The Gripping Reality of the Spiritual “Dark Night”

Abandoned Industrial BuildingsWe all know the hard-luck person (that’s what he gets labeled) who seems to encounter one tragedy after another.

Sometimes, the tragedies seem to pile up on each other. Maybe you have been that person. Or, maybe you have reached a point where your doubts of faith simply outnumber your insights and beliefs. Where can we turn for direction when things get really bad? In life’s hardest times, our hurt affects what we are able to see. We might even call out to God and feel that God is not there. These tough times have been labeled “The Dark Nights of the Soul.”

In a concentration camp at Cologne during the Nazi Holocaust, a Jew scribbled these words on the wall:

“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.…”

This is but one voice of the dark night of the soul. Among Believers, this can be an unpopular subject. Harder to see is the utility of exploring the spiritual reality of the dark night while we may not be in one. For once inside the mire, a way through becomes difficult to find.

In his book entitled Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore observed, “It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.” A “dark night” of the soul does not come after a mere bad day. These dry spells cut much deeper, and can sometimes be quite long!

Perhaps the best known Believer to have suffered such a spiritual crisis was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A 2007 book of letters showed that she suffered a dark time of doubt and searching that lasted well more than a decade. Her recorded prayers revealed the depth of pain she was in, even while continuing with her vital work of ministry.

Where is hope for us if our turn toward doubt arrives?

In the scriptures, one hint comes in a theme that winds through various texts. Habakkuk is an example of a believer who complained to God, but heard no response. All around, he saw economic and personal injustice. He observed suffering and evil that was repaid with gain. His cries to God happened in chapter one. By chapter two, though, Habakkuk modeled a unique response to the spiritual dark night. He acted on his base faith beliefs, even though God did not seem to be responsive. I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. (Habakkuk 2:1) His faith led him to believe even while feeling distanced.

Job did a similar thing in response to the pain and suffering of his loss. He retained his faith even while coping with a severe spiritual crisis. In chapter 19:23-26 we hear this: “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” Here, he affirms that even if his present suffering is not resolved before death, God will one day become evident again.

Sometimes, the memory of our faith may have to be a key component of navigating the dark night. A rather quirky takeaway of these biblical texts is that these figures model the ability to compartmentalize. That is, they somehow retained a commitment to their faith even while praying their deepest spiritual frustrations, hurts, questions, confusions, and thirsts.

There is no magic elixir to working through the dark night of the soul. If there were a way to somehow minimize or speed up a spiritual dry spell, wouldn’t we all feel more secure? But, there are some resources we can store up in better times. Consider how you might:

Explore the difference there might be between the commitment of your belief and your current feeling of connectedness or closeness with God. Our faith is composed of a variety of realms—the cognitive, the mystic, the relational, the memorized, the intellectual, and the experiential textures—just to name a few. When one or more of these might appear to have left us, are there others from which to still draw?
Give yourself more permission to pray the questions, frustrations, and true emotions of your spirit. God is big enough for that honesty. Again, the Psalms, Job, and Habakkuk are examples of biblical figures doing just that! How long has it been since you stood before God unvarnished and unrehearsed?

Develop a commitment to living a life of love that you can own in any spiritual condition. There is perspective in goodness and purpose. C.S. Lewis affirmed this in his book, A Grief Observed. As he complained about the hurts of the spirit, he resolved with this thought—“I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.”

When your spirit goes dry:

Guide people around you so that they know what you need (and don’t need) when a challenging spiritual time has you in its grip. Job had to push back at the unhelpful words his friends offered during his suffering. Create a helpful relational space.

Related, keep in mind that your closest friends and family want to help—and to fix you. They may not understand the unique and personal journey you are on when a dark night of the soul arrives. All they see or hear is brokenness or distance.

Your minister or other mature believer should have a trustworthy ear to lend. There might be some value in dialoguing with them, especially so that you can process aloud this very quiet, private journey you are enduring.

And as the Jewish prisoner did, consider that you could explore your belief even when the indicators of God’s presence are not there. As Mother Teresa did, you could even continue to live a life of love and generosity while making your way through the darkness.

Charles Qualls is the writer of the current Uniform series unit “Dark Nights of the Soul.” He is also the author or co-author of seven books, including A Hungry Soul Desperate to Taste God’s Grace. Charles serves as the Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

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  1. Sharon Harwell (Karen's mother) says

    Excellent article! Enjoyed reading and plan to use in teaching our Bible Study group. Enjoyed visiting Second Ponce last Sunday !