So, let's define darkness. In the most literal sense it is the partial or total absence of light. Before God spoke the words of creation "darkness was over the face of the deep" (Genesis 1: 2, ESV), a dreary and fearsome void. Since then this absence of light has been among the earliest and most enduring fears of humankind. The people in the science department tell us that darkness disrupts our sensory systems, creating some degree of disorientation that can produce levels of fear. Excessive fear of the dark is nyctophobia, the place of nightmares and clowns in the closet, sleeplessness, and often much worse. Darkness can be a frightening reality.
There is also emotional or spiritual darkness, those more critical moments when our resources are depleted and we can't muster the stuff for whatever is before us. Sure, we all have a dark side that captures us at times. But, this darkness is more debilitating than flashes of negativity or moments of doubt. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic, referred to the human path to God as that "dark night". Since then poets, psychologists, and theologians have described the "dark night of the soul" when the way is uncertain, decisions are hindered, movement past the crisis is unsure. They are occasions when our deliberative machinery is shut down and we really don't know what is happening or which control buttons to push for escape. It is perhaps the deepest black hole in our personal universe, when defeat, discouragement, and despair double-down to disable us. This emotional or spiritual darkness is hopelessness. It's more enduring than a long night without light.
Well, that's an easy one say the guys over in the cheering section. Put on some positive attitude, get a fresh outlook on life, look on the bright side, whistle a happy tune, count your blessings, take a trip down the yellow brick road, don't worry-be happy, and the other happy-go-lucky bromides for our down times. It's as if these whimsical jollies can somehow vanish the clouds of depression and anguish lurking in those darkest hours. What is more, these dilemmas usually add almost imperceptible layers of doubt to the already dark night. In this darkness we're assaulted by the adverbs of life---who, what, when, where, and how?---the quest for answers, a way out, a path through the trouble. They are the question marks of emotional and spiritual darkness, the black hole of hopelessness.
So, download some hope! That's certainly the final answer when biblical hope is in the equation. But, a secular, relativistic worldview has softened the certainty of hope in shades of gray. Sadly, cultural hope is little more than wishful thinking, crossed fingers, or manufactured optimism. They're slick---the t-shirts, coffee mugs, screen savers, and multi-faceted wit and wisdom of a better view of your circumstances. if a chuckle or a flash of inspiration or momentary lift are the goals these boosters are the ticket. Give me a break. What resolve and determination can grow out of a rabbit's foot in the pocket, a rubbing stone, an ace in the hole, or a good luck charm? Hope with a wink and a nod just doesn't clear the screen of maybes.
In the longer, darker night of the soul this kind of hope is mere pretense. It is a cheap imitation that wonders, guesses, calculates, estimates, and develops Plan A, B, or C just in case. Get real. The dark night is already heavy and unpredictable with few concrete answers. Spin of the wheel or roll of the dice hope just adds more question marks. In this iffy context the dark night just became darker.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about humans dealing with uncertainty. The lead was a quote Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1789 letter---"Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” His point was that there are few certainties in this life. It is one of the outcomes of postmodernism, human life constructed on the question marks of moral relativism. Check the boxes on the survey form and note the moral and ethical absolutes that these cultural norms neutralized. In this kind of world there is no truth and therefore life itself is a matter of question marks. Most everything is devalued in this social system---the value of human life, the rule of law and justice, personal accountability, and all of the other distinctions that make a society functional. Including the rubrics of faith, hope being one of them.
And, when the dark night comes---the tragic realities that take our breath, steal our joy, interrupt our peace, or lay siege against our emotions---all we have in our arsenal are question marks and a few flimsy good luck charms. When we're hopeless the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is hidden by doubts and fears, thick walls of uncertainty. At the core, with no absolute truth to guide us, we are left to our own devices, academic problem solving, and often a life of running in circles.
Jesus often spoke to religious zealots who had designed an intricate way of dealing with the question marks of history. It was a massive legal system they thought would win the day. To them he said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, ESV). This truth is the starting point in understanding genuine hope. Not the cultural counterfeit with its cliches, axiomatic trivialities, and question marks. But, biblical hope.
And, this hope is punctuated in an entirely different manner. That is Wednesday.