I have been to the bottom of the bottomless pit more than once. It is inky black, devoid of air and light. The weight of being there is oppressive and suffocating. Simply breathing requires every ounce of the limited energy you can muster, making it feel inescapable.
The first time I found myself there was in high school, the result of years of abuse. Escaping home provided me a way out, but once I left I rarely paid attention to that suffering other than to acknowledge that it happened and that it was over. But sixteen years later, I found myself in that bottomless place again. It turns out that simply escaping the circumstances that sent me there the first time didn’t heal the wounds that would eventually send me back. And this time my only way out was through.
When I compare those two seminal seasons in my life, while the circumstances that caused them were one and the same, their fruit differed drastically. The first season of darkness sent me searching for God, asking the obvious “why” and “where are you” questions. He met me there in that dark place, bringing the comfort of his forgiveness, grace, and presence, and I emerged with a deep and meaningful relationship with him. The second time around, decades later, I found myself asking the same questions again, searching frantically for the door in to that same comfort and reassurance I had experienced before. Only this time there was no escape and the darkness was isolating and wrapped tightly in silence.
For eighteen months, I was forced to sit on rock bottom and examine carefully every wound and pretense that composed the walls of the internal prison I’d never realized I was trapped in. And I will never forget the moment, at the end of those months, when God finally broke his silence and wrapped me in the most perfect peace I’d ever experienced. For the first time in a year and a half, I could take a deep breath and let it all the way out again. And he was finally there beside me.
What followed was a prolonged period of profound intimacy with God, of viscerally experiencing the restorative power of resting by my shepherd’s side, of him revealing deeper truths underneath the painful wounds. I never want to return to the bottom, but now that I am trekking once again through threatening terrain, I desperately long to return to that restorative, intimate, secluded place with him.
I have tried everything in my power to preserve that place of deep communion within the context of getting on with life outside of the bottomless pit, but to no avail. I have often perceived this to be some degree of spiritual failure on my part—a lack of true desire or discipline rooted in my sinfulness, which requires overcoming. But then I read Stephanie Tait’s book, The View from Rock Bottom, which lays out a compelling case for the fact that the biblical vehicle for deepening intimacy with God and increasing Christlikeness is, in fact, the very suffering we spend so much energy trying to avoid.
Drawing on the whole counsel of scripture, Tait not only builds a robust theology of suffering wholly different from anything I’ve ever heard in church, but she also pulls back the veil to reveal just how deeply the prosperity gospel has infiltrated mainstream American theology—yes, even evangelical theology. The result has handicapped our pursuit of God and our ability to be effective as his hands and feet both to each other and to the lost and hurting world around us.
Tait weaves together the contexts and connections of the scripture she uses in such a profound way as to elevate the value of suffering to the very ground in which the rewards of our faith are buried. This has completely upended my paradigms for understanding the reality of life in Christ, both vertically and horizontally. Suddenly, my scars are sacred and my suffering is a sacrament playing out daily on the holy ground of that bottom place, a visceral experience of broken flesh, spilled blood, and dark silence alongside triumphant resurrection and life.
Using examples from her own experiences with chronic illness, infertility, financial hardship, and trauma, Tait reminds readers of the Bible’s guarantee that we will suffer in this life—that suffering will, in fact, be the norm. But she also illustrates the reality that God draws closest to us inside our suffering. It is also where we are most truly made known to each other. In this context, it is easy to see that our intentional efforts to deny, avoid, and eradicate suffering have the opposite effect of the progress we pursue. By idolizing the counterfeits of temporal comfort, safety, and security, we forfeit the fullness of strength, peace, comfort, hope, joy, and unity Christ promised us.
Tait does not propose Christians look for ways to intentionally inflict suffering on ourselves or others in order to achieve a more fulfilled spirituality. She does, however, call us to examine, both individually and corporately, just how deeply and subconsciously we have accepted the prosperity gospel teachings that are an integral part of the very fiber of our culture and national identity. Doing so will bring to light how those teachings feed our implicit idols of self-reliance, independence, and self-sufficiency. We re-enact Genesis 3 in a myriad of ways every day, individually and corporately. The View from Rock Bottom does not merely explore what the Bible says about suffering. It pulls back the curtain to reveal just how deeply we are stuck in that re-enactment. It reminds us who our God is and just how secure we are in him, especially inside the trials and tribulations we cannot avoid in this life.
Cover photo by IV Horton.