Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of His servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God (Isaiah 50:10)
Joe came to me one day looking very discouraged. He explained to me that he thought he should break his commitment to serve as a staff member in our Discipleship Training School. When I inquired as to the reason for his departure he explained to me, “I’m just dry. I don’t feel God anymore.” He proceeded to explain that his quiet times were dry, he didn’t get excited during worship times like the others, he didn’t sense God’s affirmation on his work and he wasn’t getting much out of his Bible reading.
After an hour or so, we came to the conclusion that his spiritual dryness was not the result of personal sin in his life, Satanic attack or bad circumstances. I showed him the above verse and diagnosed his problem as, “The Dark
Night of the Soul”, a term coined by John of the Cross, a 16th Century Carmelite monk. Using the above verse and many others I explained this common experience that many of us go through but few like to admit. It is when a God-tailored darkness encompasses our soul through no fault of our own. In fact, it could be our very seeking of God’s presence that moves Him to lead us into what some have called “the ministry of absence” or a “desert” experience.
The world was shocked awhile ago when revelations came to light that Mother Theresa had struggled for years with this dark night, what one author has called, “the cloud of unknowing” and what Tozer referred to as “the ministry of the night”. If God’s main objective is to help us to walk by faith (without which it is impossible to please God [Heb 11:6] and without which we cannot overcome the world [1 John 5:4]) then we should not be surprised when even the greatest of saints are led into a time of “darkness”. This is so that not only that our faith may be tested but that we would not forget in the darkness what we have learned in the light.
Leaders are often especially good candidates for such a spiritual tunnel because those who follow us go through dark times and look to us for how we will respond in the dark.
While books seem to fly off the shelves if they promise some euphoric experience of God’s Presence, I cautiously suggest that there may be an unhealthy, yea, almost toxic addiction to what we have perceived to be abiding in the presence of God. The question has to be asked, what do we mean by this “presence”? Is it a “feeling” or a sense or an impression? Is it simply believing that He is always with us and will never forsake us? Is He there when we lack this feeling? When we don’t have this feeling do we therefore not have “intimacy” with God? Have we created certain hoops in our mind and a certain percentage of time that God needs to “show up” in our lives in order for us to continue to serve Him? I do not ask these questions to be cynical or to doubt that God sometimes “shows up” or manifests himself at some times more than others.(see 2 Chr. 5:13-14).
Aa few years ago I saw an interview with a psychiatrist who was trying to analyze the exposed bizarre behavior of Tiger Woods. During the interview referred back to the unwise choices of President Clinton. He explained that we all have “pleasure centers” in our brains that respond to certain stimuli. When someone is famous (like Tiger), or powerful (like President Clinton), there are less obstacles to our feeding these pleasure centers and thereby become psychologically addicted to the pleasure.
Could it be that it is possible for us to become addicted to, again, what we perceive to be the presence of God and are constantly seeking for some type of pleasurable spiritual experience in a Christian equivalent to Tiger Woods’ pursuit of pleasure?
A deeper question needs to be asked: Did God make us in such a way that we are to be “up” all the time? Although books sell well if they promise if you do x-number of principles you will always be on top of the world, if you’ve been a Christian( or been alive long enough you know that life has its ups and downs. As Job lamented, “Man is born for trouble, sure as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Most historical characters in the Bible, if they are given much press, experienced these dark nights. No less than 58 Psalms have some type of lament or cry for help in times of trouble. “God whom I praise, break your silence” (Ps. 109:1). “I say to God my rock, why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42:9). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). The Scripture says, “God left Hezekiah to test him and to know everything that was in his heart” (2 Chr. 32:31), “Why, O lord do you stand afar off?( Ps ,10:1) while Isaiah declared, “Truly you are a God who hides Himself…” (Is. 45:15).
Recently I was invited by law enforcement officials to attend a neighborhood board meeting to discuss crime. Upon arriving to the school, at which the meeting was held, I discovered the parking lot was full and I had to park two blocks away on the other side of a barren field. I arrived shortly before dusk, made my way up a flight of concrete stairs, went across the field and into the meeting. When the meeting was over, darkness had fallen and I made my way across the lighted parking lot and across the dark field to where my car was parked. When I got to a certain spot in the field I remembered that there was a flight of steps along my way somewhere and proceeded to gingerly feel my way until I came to the top step and then felt my way down and went to my car unharmed. If I wouldn’t have remembered the dark what I had learned in the light, I would not have been able to navigate my way through the darkness and down the steps without perhaps falling and injuring myself. This, I believe, is an apt description of the dark night of the soul. While we are in the light we seek to be disciples – learners who learn all that we can for those inevitable times when darkness comes. Sometimes it comes by Satanic attack, reaping what we have sown or the injustices inflicted on us by others. Often, however, the darkness is designed by God to help us grow in our faith which is “the substance of things we cannot see” (Heb 11:1).
I close with a couple of tips from Peter the apostle who wrote his first letter to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor who were suffering the dark night of persecution.
1. “Prepare your mind for action, be self controlled, set your hope fully on the grace to be given you” (1 Peter 1:13) – Practice plain old mental discipline and don’t focus on the darkness but on the next big thing God has given you to do.
2. Serve and love others (1 Peter 1:22) – Stay busy and work hard to serve others. Occupy your time with good things and don’t allow yourself to go into “over-think” about the state of your darkness.
3. Beware of “false comforts” when in darkness. Whether going through sickness, physical or spiritual trials, fruitlessness in ministry or unanswered prayer the temptation is to resort to alleged comforting activities that never satisfy (food, alcohol, excessive television watching, pornography, etc). Let God be your comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
4. Stick with the family (1 Peter 3:8). Lean into others who may not be in the darkness themselves who can help provide some proper perspective when you’re in the darkness. Disorientation is common when in darkness so reach out and let others lead you by the hand.
5. Commit to God’s will. “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).