No Detour

In January of 2019, I started down Highway 1 for a weekend of spiritual retreat and prayer. My destination was a cottage at a monastery just south of Big Sur, so I left San Francisco in the evening for a three-hour drive. That was the plan, anyway, until it started pouring rain. By the time the rain stopped, the sun had set, and it was dark. Then just past a curve in the road, a landslide. I nearly drove off the cliff and into the water as I swerved to avoid the largest rocks. Then another landslide, and another, and another. And finally, a large flashing sign: ROAD CLOSED IN 20 MILES. NO DETOUR.

I knew Highway 1 was closed somewhere, because of the landslide back in 2017, but I had planned this trip on a whim and hadn’t done my homework. My phone told me that the entrance to the monastery was also in 20 miles, so I was left wondering which would come first–my destination, or the end of the road. 

I noted one inn with a vacancy, and a pull-out with a port-a-potty, then nothing. No lights, no other cars, just me clinging desperately to the reflective markers on the centerline. The darkness was thick and I couldn’t see past my headlights, but I’d been on this road before. I knew I was driving along the edge of a cliff, with the ocean waiting for me far below.

After finally reaching my quiet cottage at the monastery that night, I wrote down some thoughts on my treacherous journey, and I noted the feeling that overwhelmed me as I drove through the dark, uncertain if I’d reach my destination: fear. This was a different type of fear than I’d felt in my day-to-day life up to that point. This wasn’t fear of the future, or fear of the unknown. It was immediate fear. Fear of the dark, fear for my safety. This sort of fear was so unfamiliar to me because my life was, so far, easy and comfortable. I had a high-paying career, a stable relationship, and a home I enjoyed. I loved God, I went to church, and I had a growing ministry. 

And yet I wondered, as I sat safely under the covers of a warm bed that night, if I’d just drawn nearer to the heart of God on that dark road than I ever had before.

There are many places in the Bible where God, the source of all goodness and light, is described as surrounded by thick darkness. Here are two examples that come to mind:

“Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.“ – Psalm 97:2 ESV

“He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water.” – 2 Samuel 22:12 ESV

These verses make a shocking implication: If you’re going to get to God, you need to pass through thick, scary, dark clouds on the way. That’s odd, isn’t it? Shouldn’t the road to the Father be paved in gold, planted with flowers, and brimming with sunshine? What about the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23?

It’s a paradox, for sure. Sometimes the Christian life feels refreshing, like walking with the Good Shepherd in verdant fields. But other times, it feels like being alone and afraid on a wet, dark road, driving toward a dead end. 

My brief encounter with darkness on Highway 1 was just a foretaste of much greater fears ahead. Six months later, the bottom fell out of my life, and the clouds remain to this day. Just over a year later, the entire world fell headfirst into immediate, tangible fear. It was around this time, when things spun out of control, that I realized these verses and others like them are promises, not just descriptions.

Christian, if you desire to know the Father, don’t scorn the darkness and the scary circumstances. Don’t seek a detour. When you’re suffering and afraid, and God doesn’t seem near at all, don’t give up hope. Dense gloom is the Father’s canopy, and clouds surround Him on all sides. So when God draws you into darkness, He’s pulling you closer to Himself. When your eyes can’t see the light and there’s fear on every side, you’re well on your way to the throne of the King.