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Seasons of the Soul
Author; Bruce Demarest
IVP Books
191 Pages

Hebrews chapter 11 is famously known as the “Faith” chapter of the Bible, containing a long and impressive list of men and women who “by faith” were able to overcome the most daunting of odds and accomplish great things for God.  Reading it is like watching a slide show of a Biblical “Who’s Who,” with each brief portrait calling to mind well-known stories of perseverance, trials, courage, and faith.  It has always been encouraging to me that Hebrews chapter 12 begins with this exhortation:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  The author of Hebrews intentionally places his readers right into this great story he has just been narrating:  You, he says, are surrounded by all of these great men and women of faith.  You, in your own particular race, are being cheered on by the likes of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, Sampson, and David.  What better encouragement to shake off the tangles of sin and run our races with perseverance?

The great strength of Bruce Demarest’s book Seasons of the Soul: Stages of Spiritual Development, is that it could have the same effect on the reader as Hebrews 12:1, placing her in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses.  Demarest’s intention is to explore the “dynamics and seasons of the [Christian’s] spiritual journey” (16) and one of the ways he does this is by drawing on a multitude of witnesses from across the Christian spectrums of time and denomination.  Each page is packed with references to a wide variety of sources which include Scripture, the writings of the Desert Fathers, sermons of Puritan preachers, and first-hand accounts of modern evangelicals (to name a few).  Opening the book to a randomly-selected two-page spread reveals references to Psalm 24, Matthew 5, John Calvin, C.S. Lewis, Thelma Hall, Isaiah 35, I Thessalonians 4, George Barna, John Owen, and Richard Sibbes, as well as two personal anecdotes.  It is obvious that Demarest, a professor of Christian formation at Denver Seminary, is well-versed in this material as he seamlessly weaves together quotes, stories, and examples which work to give the reader a sense that in her spiritual journey, she is walking down a road which many feet have traveled before her.

In organizing his examination of the Christian’s spiritual voyage, Demarest borrows a three-fold paradigm from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, which describes the Christian life as first being “securely oriented (located): that is, coming to faith, experiencing God’s blessing and launching the spiritual journey. . . . [then being] painfully disoriented (dislocated): that is, experiencing struggles, doubts, crises and perhaps a dark night of the soul. . . [and finally] being securely reoriented (relocated): that is, experiencing spiritual renewal, a deepened relationship with God and joy supplanting despair” (15; italics Demarest’s).  Demarest spends one chapter examining the first stage, one chapter on the last stage, and four chapters on the stage in the middle, looking at the reality of suffering and struggles, the reasons behind suffering, the special experience of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and ways to respond to suffering and disorientation.  Each chapter is methodically, almost painstakingly organized, and at times reads like a clinical or diagnostic tool the reader can use to attempt to map her own spiritual experiences. 

However, it quickly became clear to me after reading the first chapter of the book that I was going to have a hard time locating myself in Demarest’s paradigm.  Although he acknowledges in the Preface that “[r]arely does spiritual growth advance in a straight line toward heaven, it’s more like an upward spiral.  The Christian spiritual journey involves starting and stopping, digressions. and sometimes even reversions to previous stages” (13), the author does not clearly acknowledge that these journeys may be substantially different from one another.  For example, I felt largely excluded by the content of the first chapter, which focused on the experience of adult converts to Christianity, with no mention of children who become Christians at a very young age and therefore whose lives do not fit quite so neatly into pre- and post-conversion compartments.  Additionally, while we can all identify with the experience of suffering, to at least some degree, we certainly cannot all identify with the intense and complex series of experiences which St. John of the Cross characterized as “the Dark Night of the Soul,” in spite of the fact that Demarest claims “Those who fail to advance to the night of the spirit fail to love God and serve others as they ought” (90).  There is a strong sense throughout the middle four chapters of the book that suffering and the experience of the absence of God are what God has reserved for the truly worthy.  Demarest says that “in his wisdom, God often turns up the heat when he sees gold worth purifying” (55) and describes the Presbyterian pastor Thomas Manton as saying that “spiritual desertion happens only to the godly; believers living obedient lives may find themselves temporarily walking in darkness.  However, those who have never felt the love of Christ will not experience it” (91).  

Rather than encouraging me or giving me a greater understanding of my spiritual journey, Demarest’s focus on the experience of disorientation left me feeling a sense of dread and doubt about my personal experience of God.  I can certainly identify times in my own life of what was, for me, intense suffering, and even a momentary perception of God’s absence, and concurrently, the ways I was shaped and refined by those times.  However, I have certainly never experienced anything like what Demarest describes as the dark night of the soul.  I was left questioning: “When is it going to happen to me?  What awful things are going to come my way?  When am I going to feel abandoned by God and why?  Or perhaps am I not worth refining by God?”  I do not believe this was Demarest’s aim, but for me, this was the book’s result.  I was particularly unsettled by his affirmative use of a quote by Abraham Kuyper, who claimed that “prosperity and pleasure never bring people closer to God” (153; italics Demarest’s).  The truth is, I believe, a bit more complicated, and I’m not alone.  Recently, renowned author and theologian J.I. Packer gave a chapel address at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, in which he characterized his own life, not as a journey from conversion, through suffering and a dark night of the soul and into a renewed reorientation toward God, but rather as a series of “happy surprises”.  He did not seek to downplay or disregard his own suffering, but rather celebrated how he had indeed been brought closer to God through the experience of unexpected pleasures. 

Some day, I may have cause to pick up this volume again, and then my response may be, “Ahh, yes, so that’s what he was talking about.”  Until then, I can still appreciate knowing that, as I run my race, wherever it takes me and through whatever joys and sorrows, I am running in very good company, toward a very, very good finish line:  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scoring its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).    

Jennifer Monroe


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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