In his 16th century poem, untitled but commonly known as The Dark Night of the Soul, Christian mystic John of the Cross wrote about the mortification of his soul, becoming dead to sin, and alive to life in Christ. This is advanced level Christianity, Faith 401, and many of us go our whole lives without seeing it.
My kids are way more spiritually mature at 18, 16, and 14 than I was at any of these ages. I credit this school, my church, and, most of all, the Lord’s good graces for that. If your kids are there, too, they will enter Faith 401 at some point in their lives. You may be there now, and don’t have words to describe it. Or, you may think you’re the only one who’s felt this way, that something’s wrong with you. If so, what you are feeling and have felt is normal, a gracious gift of the Lord in our walk of faith, and something to be painfully embraced, not avoided or rejected.
The dark night of the soul is not the normal trials and struggles we face as Christians and human beings living in a Genesis 3 world. Everyone faces those, and for the Christian, God uses these trials to draw us closer to Him, to pull us to His heart. In those times, when we lose loved ones, when people we care for get sick, when we are struggling through a life transition, God feels abundantly present. He gives us strength and comfort to face each new day. We actually feel the prayers of others as they lift us up; we have paradoxical joy as the Body of Christ surrounds us with care and love. These are the times in our lives we would never want to repeat, but would not trade for the spiritual fruit they have borne.
That is not the dark night of the soul. In the dark night, you feel spiritual dryness. You call out to God, and He feels distant. You do all those things that you’ve done before: prayer, quiet time, reading your Bible, fasting. You’ve confessed sin in your life, you live in right relationship with others. Yet, God still feels distant, as if He’s somewhere else. You cry out to Him, you want intimacy with Him, you long for those feelings of closeness. But, they’re simply not there.
This is as it should be. In these times, God is disciplining the heart and soul of those He loves.
In this world, postmodernism has crowded out the great stories, the grand narratives that link us together in our culture. Judeo-Christianity used to provide that story. It defined how we related to each other. One of the tenets of postmodernism is that there aren’t really any overarching stories that link civilizations together, only smaller stories that link tightly-knit groups of people. The problem is any group of people, even whole civilizations, need these stories to provide explanatory power, to tell us how to deal with each other, how to relate to each other: to tell us what went wrong and how it can be repaired and restored. In the absence of Scripture providing that grand-narrative, our culture hasn’t abandoned the need for story altogether. It’s replaced it with something else. That something is capitalism.
Capitalism is fine and good as an economic system, but it’s dangerous when it defines all our relationships with each other. When I look at my relationships with my friends through the overarching story of capitalism, I view all my relationships with a consumer mindset. My church, my school, my friends, even my spouse are all here to meet my needs, to make me happy. My responsibilities and obligations toward them are not based in covenant, not based in sacrificing and expecting little or nothing in return, but in contract. As long as my needs are being met, I will perform my end of the deal. When they fail on their end (as I define or interpret failure), a breach of contract has occurred. I am now free to leave that arrangement and go find someone else, or some other institution, who will meet my needs. It explains so much about why our relationships are so shallow and fail so often these days. We look at something as life giving and essential to our lives as relationships and community through the wrong lens, and it’s killing us.
And, we view our relationship with God the same way. Most of the time we love Him “so that”- so that He’ll give us good things, bless us with a great life, a strong marriage, great opportunities, happiness: a transactional love in a transactional society. But, that’s not how God will be loved. He won’t settle for our corrupted perspectives on love, not when His New Jerusalem, our eternal destiny, is wired a completely different way. We need to be rewired to live there. He wants us to love for the sake of loving, even when it hurts, even when it costs us everything and seems, in the moment, to give nothing in return. Because that’s how He loves. True love for Christ is not loving “so that,” it’s loving “because of”- loving Christ because He is who He is, because of what He’s done, because He is all we need for His sake alone, not because of what He can give us; not because of His stuff.
That’s the reason for the dark night of the soul. That’s the reason He doesn’t call when we answer in these times. It’s not an act of cruelty, but one of ultimate love. Over time, as we faithfully call out to Him again and again, we develop the heart and the mind that we don’t really need His stuff, we just need Him. We get to the point where we realize if life is nothing but the knowledge that we are saved and we are His, and there is nothing else, then that alone is abundant and good and gracious and wonderful, and that God is a loving, gracious caring God who is worthy of our entire being. In those moments, God envelops us with His love, and we feel its abundance again. But, abundance as a new creation. As one who, at last, really knows how to love.
That’s the reason for the Dark Night of the Soul, for Faith 401. My prayer is that my children and I, and all of yours, as well, will graduate with flying colors.