I’m sure you know the story. The people of Israel flee slavery in Egypt, and God leads them through the wilderness, taking the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

I was struck recently by a passing reference to this account. In particular, I noticed for the first time an important difference between cloud and fire.

What might it be like to follow a pillar of cloud? I imagine it would be fairly easy to get distracted, to look away, to fail to notice the presence of God right in front of you. Clouds, after all, are hazy. They blend into their surroundings. We see them every day, and they’re easy to ignore.

But a pillar of fire in the darkness? There’s no looking away from that. There’s no not noticing God’s presence right in front of you. There’s no mistaking the direction in which you’re meant to walk.

I think there’s a truth here—or at the very least a metaphor. When the sun is shining and all is well, it’s easy to fail to see the signs of God in the world. It’s easy to wander off.

God tends to be much easier to see in the darkness, in the times when things are difficult. It’s true that the search for God is not usually quite as simple as following a flaming pillar through a desert. But countless spiritual autobiographies tell us that difficult times are the times when we’re most likely to make room for God, to encounter God in our lives.

Many people are finding this time to be a time of darkness, a time of challenge, a time in the wilderness. If you’re among them, it might help to remember that God is there with you in the darkness. And if you take a moment, open your eyes, and look around, you might just see a flash of fire.