the mystery.”
Jesus and Seeds
Jesus used seed planting as a spiritual metaphor. And when you unpack it, the similarities of what Kornfield is suggesting are striking. The seed is planted under ground–it lives in the deep dark place of the unknown–seemingly entombed in a coffin of nothingness and insignificance and apparent defeat. And right there, in this dark zone, is the essence of life. The seed has within it the entire and ultimate fulfillment of life. And in time the seed begins to sprout–new life emerges–and the plant pushes through the dark dirt out of the unseen into the seen and vibrant life above ground. As Jesus said, unless the seed falls into the ground and “dies,” it remains alone, unseen, unfruitful. (Matthew 13)
Life comes into being in the unknown territory where we are in what appears to be great difficulties and confusions, operating in our weakest side, in what feels often like defeat and despair. But that’s when we encounter the Mystery.
Creation and the Void
In fact, that is the Hebrew picture of the creation story that sets up the earthly paradigm of how God operates. “And the earth was empty, a formless void and mass cloaked in darkness.” (Genesis 1:2) Do you ever feel like that’s your life–a void, devoid of meaning and purpose and expectant shape–where you wonder where in the world God is?
But as this story of origins continues, it’s in this dark nothingness that the Divine Wind (the Spirit/Breath of God) is blowing as it is “hovering over [the void’s] surface. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:2-3) And God continues to breathe words into this void so that even in the nothingness–this unknown territory–life is present. And because of the Sacred Wind, life emerges, takes shape, is formed into the most amazing realities.
God hovers in the middle of the dark, formless voids in our lives, too. If we can become still enough, and with courage peer into our dark places, we will encounter that hovering Spirit–we will feel the very breath of God blowing Presence and Life there. We will encounter the Mystery in our unknown territory.
No wonder the Hebrew poet said, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) As it turns out, according to the poem’s context, this intentional stilling of one’s self occurs in the midst of terrible upheaval, trouble, and dismay. The poet is reminding us that even in this “darkness” and void, “The LORD Almighty is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:7, 11)
We encounter God in the middle of what we so often feel are circumstances devoid of the divine presence. No matter how unknown your territory might seem, God is still there.
Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong. So now I boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me … Because this Jesus told me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you. My power works best in your weakness.'” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
In our weaknesses, in our difficulties, in the unknown territory that makes us feel out of control, over our heads, unable to navigate well, even feeling like failures–that’s when we encounter the power of God that produces life. If, as Paul quotes here, God’s power works best in our weaknesses, than why are we so quick to get rid of them? Why do we tend to run from them or even sweep them under the rug?
Encountering God in the Dark Zones
Maybe we shouldn’t run so quickly from our weaknesses and difficulties. Maybe we should learn to stay put in those painful places. Not because we need to love pain and hardship. But because we can encounter the Divine there. We can experience a side of ourselves that God chooses to show up in even when we’re trying to deny it. God brings grace to our places of greatest need. Strength doesn’t need grace. Need needs grace. Weakness needs grace. Uncertainty needs grace. Anxiousness and lack of clarity need grace.
That’s why, if you look at the symbol of the Yin and Yang (in Chinese Taoism), which represents the polarities of life that exist together and come and go in cycles, within each side is a small circle of the opposite. A piece of darkness always exists in light, and a piece of light always exists in darkness–you cannot have one without the other–or another way of saying it is, you can find one while in the other. At night you still have the stars in the sky. During the day, you still have shadows. And in the transitions between those cycles, both exist in varying degrees. So in Taoist philosophy, you needn’t be afraid of or run from the other. You learn to embrace the whole cycle and rhythm of life as bringing necessary transformation and depth.
“My power is made perfect in your weakness,” Jesus told Paul. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the dark, formless void,” describes the creation story. God lives even in the darkest voids of our lives.
So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to try escaping from our dark places lest we miss out on the profound, life producing, strong and empowering presence of divine grace. God operates in a very counter-intuitive way: it’s in the dark zones God is breathing life and we inhale that Life and we are brought to greater life.