Joyful Confidence in God: The Dark Night of Soul
by John Ortberg, from Soul Keeping
When God Seems Silent
Because the soul is the deepest expression of the person, the soul is the place of greatest pain. We do not speak of the dark night of the mind, or the will, or even the spirit; only the soul. The dark night of the soul.
The phrase comes from a brilliant Carmelite monk named John who lived in Spain in the sixteenth century. He devoted his life to reforming the church, but his attempts were heavily criticized, and he ended up in prison. It was there in confinement, with his dreams lost, that he wrote his most famous work: The Dark Night of the Soul. It is an account of how God works to change us not just through joy and light, but through confusion, through disappointment, through loss. Because of his commitment in the midst of suffering, he became known as “St. John of the Cross.”
The dark night of the soul, as he described it, is not simply the experience of suffering. It is suffering in what feels like the silence of God.
This saint who bore the name of the cross of Jesus said that in the early days of spiritual life, the soul often finds delight in devotional activities: We love to read the Bible, we hunger for worship, we long to pray. We may think this is a sign of our maturity; it is really more a kind of honeymoon phase.
“But there will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation of the soul in order to teach it virtue…” In the dark night, my prayers feel like they reach no higher than the ceiling. (Although, Dallas Willard often said, if we truly understand how radically present God is in our world, reaching the ceiling is more than high enough.) In the dark night, the Bible I read turns to ashes. In the dark night, words and books and songs that once spoke to my soul now leave me cold.
It is important to understand that the dark night, as John writes about it, is not the soul’s fault. Of course, it’s possible for me to grow cold toward God because I cling to sin, or prefer an idol, or simply become lazy. These are all real occurrences that require wise response. But they are not the dark night.
The dark night is God-initiated.
There’s an old illustration that was used to teach uninterrupted intimacy with God as the norm for successful spiritual life. It never failed to add guilt to spiritual dryness. It is a picture of intimacy with God that’s as old as bench seats in the front of cars. A husband and wife are driving together. She says to him: “When we were dating, we used to sit next to each other while we drove; you would have your arm around me, I would lay my head on your shoulder, and I felt so loved. Now look at the distance between us.” And the husband replies: “Who moved?”
In the dark night of the soul, it is God who moved.
God may still be in the car. But He’s scrunched up small and pressing hard against the passenger door. I stretch my arm but I can’t reach him or feel Him or touch Him. My soul has not changed seats. God moved.
Waiting in the Dark
The practices that once fed my soul feed it no more. John of the Cross, writing from his prison cell, says in the dark night the soul is pained but not hopeless. “God’s love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason He takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness…. No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the dark night.” We have a hard time with the dark night. Our churches are practical places, and we generally tell people the answer to any spiritual problem is more: more prayer, more serving, more giving, more trying.
But John says just the opposite. When the soul begins to enjoy the benefits of the spiritual life and then has them taken away, it becomes embittered and angry. There are some who become angry at themselves at this point, thinking that their loss of joy is a result of something they have done or have neglected to do. They will fuss and fret and do all they can to recover this consolation. They will strive to become saints in a day. They will make all kinds of resolutions to be more spiritual, but the greater the resolution, the greater the fall.
Their problem is that they lack the patience that waits for whatever God would give them and when God chooses to give. They must learn spiritual meekness, which will come about in the dark night.
What do we do in the dark night?
We do nothing. We wait. We remember that we are not God. We hold on. We ask for help. We do less. We resign from things, we rest more, we stop going to church, we ask somebody else to pray because we can’t. We let go of our need to hurry through it.
You can’t run in the dark.
We love psalms about restoring our souls. They are sometimes called psalms of orientation — psalms that help us direct our lives to God. But there are other psalms. After we learned of Dallas’s diagnosis, my wife delivered a message based on what Walter Brueggemann calls “psalms of disorientation.” These are the psalms where the soul is disoriented; God is absent; darkness is winning. “Break the teeth in their mouths, o God… Let them vanish like water that flows away… like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.” That’s one that doesn’t get used at a lot of prayer breakfasts. Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) once wrote that before we can love our enemies, we have to pray our hatred. In these psalms — which are more frequent than the psalms of orientation — Israel vented and boiled over at God, apparently believing He was secure enough to be able to take it.
Nancy talked about an unmarried friend who once punctured the polite piety of a small group Bible study that was having an abstract discussion about “Where is God when it hurts?” With the honesty rarely seen in Bible study groups, she declared, “If Jesus thinks that three hours on a cross makes up for forty-two years of singleness, I think that’s crazy.”
Nancy waited for the group to get swallowed up in a sinkhole. Eventually someone chirped in with a Christian cliché, and the moment passed. But there was more honest faith in that one real comment than all the safe platitudes that came before and after it.
In my own darkest time some years ago, my greatest disappointment was deep and unfixable. I questioned my calling. I didn’t think about suicide, but I definitely thought that if my life were over, I’d be grateful for the end of pain. I would talk to a few close friends, and they would generally give sympathy and support, for which I was grateful.
But then I did what I have so often done when I cannot think or pray or reason my way out of something. I called Dallas. I walked him through the circumstances and the heartbreak and the pain, eager for his answer.
Long pause. “This will be a test of your joyful confidence in God.” Silence. I did not miss the challenge in this sentence, all the more goading for its gentle phrasing. Not just my confidence — my joyful confidence. Human beings around the globe had been suffering a year ago, and I was capable of joy then. Why should I consider my own suffering grounds for a crisis of confidence in God when I don’t react the same way to others?
If there is a God who is worthy to be the Father of Jesus, I can trust giving this situation as well as my own feelings joyfully into His hands. If there is not, I have infinitely bigger problems than a merely human circumstance. Either way it is true: this will be a test of my joyful confidence in God.