The Dark Night of the Soul
JUNE 10, 2020
Are you wandering around a spiritual wilderness and dying of thirst? Does it feel like God has gone away on vacation to Bermuda? I’ve been there and still go there on occasions.
And more than once, I’ve had someone ask me in a very pious way, “Who moved?” In other words, all you have to do is to simply move back to Jesus and become more religious…then you and God, hand-in-hand, will walk off into the sunset together.
That is stupid and comes from the heart of the Try Harder heresy of our faith. It smells like smoke and comes from the pit of hell. It is simply not true.
Some of the closest times I’ve had with God happened when my devotional life stunk, I was too depressed to pray and I didn’t want to give up my sin. God showed…when I wouldn’t have. There have also been times when I did everything right, read and studied my Bible, prayed for all the missionaries, preached to God’s people and sinned less than most times…and it felt like God didn’t give a rip and essentially “left the building.”
Sometimes God moves…or at least it certainly feels like it.
St. John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Carmelite monk, coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” He said that the “dark night” represents the hardships and pain the soul meets on the way to God. This experience is normal. It is not caused by something we do or don’t do. It is simply a part of the way God works.
For the record, if you find yourself going through the dark night, Christ can identify with your pain and suffering. He can identify with your dark night of the soul. There is hardly a single place in your life right now where Jesus doesn’t say—sometimes with tears—“Yes, child, I know.”
But if you really haven’t moved (at least not much) and yet God seems to have left you alone, I want to help. The Psalmist went through the dark night of the soul and was commissioned by God, in Psalm 22, to tell us of his experience.
Psalm 22—and indeed most of Scripture—is a surprise. The principle is this: Almost all of God’s truth seems, on the face of it, foolish, obtuse and strange. A corollary of that principle: The essence of Christian maturity is often the recognition that if it feels right…it is probably wrong.
Paul said, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
So when it hurts really badly and you’re going through the dark night of the soul, everything you want to do or think you should do will only make it worse.
Run to the Dark
Our natural tendency is to run from the dark. We should run to the dark instead.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1-2).
Larry Crabb says that when it hurts, keep probing the pain until it hurts more…and when it hurts so much that you can’t fix it, Jesus will come.
And ironically when God seems to have left, we want to run away from him. I know I do. I want to quit praying and to run away. But that’s not what the Psalmist did and that’s not what Jesus did either. In the midst of his loss and on the cross, Jesus prayed (quoting this Psalm), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I get that. What I don’t get is that Jesus stayed on the cross.
If you’re going through the dark night of the soul, don’t run away. Sit still, be quiet and wait…even if you have to wait a long time.
Turn to the Past
Our natural tendency is to turn from the past. We should turn to the past instead.
The Psalmist affirms the past: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them, To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame….For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Psalm 22:3-5, 24).
God has given you two great gifts—your family’s history and your personal history.
Hanging in my study are photos and actual letters written by Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, C.S. Lewis, Billy Sunday and William Booth. I have an impressive gallery and an impressive library (I used to save money for books and now publishers send me books for free). They all remind me of my family and my heritage.
I spend a lot of time in my study. Sometimes late at night, those guys talk to me: “Where do you think you’re going?” “You’ve gone too far to get out.” “We’ve all been there. We’ve been through what you’re going through.” “Sometimes we’ve wondered where God was too.” “Hang tough and stop complaining.”
Don’t forget about your past too. The times when you thought you wouldn’t make it, but you did. The times when you thought you would die, but you didn’t. Remember the times of God’s kindness, love and faithfulness. The world says, “Have a drink and forget.” Jesus says, “Drink and remember.” You will have the past to look forward to.
Quit Looking for Alternatives
Our natural tendency is to look for alternatives. The Psalmist knew he didn’t have any: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help” (Psalm 22:9-11).
Where are you going to go?
Jesus forgives, accepts and loves me…and you. Who else is going to forgive you that way? Who else is going to accept you that way? Who else is going to love you that way? God keeps us and holds us.
The last spiritual thing Job said was, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). Job cussed, spit, complained and whined…but he didn’t leave.
Job didn’t have anywhere else to go. I don’t have anywhere else to go. You don’t have anywhere else to go.
Affirm the Truth
Our natural tendency is to discount the truth. We should affirm the truth instead.
“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:27-28).
Don’t ever doubt in the dark what God has taught you in the light. Whatever you’re going through, the truth is still the truth.
Remember that what we believe is true. It is objective truth, what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.” No matter what I feel about it or anything else, it is still true. And once you see truth, you can’t unsee it.
Our natural tendency is to complain. We should praise God instead.
“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (Psalm 22:22-23).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Nothing is an accident in your life. Jesus is always in it…even in, especially in, the dark night of the soul.
So be still, don’t run, and wait.