A decade ago I was browsing in the bookstore of the seminary where I was teaching. On the used book shelves I spied a copy of Irene Howat’s Finding God in the Darkness. I bought and read it. Not long afterwards I was back in a pastorate. I kept referring to the testimonies in this book; I thought how helpful they would prove to any number of our members; and in a flush of uncharacteristic generosity I decided to purchase a number of copies to give out as ‘free-bees’ in our congregation. Only to find it was out of print. In such a case one can only tell the publishers how highly you regard such a book and urge them to reprint it. Which may explain why I was asked to write this brief essay.
So I have to ask myself, Why my strange attraction to this little book? What is it about Mrs Howat’s collection of testimonies that makes it so beneficial to Christians who read them? Why does this tiny tome pack such value for the church?
I think there is a kind of ‘undertow’ one feels when reading through this book; one feels caught by a quiet assurance that all we’ve heard about God’s strong grace is true. I have sometimes felt the same effect when I have been making a pastoral call. Here is a man or woman telling me of a trouble they were in or a dilemma they had faced (sometimes severe, sometimes relatively minor) and rehearsing how the Lord – perhaps by simply some small token of assurance – had made them able to stay on their feet and keep on clinging to him. I don’t think these people were conscious of the fact that they were bearing testimony as they disclosed these things. But that’s what they were doing. And my inner response was: Grace must be real after all. ‘[He] will sustain you to the end’ (1 Cor. 1:8, ESV) is no smokescreen. And the stories here help us to go on believing it, for they tell of wobbly people who went on standing or of some who dropped into the pit and yet found that God’s grace had built a floor in the pit. There is more ‘glue’ in grace than we have imagined.
There’s an obvious grammatical shift that takes place in Psalm 23, though it may be that our familiarity with the text keeps us from noting it. In verses 1-3 David always speaks of Yahweh his shepherd in the third person (he…he…he…) as he describes the Shepherd’s ordinary care; but when he comes to the valley of the shadow of death (or, ‘valley of deep darkness’) in verse 4, he speaks in the second person—‘you are with me; your rod…your staff….’ In the darkness he no longer speaks about the Shepherd but to him. It’s as if in the darkness the Shepherd seems nearer. And that, I think, is the testimony of this little book.
Adapted from Dale Ralph Davis’ introduction to Fining God in the Darkness: Twelve accounts of God’s Care through difficult times by Irene Howat (Christian Focus 2012)