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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Dark Night of the Soul

Sep 20, 2015

My title of course comes from the title of a famous volume by the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). His volume dealt with a common experience that many believers will encounter during their journey with God. Believers throughout the ages have experienced this, and will continue to do so.

Those seeking God and pressing in on him will sometimes go through a period where it seems like God is silent, or has turned on them, or no longer cares about them. Even the prayer life seems totally ineffective, with expressions like ‘the heavens turning to brass’ commonly heard.

Dark Night of the Soul 1It is as if God is no longer there, or if he is, he is not interested in us, does not hear our prayers, and is indifferent to our situation. Of course all this is a matter of perspective – our perspective. It seems like this is happening. We think he has abandoned us. We feel he is not there or does not care.

Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband Jim was martyred as a missionary only a few years after they were married, knows full well about suffering. Her eloquent description of these dark times is well worth offering here. It comes from her 1989 volume, On Asking God Why:

We look for some light. We look for some help. Our prayers seem to be vanishing, like so many wisps, into the serene aether of the cosmos (or worse, into the plaster of the ceiling). We strain our ears for some word from the Mount of God. A whisper will do, we tell ourselves, since clearly no bolts or thunderings have been activated by our importunity (yes, we have tried that tactic, too: the “nonfaith” approach).
But only dead silence. Blank. Nothing. “But Lord, how are we supposed to know if we’re on the right track at all if we don’t get some confirmation from you – some corroboration – in any form, Lord – inner peace maybe, or some verse springing to life for us, or some token. Please let us have some recognisable attestation to what you have said in your Book.” Nothing. Silence. Blank.

But God of course has been there all along, and he has been listening, he has been caring, and he has been working out his purposes in our lives, even though it sure doesn’t seem that way at the time. He is faithfully looking after his own, and this dark spell is a temporary one, often used to draw us even closer to himself.

Now it needs to be said at the outset that I am not talking about when we are living in periods of known sin, disobedience and rebellion. If we are doing what we know to be wrong, and defiantly so, then sure, we can expect a break in our fellowship with him, and we can expect that our prayers may well go unanswered.

Scripture of course speaks much to this, but I am speaking of something else here. I am talking about the child of God who is walking in obedience and fellowship with God as best he or she can. But even they can go through these periods of darkness, silence and bewilderment.

That is what this article is about. And those believers who have gone through this will know exactly what I am talking about. My aim here is to simply encourage us to keep pressing on during these dark patches. Do not despair. Do not give up. Do not lash out in anger and bitterness.

That is just what Satan wants you to do during these difficult times. He wants you above all else to give up on God, to turn your back on God, and to accuse God of being evil, callous, unloving, and so on. God may well be testing you during this time, refining you and doing his work in your life, but the enemy of our souls is also at work during these periods.

Scripture itself says much about these times when it seems God has abandoned or is silent. Consider just a few of the many stark passages which address this theme:

-Psalm 10:1 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
-Psalm 13:1-2 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
-Psalm 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
-Psalm 28:1 To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.
-Psalm 83:1 O God, do not keep silent; be not quiet, O God, be not still.
-Isaiah 45:15 Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.
-Habakkuk 1:2 How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?

These and other passages make it quite clear that often God is silent, or appears to be. For reasons we may not always fully understand, it is part of the walk of faith to experience this silence, this absence, this sense of God’s abandonment.

Believers past and present have not only experienced these trying periods, but many have written about it. I grabbed a bunch of books off my shelves by somewhat modern Christians who have spoken to these matters. Let me quote from a few of them. Charles Spurgeon put it this way in his Lectures to My Students:

The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise and overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day – aye, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reeds of human help.

In his book Dealing with Doubt New Zealand author Winkey Pratney says this:

There is a darkness that can come to men and women of God that has nothing to do with sin, that has nothing to do with lack of wisdom, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the devil. And the tragedy is, when this darkness comes upon certain people of God, they don’t understand what it is and it nearly wipes them out. Everyone who has set his heart on serving God will have this darkness come at some point. When this happens we must learn to recognise it and deal with it.

His comments on doubt are also quite helpful. He reminds us that doubt is not the same as unbelief:

Actually, doubt is not the opposite of faith. . . . The relationship between doubt and faith is more like the relationship between courage and fear. The opposite of courage is cowardice, not fear….
Doubt is never to be encouraged, of course, just as fear is not something of God. Doubt is a transitional situation, something to be passed through and passed on. You can trust God in the middle of doubt just as you can be brave in the midst of fear. You come down on the side of what God says and you go on anyway.

Yes quite right. As the old saying goes: “Never doubt in the dark what God has told you in the light”. When it is dark all around and you are tempted to doubt God and even reject God, that is the time when you most need to cling to what you have learned and believed over the years, and not throw it all away.

Of course quite often these times of darkness are also times of suffering, trials or sickness. That makes the silence even harder to handle, and makes the seeming absence of God even more difficult to accept. The silence of God, as Arthur Custance remarks, “is His seeming indifference, at times, to the needs of human beings when appalling suffering overtakes them.”

When such horrible suffering happens to apparently innocent people, who don’t really seem to have deserved it, as in times of war or famine or disaster, we feel that God must speak, he must act – and immediately. We insist that he “could not possibly remain silent. He would have to act manifestly, mercifully, savingly, publicly.”

As W. Bingham Hunter remarks in The God Who Hears, “The silence of a wise and good God is shattering.” He discusses how we should think about prayer during such times:

I do not think we Christians can begin to pray effectively for ourselves or others in pain until we are honest….
What we must stop doing is trying to be God, who can figure things out, and admit that we are creatures who cry….
Truly victorious Christians are those who admit their humanness and who admit the emotional insult of God’s apparent silence when we suffer. They submit themselves to others and their Creator with tears on their faces. Such Christians can pray like Jesus, “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

In closing, let me remind you that I quoted Psalm 22 above. This is of course a Messianic Psalm, and we find Jesus, as he is hanging on the cross, repeating these very words: “And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Mark 15:34).

If even our Lord Jesus could experience this seeming abandonment from God, then why should we expect to never go through such a period? Despite all that he went through, Jesus persevered. And we are called to do the same. The dark night of the soul may not be a pleasant experience, but it is often a necessary one.

Let God do his work in you as you go through these times.

[1791 words]

5 Responses to The Dark Night of the Soul

  • Thank you Bill for your very encouraging article. Mark 15: 34 is sometimes a confusing and misunderstood message to Christians, but your article puts it into a beautiful context for us.

  • Thanks, Bill.

    Although most of us have occasionally discovered these principles on our own, it is hugely helpful to be reminded—and often. I almost cried as a lump manifested in my throat.

  • If anyone can teach us about feeling totally abandoned by God, apart from Jesus Christ himself, and Job, it is Richard Wurmbrand

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqdPkDPMCwk

    David Skinner UK

  • The Psalmist was there too – check out Ps 44, 77, 88 for starters. But the Master knows how to remake his own. Jonathan Edwards said to the afflicted “His heart, hand and rod are all inscribed with love”.
    Be patient dear patient!

  • Blessed Teresa of Calcutta suffered from spiritual dryness for about fifty years. In 1957 she wrote, “There is so much contradiction in my soul. – Such deep longing for God – so deep that is painful – a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed -empty – no faith – no love – no zeal… Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place… yet this torturing longing for God”. And yet, throughout that time she continued to sacrifice her every moment for the love of God and neighbour. I am sure that God has now rewarded her richly.

    “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38)

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