Experiencing God in Liminal Times [Part III]
Many find it difficult to imagine God leading people into periods of doubt, questions, and deconstruction, but the Scriptures are filled with stories and metaphors that describe this experience. The central metaphor illustrating liminality is the tomb—the space between death and resurrection. Its ultimate expression is in Jesus’ life, but it is also manifested in the need for Nicodemus to be born again (John 3:3-4) and Jesus’ invitation to deny oneself, take up one’s cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23).
Moving from the death of old ways of being and doing toward a clearer sense of one’s “true self” is rarely easy or painless. Yet knowing that Jesus himself suffered Gethsemane and the crucifixion offers comfort to those experiencing loss and their own dark night of the soul. Like Paul, Christians yearn “to know Christ . . . and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). And through Jesus’ death, “it is fitting that God . . . should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).
Rather than viewing liminality’s brokenness and pain as unwelcome intruders, it is important to stay with the suffering as long as necessary. Although the dark nights that accompany liminality feel like death, they lead to a resurrection and transformation that lie beyond the tomb.
A second biblical metaphor portraying liminality is wilderness. Examples include Moses tending sheep for forty years before God’s call to free God’s people (Exodus 3) and the Israelites’ flight into the desert before entering the Promised Land (Exodus 12-19). They left behind the relative comforts and yet slavery of Egypt for the discomfort, yet freedom of being led by Yahweh. When faced by difficulties or hardship, over and over the Israelites cried out for the certainty of Egypt, only to be reminded that they needed to find their security in God. Then they experienced the loving presence of God, which accompanied them through fire and cloud (Numbers 14:14).
In the New Testament, John the Baptist spent his adult life in the Jordan wilderness (Matt. 3); Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert following his conversion (Gal.1:15-18); and Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert to abandon his trust of Father God (Matt. 4). Both the Israelites and Jesus had the opportunity to trust God more deeply when they left behind their security and everything familiar to enter a time of transition and uncertainty. “The purpose of such a time . . . is to give the spiritual pilgrim the opportunity to have previous patterns of attitude and action deconstructed and disempowered so that one can more truly come to find God as the true and ultimate source of security and life” (Dumm).
One writer described her experience as a “completely unfamiliar space which could only be likened to wandering in a wilderness. God’s voice could not be heard, Scripture was as dust, compassion could not be found within, and discernment and insight was something that I could no longer fathom.” She describes the contrast between her outward self as a worship leader and a new inner urge for quiet and contemplation. As time passed, she became more comfortable living with contradictions. “I came to more easily dwell within the mystery of paradox” (Franks and Meteyard).
The third biblical metaphor is that of exile, being forced to leave home and live in a foreign land. Exodus tells the story of the Israelites living in exile in Egypt and the Sinai desert. Later they were driven from the Promised Land to Babylon (II Chron. 36). In the New Testament, Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus to the safety of Egypt (Matt. 2:13-18) and John spent many years in exile on Patmos (Rev.1:9). The writer of Hebrews describes the lives of those who died in faith waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Each biblical metaphor describes aspects of the transformation experience. The tomb symbolizes pain and grief involved with dying to old ways and understandings. The wilderness illustrates how one finds God in new ways in the emptiness and dryness that result from leaving old ways. Living in exile speaks of gaining our identity through a combination of family, culture, and faith community.
This involves the need to let go, leave behind or even be forcibly expelled from old ascendant forms of self-definition and identity so that God can be found in ways never before experienced. It is thus in the place of liminality when stripped of all structures of support and security, that the pilgrim and God are free to encounter each other in new and life changing ways (Franks and Meteyard).
Although liminality can be frightening, if one holds fast to faith, the result can be amazing freedom. It becomes a privilege to plumb the depths of God’s grace never before imagined and receive the gift of experiencing an inner life where all mystery and paradox is confronted, accepted, and explored.
Can you relate to the biblical images of the tomb, wilderness, or exile? Liminal means threshold and implies that you are moving forward into a new place, whether you can see your destination yet or not. I pray you will discover transformation and a deeper, fuller experience of God in the days ahead.
- Dumm. Flowers in the Desert: A Spirituality of the Bible. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987.
- Franks, A. and J. Meteyard. “Liminality: the transforming grace of in-between places.” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling