Wearily, I played along that afternoon, bantering back and forth with my friend. Pahamo had come into town from the village of Nakuka and this was the first time I had seen him in weeks. He was keeping the conversation light, but I knew there was more we needed to address - we needed to talk about the darkness. A few days earlier, I had found out that he had misused money entrusted to him, gone on a drinking binge and now was in trouble with people from his village. So, changing the tone, I pushed him to tell me what really was happening.
Our mission living here in Mozambique is to disciple people - to help them grow as followers of Jesus. That vision is fleshed out into plans and goals to see a church planting movement grow. Unfortunately, though, when one's goals are wrapped up in the life transformation of other people there can be a real temptation to close our eyes to what's really happening, adopting a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach. But while that way of working makes it easier to keep to a schedule, it doesn't contribute to the well-being of Christ's disciples.
Let's say there's someone that I've known for a long time and they've wrestled with a sin problem in the past. It's tempting for me to think: "Man, if they are struggling with that again, I'd almost rather not know because then I would really have to do something about it."
That temptation comes from the old idea that 'ignorance is bliss.'
The reality, though, is that ignorance severely limits our ability to bless.
As painful as it is, we must help others look into their souls/into their lives and deal with the brokenness. Otherwise we are not really giving them much help at all. We're just giving them a cosmetic makeover, but not dealing with the illness that may be lurking under the skin.
We're just putting a fresh coat of paint on the Titanic.
We're just spritzing some Febreze in a losing effort to freshen up a tomb.
It's nearly impossible to point out stars during the daytime. We must go with our disciples into the dark places of their hearts and point towards the bright morning star. We have to sit with disciples through the cold, long night and show them how those pinpoints of light can help them navigate their way home.
Ursula Le Guin's book, The Tombs of Atuan, is the second in her Earthsea cycle. It tells the story of Tenar, a young woman groomed since childhood to serve as a priestess for a temple that sits on top of an underground labyrinth. She spends her time learning the dark passage ways until one day she traps a wizard in these tombs. Through conversations with him, though, she eventually realizing that she is the one who is really lost. At one point she shares her own doubts about the Dark Powers she serves, leading to the following exchange:
"Did you truly think them dead? You know better in your heart. They do not die. They are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality. They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul."
She listened, her eyes heavy, her gaze fixed on the flickering lantern.
"What have they ever given you, Tenar?"
"Nothing," she whispered.
"They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied nor forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men's eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness... I think they drove your priestess Kossil mad a long time ago; I think she has prowled these caverns as she prowls the labyrinth of her own self, and now she cannot see the daylight anymore. She tells you that the Nameless Ones are dead; only a lost soul, lost to truth, could believe that. They exist. But they are not your Masters. They never were. You are free, Tenar. You were taught to be a slave, but you have broken free." (Tombs of Atuan, p. 129-130)
I love this conversation because it reveals so much about how easily deceived and distracted we can be.
It got me thinking about good principles and practices for discerning how to help disciples address their darkness. So at the risk of oversimplification, I'll offer a few directions here:
Be both patient and pushy - If the goal is discipling people into Christian maturity then we need to realize that real transformation takes time. That being said, if we don't deal ever get around to dealing with the dark, then we're effectively encouraging people to be dishonest about their own lives with themselves and with the church. Drawing the line between pushy and patient takes practice and seems to be more of an art than a science.
Speak directly about what is true and what is a lie - Through the rest of Le Guin's book, the heroine struggles to live in her new identity. Her friend must remind her often of what is real and true. "Listen, Tenar. Heed me. You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light. I found the lamp unlit; I won't leave it on some desert island like a thing found and cast away." (Tombs of Atuan, p. 178). A foundational task in discipling others is to remind them of their true identity in Christ.
Be vulnerable - Partway through our conversation, I told Pahamo a personal story of dealing with my own darkness and the pain involved in finding a way out. Sharing that seemed to bring some hope and it definitely gave us a deeper connection. It both leveled and put us on the same playing field. In the Earthsea series, Le Guin's first book tells us of how Ged had to literally deals with his own darkness and only then is he able to lead Tenar out of the labyrinth in the second.
Speak also of the light - This may be most difficult for those with a prophetic bent, but having a one-track mind (i.e. focusing only on the problem) can be wearisome to both the discipler and the disciple. If every conversation between you two is focused on addressing the darkness, I'm guessing that the relationship will probably not last long - the disciple will grow fatigued and go elsewhere.
Pray with them - This should go without saying, but it is somehow easy to forget in practice (believe me!). We are not the source of light and do much good by calling for the brightness to shine in the dark. Praying with and praying for those we are discipling is essential.
May God give us the courage and skill to grapple with the darkness in our own lives and in the lives of those we seek to bless.
Grace and Peace,
(Photo by Brian Oliver)