Part I Despair
John Wesley, by any standards, was a remarkable man. He was a man marked by rare passion, ability, commitment, and energy. Over the course of his ministerial career, he rode over 250,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons. He is the father of Methodism, a denomination that includes over 30 million members worldwide. And yet, for all of his accolades and accomplishments, he was still a man…a human. I recently came across this haunting transcript of a letter written by John Wesley to his brother, Charles, in June of 1766: In one of my last letters I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen … And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward! Surely there was never such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.
And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection. And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it. I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know. Such a haunting letter. First, let me say that I do not think this is where Wesley lives most of his life. Rather, this is a rare insight into Wesley’s own human experience. This is an insight into a moment of torment. This is an insight into what St. John of the Cross so famously called, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Put differently, I do not believe that Wesley never loved God, but I do believe he had moments in which he felt as though this were true. What resonates with me the most about this letter is Wesley’s resoluteness in believing that even when he feels as though he has no love for God, when nothing seems to warm his own heart, when he is utterly out of sorts, that, somehow… GOD. KEEPS. BEARING. HIM. ALONG. If I can be honest, there are times when I, like Wesley, just don’t know! I don’t know why I keep preaching, I just keep preaching. I don’t know why I keep showing up, I just keep showing up. I don’t know how it is that God continues to use me, but He continues to use me. I don’t know how I keep going, I just keep going. I don’t know how I’m still standing, but I’m still standing. I don’t know how I got one foot in front of the other, but I keep walking anyway. And yet, if my short experience in ministry has taught me anything, it is that my experience is not uncommon. We humans are complex, messy creatures. We live complex, messy lives. More often than not, if we’re honest, we have no idea what’s going on with us, with the people around us, or in the world! We all experience moments in which we feel no love for God, no love for ourselves, while the safety, structure, and comfort we so desire is sinking like the Titanic and we’re just trying to keep our head above the water.
Part II Hope
Where are we to turn in the dark night of the soul? What are we to do when the storm is raging? How do we survive the shipwreck? Answer: GRAB ON TO ANYTHING THAT WILL KEEP YOU AFLOAT! For the past 5 years, I’ve been using the tools afforded to me by my theological education to build what I thought was a pretty impressive ship. This ship was marked by complex doctrinal understanding of things like atonement theories and eschatological schemes. But guess what? You don’t always come ashore on a ship. Sometimes you come ashore on a plank. As it turns out, atonement theories are of very little help in a storm. So grab a hold of whatever small fragment you can find that gives you some sense of clarity, peace, and perspective and don’t let go. Maybe that plank is one verse that will get you out of bed in the morning. Maybe that plank is one hymn that will keep you through the night. This past Sunday, I found my plank. This past Sunday a young girl, no older than 5, walked out on stage holding a mic. She began to sing… Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. There, in the midst of my chaos, was a fragment of stability. Something to hold on to. Something to keep me afloat as I drift toward the shore. The shore, as it turns out, looks a lot less like a beach and a lot more like a table. In this same Sunday service, we received Holy Communion. As I gripped tightly to my new found plank and drifted towards the Lord’s table I received the much needed reminder that even when I feel as though I have no more grace for myself, there is always grace on the table.
Part III Conclusion
My feet are on solid ground again. I may even spend some time polishing the brass on my ship this week. However, I will never let go of this plank — this reminder that even when my intellect denies it and my emotions refuse it, Jesus still loves me, calls me His own, and by His grace, made present at His table... GOD. KEEPS. BEARING. ME. ALONG. Amen.