Vale of TearsThe Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul
He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
He has weighed me down with chains.
Even when I call out or cry for help,
He shuts out my prayer.
Grief falls into many categories – and none. You may be neither bereaved, nor divorced, nor even burnt out, yet you find yourself assailed by overwhelming sadness.
Unlike most other griefs that we have been considering, these ‘dark nights’ of the soul’ can descend on us without any external loss or trigger. There are no words to describe the agony that the soul accustomed to the steady reassuring presence of the Lord can experience when, for what may prove to be a prolonged season, we find ourselves more aware of His absence than His presence.
It is comforting to remember that many of the finest believers through the centuries have experienced prolonged seasons in which they have felt all but completely bereft of any sense of God’s presence. In other words, what feels to us like an essentially private an inexplicable grief, will have its counterpart in what other people have experienced – and how grateful we can be that so many have recorded what they went through as an encouragement for us to persevere.25
Do not all the best love stories include episodes of at least temporary separation? When we are in a spiritual “desert,” we miss the comforting sense of God’s presence – not to mention the joy of seeing His Spirit moving in power. When this is not happening, it is easy to feel as though our hopes, dreams and ministries lie buried in the sand. But faith was never first and foremost a matter of feelings, and God is allowing us to be tested so that our faith, which is of greater worth than gold may shine through. Unlike most other wilderness experiences that we go through, there may be little or nothing that we can do to bring this season to an end. Time to recall Corrie Ten Boom’s wisdom:
“When the train is in a tunnel, don’t get out of your seat:
sit tight and trust the driver!”
And then Peter’s reassuring reminder that we are being drawn into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade which is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire –may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Pet. 4-7)
During these times when we ‘lose’ our usual sense of God’s presence, it is quite normal to find various temptations we thought we had long since conquered or outgrown returning to torment us. The question comes down to this: are we hungry and thirsty enough to still keep seeking to honour the Lord in our inmost attitudes during those times when there is no seemingly obvious benefit to be had from doing so? If we are, the Lord will show us ways in which we can use the darkness as a goad for seeking to honour Him more?26
These times when the light of the Lord appears to burn low test our soul. The alternative is a stark one. Wrongly assuming that the Lord is no longer with us in the way He whilst before, we will give in to our doubts and disappointments and turn to other things to fill the vacuum.
It is not efficiency and outward productiveness the Lord is looking for from us at these times so much as a heart that continues to hunger after Him, for all we do not appear to be finding any great joy or elation in doing so. The Lord is noting our response, and weighing everything to do with our circumstances carefully. As Sebastien Valfrey put it,
When it is all over, you will not regret having suffered;
rather you will regret having suffered so little,
and suffered that little so badly.
Reflect and Pray
Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary,
but still go on longing after Him whom you love.
The Cloud of Unknowing
Lord, where emptiness and loss
have scarred my heart and scoured my soul,
let my faith become more resilient
and my heart more full of trust.
For as surely as You created and positioned
great swathes of wilderness across the world:
steppe and glacier, veld and dune,
to say nothing of the great ice sheets,
these times too are a part of our experience –
and You know how to sustain Your children
through desert doubts and droughts.
In the Name of Jesus,
Who neither sensed nor saw the Father’s face
in Gethsemane’s darkness, yet still set His will to obey –
so may we glean great treasures
from the times of darkness
that You permit us to pass through,
and emerge in power and praise.
25 The writings of St John of the Cross are particularly highly regarded in this regard. Mother Teresa’s prolonged spiritual drought is a well publicised recent example. I have written in more detail about the dark night of the soul in Intimacy and Eternity.
It would be a great mistake to assume that people who regularly receive inspirations and consolations enjoy a superior faith to those who experience prolonged seasons in which they all but lose sight altogether of the Lord they love so much. It might be nearer the truth of the matter that they are only able to stay the course at all because they receive such strengthening.
26 Cf 2 Chronicles 32:31, John 16:7