What is the "Dark Night of the Soul?"
Ten years ago, I sat in darkness. The presence of God which I could often feel had disappeared. The scripture I so loved to read and study became mundane and heavy. It no longer nourished my soul. God was silent.
This was the first time I really learned about the “Dark Night of the Soul,” an experienced named by John of the Cross in a poem he wrote in the 16th century.
John of the Cross was a Spanish Catholic monk who sought to reform the church. His ideas were criticized and eventually landed him in prison. It was there, crouched in a 10 by 6-foot cell, squinting in the dim candle light, he wrote:
“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.”
What exactly is The Dark Night of the Soul?
The Dark Night is an experience of spiritual dryness not brought on by our own choices or sin. God seems silent and distant, even when we attempt to connect with him. It is a crisis of faith where God seems to have abandoned us.
It is an experience of great pain. In his book, “Soul Keeping,” John Ortberg explains, “Because the soul is the deepest expression of the person, the soul is the place of greatest pain.”
We must be careful to differentiate the Dark Night from consequences brought on by unrepentant sin. The Dark Night is not a punishment nor is it the consequence of a faltering soul. It is an experience initiated by God for the purpose of bringing us to a greater state of spiritual maturity. It leads to a break-through in our faith-we come out more mature, more trusting of God’s goodness and presence. By withdrawing a FEELING of his presence, we are forced to trust that he is present even so.
But, Is it in the Bible?
You will not find the phrase, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” in the Bible, but the concept is included in many places in God’s Word. In many Psalms, “night” is symbolic of a dark time in one’s faith.
Psalm 77:2 describes the Dark Night: “in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.”
Perhaps the most famous description of the Dark Night of the Soul is the book of Job. Job not only suffers physically, but spiritually as well, yet the Word repeats that “in all of this, Job did not sin.” His suffering was not brought on by his own sin, as his not-so-helpful friends suggest.
In chapter 13, Job cries out, “Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?” He experiences a crisis of faith where God feels absent. By the end of his Dark Night experience, Job’s soul comes to understand God in a deeper way:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2–3).”
David also describes the Dark Night in Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”
This is the Psalm Jesus quotes while suffering on the cross. Jesus certainly experienced the Dark Night of the Soul in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he felt so alone that he sweat blood from the stress and anguish. He experienced the Darkest Night when he endured the cross for our sins, experiencing the absolute absence of God’s presence so we do not have to. In our Dark Nights, God feels absence even though he is never truly absent. Jesus ensured that for us.
What Do I Do When Experience the Dark Night?
Just like any work in our lives by God, we cannot wriggle our way out of the Dark Night. We can do nothing to stop it. However, it is not hopeless.
We must keep seeking God in spite of feeling his absence. When the Psalmist experiences the Dark Night in Psalm 77, he remembers God’s past mercy toward him and his people. This gives him the hope to keep trusting a seemingly silent God. In Psalm 22, David chooses to praise God despite his feelings. He believes God hears him even when he doesn’t feel heard.
The Dark Night is an opportunity for us to stop depending on feelings, examine ourselves, and practice vulnerability. We endure, knowing we will come out on the other end with a deeper faith in God’s presence and a deeper connection to our Savior.
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