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Following Jesus

What Alain Emerson’s Luminous Dark Taught Me

February 13, 2018 by

Image of Luminous Dark book cover

On the surface, the book Luminous Dark by Alain Emerson is a book about grieving, written for grieving people. It’s not written to make you feel better right away; the experience is more like that of a doctor ripping the old bandage from a wound, cutting off dead flesh, and cleaning the wound. It’s an intensely personal book, telling Alain’s own story of dealing with terrible loss and enormous grief. And it’s about a whole lot more than that.

Alain was twenty-seven when his wife, Lindsay, died; she was twenty-three. They had been married for almost two years. Brain cancer. Alain was (and still is) a pastor very active in the 24-7 Prayer movement; pretty much by definition he believed in the power of prayer. When his wife died, Alain’s faith in God held firm but his understanding of the world, of discipleship, was shaken. He describes the frustration and the anguish he felt when people came up to him to tell him, “God is in control.” He did not doubt that God was in control; he just did not understand why. Why did God allow this to happen?

It’s an old question that is still being asked. Last year, actor Stephen Fry made headlines when he explained what he would say to God:

I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.

For Alain it was more difficult than for Stephen. Alain loved God. For him there was no question of running away or turning his back on his faith, and yet he went through many months of desperately hard anguish. But he testifies that through all this he came to feel the closeness of God in a way he never had before. There is nothing redeeming about suffering or loss in its own right – that he makes clear; nor does he subscribe to the belief that God throws us disasters in order to test us. What Alain points to, though, is that God loves us and shares in all the suffering that we go through.

Maybe it’s not so important to be who we want to be. Maybe what’s important is to be who God wants us to be.

And the fact is that at some point and on some level we will all go through suffering. The big lie of our time is the one that says you can do anything, be anything, you are who you want to be, live the dream. And actually we can’t. Sometimes things don’t work out: you don’t get the education, or the job, or the girl, or the kids; sometimes what you would like to be is way beyond what you can ever become. Sometimes when you ask, God says “No.” Some dreams wither. Some people die young. A lot of our tragedies are pathetic; we struggle to accept the fact that we are single, or ugly, or unsociable, or left out. Sometimes shit happens. And yet as Christians, maybe it’s not so important to be who we want to be. Maybe what’s important is to be who God wants us to be. And maybe sometimes that is going to be tough, but God goes through it with us. To quote from the book:

This truth was incarnated through my dad during those unbearable nights when I was back in my parents’ house. The nights when a wave of grief would come, the ache so deep and searing that it could express itself only in loud groans. On these nights, my dad would come into my room and just sit there, on the edge of my bed. He would sit quietly in the dark but I could hear him weep with me. He never said anything in those moments except once, and I can still remember his tender voice, “Alain, if I could take this for you, son, I would take it all now, if the Lord would let me, I would take it for you.”

Drawbacks? I wish Alain would have done more to broaden the appeal of this book; it’s a fantastic resource for Christians but does not go far enough to reach agnostics, atheists, and troublemakers. There is a bit too much Christianspeak. It’s just such a powerful story that it could go a long way to answering Stephen Fry and the many like him who feel like challenging God to a fist fight.

As every Christian story should be, Alain’s message is ultimately victorious, the more so because of the genuine honesty in the way he dealt with his grief. It didn’t have that Turkish Delight flavor you sometimes get with Christian literature, it didn’t try to offer easy solutions. It is compellingly told. Ultimately the message is best taken as a completely heartfelt appeal to trust in God, to be faithful to God at all times; that God is there, even when we dare to be angry with him. That no matter what our personal plans, we have a part to play in the great plan of God, and that this is everything.

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About the author

IanBarthHorizontal

Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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  • I can't wait to read this book with it's message of hope through the bad times. Thanks for the honest review.

    Judith Scollard