Discouragement can be a crippling form of soul sickness. It stalks those who serve in hard places and in unyielding spiritual environments. And lately, I’ve felt the dark creep of discontent that, if unchecked, can bleed into despair. Over the years, I’ve learned how dangerous it is to nurse feelings that can become poisonous to fruitful ministry.
Time with Scripture and in prayer is always part of the cure, but sometimes it also helps to hear from others who’ve been in these trenches and implicitly understand the difficulties and dynamics of missionary life. So, I pull a thin volume wrapped in a disintegrating book cover off the bookshelf by my bed—Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael. First published in 1960, the insights in this book are just as relevant today as when they were written. This Christian classic speaks to anyone wrestling with discouragement, illness, or painful circumstances.
Navigating an Avalanche of Grief
Amy Carmichael had more reason than I’ve ever had to feel discouraged. In 1895 when she was a young woman, Amy moved from her home in Ireland to South India. Once there, she served for fifty-five straight years without ever returning home. For the last twenty years of her life, she was bedridden with debilitating pain, the consequence of an accidental fall into an uncovered pit. During the long years of uninterrupted suffering following her injury, she continued to serve as a spiritual mother for the community she founded called the Dohnavur Fellowship, a haven for the most vulnerable members of society, in particular for children rescued from temple prostitution.
I’ve often wondered how Amy could maintain such supernatural joy in the face of “griefs which can come down like an avalanche over the soul.” Reading her writings has taught me that there were four main things that bolstered her spirit and her faith—saturation in Scripture, delight in the presence of God, the support of a Christian community, and the glorious beauty of the natural world.
Much attention is given in Christian circles to the critical role Scripture and fellowship play in sustaining ministry, and Amy affirmed the importance of both those things. But it’s her deep and abiding appreciation for beauty that enlivens her work and makes it so uplifting.
“His brow was crowned with thorns;
do we seek rosebuds for our crowning?”
Gold by Moonlight features reflections on a collection of black and white photographs printed in the early twentieth century. They show shafts of light filtering through dark woods, shadowy ravines, sunlight illuminating mountain peaks, snow blanketing pine branches, the first flush of cherry blossoms in the spring. In all these images Amy discerns what she called, “figures of the true,” or portraits of truth that dovetail with revelation found in the pages of Scripture.
“We shall feel sometimes like this battered pine, thrashed by the wind,” she observed, commenting on a photograph of a lone tree exposed to the elements. “We who follow the Crucified are not here to make a pleasant thing of life; we are called to suffering for the sake of a suffering, sinful world. The Lord forgive us our shameful evasions and hesitations. His brow was crowned with thorns; do we seek rosebuds for our crowning?”
The Darkest Ravine
Amy experienced the fellowship of Christ’s suffering not just in physical pain that she said, “gnawed like a wolf,” but mostly in her encounters with dark spiritual forces and oppressive Hindu religious practices. In the region where she worked, girls as young as five could be “dedicated” to the gods. Once given into the care of the temple, they became objects of sexual abuse first by priests and then by worshipers. Amy created a refuge for children rescued from the torment of religious prostitution, a dangerous endeavor that often evoked the wrath of those who profited from the trade. She knew too well the “wrongs done to innocence that scorch the mind.”
She was able to face this “land of fear” that she saw figured in a photograph of a dark ravine by focusing on God’s promises. “I will not fear what flesh can do unto me,” she commented. “Always the expectation of God is that his child shall break through and live and endure as seeing the Invisible—‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’”
“If we’re revived by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re capable of bearing fruit in season and out of season, in fertile ground and in the desert, when life is easy and when it’s not.”
Amy’s spiritual response to the beauty of the natural world is perfectly in step with the psalmist’s cry, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). Amy was a born naturalist because she understood that creation is a marvel that inspires worship of the Creator and that renews our minds for service in difficult spiritual landscapes. For those of us serving cross-culturally in places were sin has devastated so many lives, the experience of the beauty of nature can help lift our gaze from the ravages of wrong to the goodness of God.
Silver That Healed Discouragement
One dark night while feeling discouraged and “of no account” to God, Amy saw the moonlight bathing the grass and trees in silver. “It was only silver,” she said, “not like the glory of morning gold. ‘Offer thy silver,’ said a quiet voice. And peace came that moonlight night in offering just silver.” This moment of spiritual breakthrough found expression in a poem.
I cannot bring Thee praise like golden noon-light
Shining on earth’s green floor;
My song is more like silver of the moonlight:
But I adore.
The apostle Paul encourages us to set our minds on “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Phil. 4:8 NIV, emphasis added). Attentiveness to aesthetic beauty is an aspect of Christian experience that enables believers to stand firm even in the face of suffering. This cast of mind propels mission because it reminds us of the glorious hope of inhabiting a new heaven and a new earth where God reigns over a magnificent garden city (Rev. 21–22).
An Iris Blooming in Winter
This has been an unseasonably warm winter in the megacity where I live. Asphalt covers most of my environment, so focusing on natural beauty requires some creative searching. But in a small patch of clay near the cement wall where we park our car, a resilient patch of iris put down roots. In January, when these flowers should have been dormant for the winter, one of the bulbs put out a shoot that bloomed.
Observing the lush velvet purple of the petals, I could see in it what Amy Carmichael would have called “a figure of the true.” In Christ, we can become like an iris that blooms in January. If we’re revived by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re capable of bearing fruit in season and out of season, in fertile ground and in the desert, when life is easy and when it’s not. In Amy’s life, so much of the spiritual fruit she produced was born out of season. But in instances when grace manifests itself so clearly through dark seasons, God is most glorified.
All quotations are from Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael.
Eliza Thomas is an editor and writer who has worked with IMB for more than a decade. She lives with her family in Central Asia.