It’s January and my husband wants to take down the Christmas lights.
I contend that they are red and white: why can’t they stay up until Valentine’s Day? He has acquiesced, grudgingly. You see, I strongly dislike winter. It’s dark, and cold, and often dreary. These lights at night give me a kind of cheer in the midst of the darkness, a beacon of hope, if you will. Hints that the winter will not last, and soon the spring will come.
The Christian life can be like that. Dark moments and places. St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul. A period in our Spiritual journey with Christ that is overwhelmingly dark…void…where God seems so distant. Some call it depression. Some call it sin – for ‘it is not God who has moved away from you, but you who have moved away from him.’ I don’t know about you, but I easily grow weary of the clichés. I believe that life is often more complicated than the simple phrases given to pour guilt over the already downtrodden.
You see, The Dark Night of the Soul is a real thing. Uncomfortably, it seems to have no formula, no set pattern, no similarities in how it begins, no time limits. It appears to be as individual as humans are.
Many famous Christians have experienced this: St. Teresa of Avila, Mother Theresa, C.H. Spurgeon, Martin Luther, and St. John of the Cross, who is attributed to coining the phrase. And me, although I am not a famous Christian. I do tend, like Luther and Spurgeon, to lean towards the melancholic.
I’ve come to understand the Dark Night of the Soul to be profitable, even as it sucks the very light out of you. Primarily, this experience is said to be a purging process, or in post-modern terms: to help set our priorities and achieve balance. In certain circles, they call it “ridding ourselves of our attachments.” Whatever you call it, this seems to be an extreme process of pinpointing those things that get into our way of total commitment to God. Then, learning to put them aside.
Secondly, the Dark Night of the Soul makes room in our life to learn what it is that we truly believe about God. While many of us know quite a bit about God and His ways, I think we can often be challenged by God’s mystery, the unexplainable ways of God. Sometimes, we just can’t rationalize what God is doing, the how and why he does it. We need to come to terms with this, because there are times when we simply don’t know.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)
I like what Emily Stimpson Chapman of OSV Newsweekly writes about the Dark Night of the Soul:
“…the dark night of the soul is purely an act of God; it is God working in our souls to draw us closer to him.”
I draw comfort from this, because it is helpful to think that this time is purposeful, and not arbitrary.
However, remember that sometimes depression is depression, a medical condition. We may need help to distinguish depression from the Dark Night of the Soul. And sometimes, we may even need help during the Dark Night of the Soul. There is no shame in seeking out counselors, Spiritual Directors, or, perhaps, doctors during this time. It can be overwhelming, but walking this path with others can be beneficial as you share the load. Having people around you who will listen to your difficult questions and will not flinch (at least outwardly) is truly a blessing beyond measure.
But take heart my friends if you are currently experiencing this place in your spiritual life. This condition seems hopeless and unfruitful, but I am convinced that it is a profitable time. The results of this experience can only give us more empathy, humility, and patience. All of which lead to our goal of becoming more like Christ. Another quote I found helpful:
“But also consider this moment to be an opportunity to see what Jesus may be up to in your life…. What you might find is that you’re being invited into the glorious purging of the dark night, where the old self and its old loves are shed and replaced by a new and deeper love for Jesus, for others, and even for you—a beloved son or daughter of a heavenly Father who longs to see you whole.” Chuck DeGroat, CT Pastors
And while the length of time one is in the Dark Night of the Soul varies, there is an end to it.
“THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL ALWAYS GIVES WAY TO THE BRIGHTNESS OF THE NOONDAY LIGHT OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD” R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries
Perhaps you are in this journey of the Dark Night. Please be encouraged by the idea that you are not alone in this. You are in good company. And you are loved by God, even though this seems like a strange way to express love. Many of those who have traveled this road found their lives and their ministries more productive and full as a result of their journey through the Dark Night of the Soul. If it is at all helpful, the biographies of these people are available and rewarding to read.
May God continually bless your journey.