Stepping Through Darkness Obedience on the Hardest Days

For some saints, in some seasons, the spiritual darkness can rest so thick, and last so long, that normal patterns of obedience begin to feel futile. We’ve read and prayed and fought temptation, for weeks or months or maybe years. But now, perhaps, we wonder what’s the point. Why read when little changes? Why pray when God seems silent? Why obey in the lonely dark when no one seems to see or care? The days have been sunless for so long; why live as if the sky will soon turn bright? Not all of God’s people have known such seasons. But for those who have, or will, God has not left us friendless. Here in the dark, a brother walks before us, his day far blacker than ours, his obedience a torch on the road ahead. His story takes place on Good Friday, dark Friday, dead Friday. For some time, he had let his hope take flight, daring to believe he had seen, in Jesus, his own Messiah’s face. But then Friday came, and he watched that face drain into gray; he saw his Lord hang limp upon the cross. And somehow, someway, he did not flee. He did not fall away. He did not sink into despair. Instead, Joseph of Arimathea “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43). Three nails and a spear had snuffed out his sun. And without any light to guide him, Joseph still obeyed. Joseph’s Unlikely Obedience In this simple account of Jesus’s burial, we find a most unlikely obedience. First, Joseph was not one of the twelve disciples, whom we might expect to see at such a moment. Until now, in fact, he had followed Jesus “secretly” (John 19:38). “A respected member of the council” (Mark 15:43), Joseph was a disciple in high places, a man who kept his allegiances mostly quiet. Yet on Good Friday, when his allegiance was least likely to do him good, he speaks. Second, burying Jesus would have cost Joseph dearly. Financially, he bought the linen shroud himself and placed Jesus in a tomb he had just cut — no doubt with other purposes in mind (Mark 15:46; Matthew 27:57). Ceremonially, handling a dead body rendered him unclean. And socially, he embraced the indignity of touching blood and sweat, of bending his grown body under another’s, as if he were a slave or Roman soldier. Third, and most surprising, Joseph, along with the other disciples, had every reason to feel his hopes crucified, breathless as the body he carried. We have no cause to suspect he saw the resurrection coming. Like the eleven, huddled in that hopeless locked room, he surely expected the stone to stay unmoved. To be sure, Joseph’s act was beautiful. But by all appearances, it was hopelessly beautiful. Beautiful like a farmer in famine, tenderly planting a seed he never expects to see. Beautiful like the last living soldier, marching into battle alone. And yet, maybe even then, Joseph’s hope had one more star still shining. And maybe it has enough life to give light to ours. Last Star in the Sky Amid all the darkness, a glimmer appears, faint and far off. Joseph, Luke tells us, “was looking for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). He was looking on Friday morning; somehow, he was still looking on Friday evening, even as he held the kingdom’s dead King. What light sustained such a look? Perhaps Joseph remembered how his father Abraham had believed “in hope . . . against hope” (Romans 4:18). And perhaps he, like Abraham, carried this slain Isaac to the tomb considering, on some dim level, “that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). “God’s kingdom often advances most in the midst of unexpected, unlikely obedience.” Perhaps he recalled how God had lit up black mornings before, raising the sun as if from a tomb. Perhaps he faintly wondered whether this lifter of Lazarus might somehow lift himself. Perhaps he held the shadow of a hope that Jesus was still somehow the Christ, and that the Christ couldn’t stay dead forever. The Pharisees remembered that Jesus said, “After three days I will rise” (Matthew 27:63); maybe Joseph did too. Maybe he couldn’t forget. Either way, hope held a few final breaths in Joseph’s lungs, even after Jesus’s had left. So, he put one heavy foot in front of the other. He defied despair, defied his feelings, defied probabilities, and held the man he had followed. He walked under the gathered darkness of Good Friday, a man weighed down with the world’s dying hope. He took this lifeless King, carefully buried him, and somehow still believed his kingdom would come. Have you known such a hope, one that meets you on dark mornings and rolls away the covers like a stone? Have you learned to look for the kingdom under the light of the sky’s last star? And if not, can you follow Joseph’s footprints, and dare to obey even when hope seems dead? Courage to Keep Looking We might imagine that experiences like Joseph’s have ceased on this side of the empty tomb. While Christ lives, can hope ever seem dead? No doubt, Joseph walked on unique ground. No saint since him has fought to believe and obey under circumstances so dire. None of us has held our Lord’s dead body. But we should beware of underestimating how confused, futile, dark, and hopeless we can feel, even with Easter behind us. Jesus spoke of dark and cold days to come (Matthew 24:12). Peter wrote of grief and Paul of desperate groaning (1 Peter 1:6; Romans 8:22–25). At times, the great apostle himself bent down — discouraged, weary, “perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). Post-Easter, our hope ever lives and reigns, but we cannot always see him. Some nights here seem too dark. We might wish to walk beneath skies always bright, our hands full of breathing hope, our faith nearly turned to sight. Those days do come and, oh, what a gift they are. Looking for the kingdom feels easy then. So does obeying the King. But for many of us, days will come when we feel more like Joseph, looking for a kingdom we cannot see. Our feelings may tell us the kingdom is dead, just as Jesus’s tomb seemed closed forever. But as Joseph’s story reminds us, God’s kingdom often advances most in the midst of unexpected, unlikely obedience. The tree inches upward, unseen, from the mustard seed. The leaven spreads silently through the lump. And in the midnight of our obedience, the darkness of the tomb awaits the moment when lungs will fill again with hope. So then, with Joseph, take courage. Keep praying, keep waiting, keep looking for the kingdom you cannot trace. Set your weary heart like a watchman on the walls, asking and aching for morning. Obey your Lord in the darkness, and dare to believe that he will bring the dawn.