The Haunts of the Soul

1Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
2Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
3For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
Psalm 51 (NLT)
This week is the 497th anniversary of Martin Luther sparking the Protestant Reformation.  It was October 31, 1517 that he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.  He lit a fire that embroiled Europe’s political, religious, and social landscape for several centuries. But proceeding the momentous occasion were hours and hours of tortuous solitude.  Luther was well known in his monastery for his time spent in isolated prayer. His prayers tortured him, because he could not be rid of the guilt he felt over his sin.  He found himself in a monk’s cell alone, but surrounded by his rebellion, haunted by his failures.  He later described this period of his life as agony.  In his aloneness he could not seem to escape his own darkness. 

Luther lived in a time period where people stopped work after sunset.  They had no choice but to slow-down and do something like read or spend time with family. But as a monk he looked to prayer to pass the time.[1] Take away the T.V., the radio, the screens, the pads, the tweets, the statuses, the currents, the analog and digital ages, and what you have left is family, pages, and your own soul.  

Several years ago I preached a sermon on slowing down.  I used the first few verses of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me by still waters.  He restores my soul.”  I told people that it’s important to the vitality of our souls that we rest. Afterward a person accused me of advocating laziness. I was shocked.  How can slowing down and laziness be synonyms in anyone’s mind? What’s more, this person loved television!

It was already my conviction, but this interchange convinced me that lurking deep in our subconscious is a dread, a terror that causes us to cling to our responsibilities and to our modern web of entertainment. What are we afraid of?  On the one hand, I think our relationships make us tremble.  Intimacy is a risk many are not willing to take. On the other hand, there is the petrifying prospect of spending time alone with our own souls.  What might we find lurking in our darkness? We will, almost at all cost, avoid being alone with our souls, lest we become tortured by our brokenness. We don’t know what it would do to us to look our addictions in the eye; to touch the bristly skin of our pride; to pass slowly enough to take in the stench of our failures.  So we quickly pass by these dark shadows in bizarre busyness justified by the old Protestant work ethic or the need to “rest” in the arms of Netflix’s latest series release. We keep the noise of life turned up in order to drown out the frail voices of our depravity’s ghosts.[2] We often have no interest in being Luther, cloistered in our cell, haunted by our rebellion. 

David murdered Uriah so that he could take his wife and cover up the fact that he had impregnated her.  The 51st Psalm tells us about the murderer’s emotions. He cries out for God’s mercy.[3]  At the same time he admits that the weight of his sin torments him.  It’s all he can see and, like Luther, he wishes to be rid of it.  If this is where solitude leads, who would want to go there?  None of us wants to be in constant, overwhelming awareness of our faults.  Perhaps the hurried distractions are healthy, keeping us from running ourselves over with self-dread. I admit that this is a tempting conclusion, but the reality is that hurriedness removes space for the mercy of God.[4]
It is in the frightful moment of beholding the dregs of our souls that we hear the sweet voice of mercy.[5]  What good is the voice of mercy when we obscure our need of it? We must find ourselves in silence, laying bare our souls before God.  This is not the moment of salvation;[6] this is the continuous walk of Christian transformation.  We must make consistent space for the mercy of God in our lives.  What’s more, this is where we learn compassion.  Henri Nouwen calls solitude “the furnace of compassion.”[7]  In solitude we encounter our darkness; God lifts the darkness with his soothing compassion on us. When we encounter that compassion, knowing how badly we did not deserve it, we find ourselves incapable of withholding it from anyone, because who could find that outdoes our own brokenness? The opposite is perhaps also true: how can we be compassionate if we withhold our soul from the moments of mercy? If we ourselves know not the depth of God’s mercy how could we offer it to anyone? For we love, not of our own design, but because he first loved us.

This is either incredibly cheesy or awesome. 
So my challenge to you is to turn it all off.  Find your monk’s cell, face the desolate regions of your soul, lay them before God, hear his voice of mercy, and then walk on, fully formed and shaped by the mercy of God.[8]
Come Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner!

[1] It probably isn’t fair to say this so casually.  He most surely did not think of prayer as a pastime, but more as a struggle of devotion.  All the same, when the daylight fled and the darkness could only be pierced by candlelight he found himself in prayer.
[2] Depression seems to be the opposite of this, wherein the dark voices are ceaseless, deafening, and indomitable. No amount of diversions can quiet them or lessen their hold.  Why/how this can happen seems to be complicated, with at least some chemical explanations and deeply unresolved pain.  I’m no psychologist, but I know that depression isn’t the person’s fault and I know that it’s crazy difficult to counter. I also know that health can come again through support and counseling. If this is where you are, talk to someone. Let’s make sure that the haunting of your soul doesn’t keep you from the mental health you deserve.
[3] According to 2 Samuel 12:1-25, God does respond with mercy—probably not the kind of mercy we’d prefer, but mercy as David understood it.
[4] You probably don’t me to tell you, but it was out of his tortured solitude and a reading of Romans that Luther discovered his doctrine of Grace.
[5] You should know that I don’t think the soul is wholly evil.  I’m not even just talking about evil/sin.  I’m thinking about the whole breadth of human frailty.  I also think that in each soul there is a delicate, but lasting vestige of the image of God. On the other hand, when I spend time in solitude I am almost always haunted by my brokenness, not swept away by his image within me. 
[6] Though that moment bears certain similarities to the moment I’m describing.
[7] One of the most important books I’ve ever read is, The Way of the Heart, by Nouwen. His basic point is that Christian practice must lead to compassion. 
[8] I intend the next two Sundays and next week’s blog to think about what this practically looks like. 


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