The Dark Night of the Soul is one of the most important subjects that I teach to pastors, seminary students, and others. Very few Christians understand it or how to deal with the experience when they have it. Have you gone through a period of spiritual dryness or darkness when God seemed far away, no matter what you did to connect with him? Probably you have. If not, at some point you’re likely to experience this. I have been through two, long, depressing Dark Night trials.
The Dark Night is not something to fear. Yes, it feels empty and lonely. But it doesn’t have to cause you shame. And it doesn’t have to lead to burn out. In fact, it can be a prelude to a great spiritual breakthrough in your life — if you understand what’s going on and learn how to follow Christ in the darkness.
Are you ready to learn? Are you willing to put some time in to study? Will you prepare your heart now so that when you go through a Dark Night of the Soul you are ready to respond with trust in Jesus? Imagine you’re a student in one of my classes. “Growing through a Dark Night of the Soul” is one of the lessons I teach…
Three Ancient Stages of Spiritual Growth
Saint John of the Cross (1542 – 1591) is one of the ancient writers that offers us a developmental understanding of our life with Christ. This 16th Century monk has so much to teach us today about the spiritual life: who we are before God and how we grow in holiness and wholeness. As we said earlier, the goal of the Christian life is love – growing in the love of Christ for us (abiding in him) and through us (bearing fruit).
We want our spiritual life to be an upward journey of growing closer and closer to God and becoming more and more like Christ. And we want to feel this continual improvement and see it in our life circumstances. But in reality our growth does not progress in a straight upward line. Nor does our experience of intimacy with Christ. Our journey goes up and down, forward and backward. The realistic goal is that over time we would make progress in developing a more Christ-like character.
Just like a child grows into young adulthood and then into parenthood or eldership so also disciples of Jesus mature in their faith through stages. Here’s my distillation of what I’ve learned from Saint John of the Cross (and also from John Coe, Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot seminary) on spiritual development and the Dark Night of the Soul.
Consider the Apostle John’s identification of three stages in our spiritual journey:
12I write to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
13I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, dear children,
because you have known the Father.
14I write to you, fathers,
because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one (1 John 2:12-14).
Let’s explore further these stages of maturing in God’s love. Keep in mind that we don’t progress in a linear fashion. The stages overlap, so much so that we may have aspects of all three in our lives. Nonetheless, we can see a general progression of maturity in disciples to Jesus who are devoted to him and intentionally engaged in their spiritual formation with him. And, we must admit with sadness, that many and perhaps most “Christians” don’t get much beyond the first stage in their spiritual development!
Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that the first stage is bad. We all begin our journey with Christ in this spiritual childhood. And we all have aspects of this in us all our lives long. God understands this and is compassionate and patient! But as we look across the landscape of Christianity today we ask, where are the apprentices to Jesus who are learning more and more to live lives that are fully submitted to Christ and the purposes of his kingdom? Where are the disciples who persist in their devotion to Jesus even when he seems distant and doesn’t seem to be blessing them? And, of course, you and I need to turn our attention to looking in the mirror… Is a submitted and devoted disciple of Jesus there?
1. New Disciples Love God for the Pleasure He Gives (“Purgation”)
“I’m forgiven of my sins!” The Apostle John says that our spiritual journey begins by putting our faith in Christ and receiving the gift of forgiveness for our sins. Indeed, when we first trust in Christ or return to him after a period of selfish or sinful living we’re blessed immensely by God’s mercy to us that removes our guilt. St. John of the Cross called this first stage in our spiritual development “Purgation” because when we trust Christ as Savior he begins to purge us of our sins and cleanse us of worldliness (1 John 1:9; 2:15-17). Turning away from sin opens up space in our heart and our life for God in his grace to move in!
“I know God as Father!” The other blessing we enjoy in our ealry journey with Christ is discovering that the Almighty God and Creator is our Father and we are his children! What a blessing it is to come to know the father-love of God. Jesus said that if we want to be born again and enter his kingdom of the heavens that we must become as children – humble, honest, eager, teachable, trusting, playful. We all begin our journey as children. And in a sense we always want to remain child-like before God, appreciating the gifts of forgiveness and the Father’s love.
2. Young Disciples Love God for the Relationship with Him (“Illumination”)
“I am learning to love God in hard times.” The Apostle characterizes the middle stage in our spiritual journey as one of persevering through challenges. The early blessings of faith may seem to give way to the trials of life. We appreciate that the Christian life is about more than being forgiven and loved by God – we’re to learn and grow as disciples of Jesus in the midst of the stresses and opportunities of daily life. We get to develop an interactive relationship with Christ, growing in closeness with him and drawing strength for life from him.
“I am learning to overcome evil by relying on God’s Word.” Our learning and growth comes out of our interactions with God’s Word, which was embodied and proclaimed by Christ. We discover that the Bible is a treasure store of wisdom and knowledge about the good and godly life and so we read it, study it, meditate on it, memorize portions, and learn how to pray and apply it in our lives. St. John of the Cross labels this stage “Illumination” because God’s Word enlightens our way and the new life of Christ is getting brighter and brighter in us.
3. Spiritual Fathers and Mothers Love God for God (“Union”)
“I am submitting to God’s will in all that I do.” The ancient Christian writers, like St. John of the Cross, taught that the spiritually mature grow towards “Union” with Christ. The key to this deeper intimacy and identification with Christ is submission to the Sovereign Lord’s will in all things. In our activities, trials, relationships, work, projects, errands, ministry, and all that we do we learn to seek first the kingdom of God, praying, “Lord, your will, your way, and your time.”
“I have seen the Sovereign Lord work over the course of my life.” The Apostle John said that the key to growing into spiritual parenthood is to trust God as sovereign over our lives in loving ways. At this stage we’re able to look back over all the ups and downs of our life and see that God was in charge and he was loving and guiding and shaping us in good ways. Our worship of God deepens and we realize more fully what an honor it is that our praise to God and our service in his name blesses the Lord. And we also appreciate that it is only out of God’s grace and wisdom working its way into our lives that we can minister to others, partnering with Christ in his kingdom work.
The Apostle John’s Spiritual Growth
The Apostle John didn’t just teach these three stages of spiritual development: he lived them! When he came to Christ with his brother James they were called “Sons of Thunder.” Sure enough, these fiery, ambitious fishermen who entered Jesus’ school of discipleship had the gall to ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom glory! They wanted more of God’s blessings! (Mark 10:35-45). They hadn’t learned yet to live by Jesus’ Greatest Commandment, that the real joy of living was to give themselves away in love to God and others (Mark 12:28-31).
But immediately after John and James made their audacious request Jesus showed them that they were like blind men! The real opportunity of their lives was to see Christ and follow him down the road. (Mark 10:46-52). And so John learned that life was about more than seeking to be blessed by the Lord. It was about a relationship with Jesus, a student learning from his rabbi, a servant working for his Master. And so John by the end of his three years of training with Jesus (the time period covered by the Gospels) started identifying himself as “the disciple Jesus loves” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) and at the Last Supper he leaned his head against Jesus’ chest (John 21:20). John grew into a joyful intimacy with Jesus and this was what empowered him to overcome sin and evil and to become more like Christ.
Then at Jesus’ crucifixion we see John as the only Apostle (along with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the other Mary) who stood by the suffering Lord. John was the one to care for Jesus’ own mother (John 19:26). And in the Beloved Apostle’s epistles (1st, 2nd, 3rd John) and Revelation we see how he grew into spiritual fatherhood. The hot-tempered young man had become a gracious lover of God and others. He was an apostle who planted churches and disciples many, many people to Jesus. He was united with Christ in prayer and in ministry. He lived in tune with the Spirit and so he was empowered to advance God’s kingdom. He saw the resurrected Christ with his physical eyes before Christ ascended and then for the remaining decades of his life he saw Christ with his spiritual eyes – and he worshiped his glorious Lord and devoted his life to serving him.
Consolation and Desolation
How do we progress in our spiritual development? The defining point according to Saint John of the Cross and the church fathers is how we respond to hardships and difficulties.
In our family of five at the dinner table we always share our “peak” and our “pit” of the day. We’ve done this since our kids were just starting elementary school. This may seem like a simple conversation starter, but it really goes much deeper than that. It’s a way for each member of the family to get a turn to be listened to with compassion as he or she verbalizes the best and the hardest parts of his or her day. It’s an implicit acceptance that life is full of ups and downs, good times and bad times. And it’s a lesson that a good life is made in the midst of not just the times of blessing, but also the times of struggle: God is in both the peaks and the pits of our days and our opportunity is to live these times with him and one another.
The ancient writers in Scripture and church history talk about two basic and recurring movements of God in the spiritual life: spiritual peaks called “consolation” and spiritual pits called “desolation.” Both are essential learning opportunities in our apprenticeship to Jesus.
Consolation refers to times in which God helps us to feel his presence – we sense that we’re blessed and encouraged by him. When our practices of worship, prayer, solitude, meditation, fellowship, service and the like facilitate an enjoyment of God’s goodness then we have received consolation.
Desolation refers to a certain kind of trial in which God feels absent. We seek God through church services and spiritual practices but we don’t experience his blessings. We pray and it seems that God doesn’t answer. Our spiritual life becomes dry as dust. We’re bored listening to sermons. We’re not motivated to read the Bible or pray.
Desolation is different from depression. Depression is a psychological disorder that is pervasive across the life context and personality of the person. And things like chemical imbalances, unresolved grief, anger problems, and negative thinking may cause it. On the other hand, desolation is focused on our relationship with God and our spiritual life, though it is affecting our emotions, personality, and relationships. And desolations cause is spiritual also. It may be that God has intentionally withdrawn is felt presence in order to strengthen our character and teach us to rely the reality of his person and presence and not only on our feeling sense of his blessings.
Desolation is not the same as being disciplined by God for being spiritually lukewarm or backslidden. We might think of God’s loving corrections as being one type of desolation. But sometimes those who are committed to the Lord, spending time with him and serving him actively find themselves feeling dry and empty in their spiritual life.
Desolation is the Psalmist crying out again and again, “O Lord, why is your face hidden from me?” (Psalm 13:1, 22:24, 27:29, 44:24, 69:17, 88:14, 102:2, 104:29, 143:7). In the 16th Century St. John of the Cross described these kinds of intense or prolonged desolation experiences as “Dark Nights of the Soul.”
Purposes of Desolation
It’s our human nature to want more consolation from God and to avoid desolation – or at least get out of it quickly! Consolation is a time to be strengthened in our trust in God’s goodness and in our practicing of spiritual disciplines that help us to grow, whereas desolation tends to discourage us. We’d rather, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) than wrestle with God in a Dark Night.
Why would God want us to experience desolation? Why wouldn’t he just keep giving us more consolation as we seek him?
1. Increase Self-Awareness
Desolation (like all trials generally) is a time of testing that surfaces immature or sinful parts of us that need to be brought into God’s light and love. At these times God invites us to look into our soul like a mirror to see what comes up out of the depths. The Lord is searching our hearts. David teaches us to join the Lord in this discovery process by praying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
When we pray in times of desolation the Spirit helps us to ask fruitful questions to open our hearts deeper in our relationship with. We may ask…
- Why am I not enjoying prayer recently?
- Why am I daydreaming during the church service?
- Why am I distracted and bored with seeking God and waiting upon him?
In times of desolation the Lord doesn’t just ask us questions like these in a detached and clinical way. And he certainly doesn’t ask them in a condemning or even frustrated way – though that may be our own tone toward ourselves.
The Spirit’s work in us is designed to open our hearts deeper in our relationship with God as Abba (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) and Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3), to help us know that, even though in desolation when we don’t feel God’s love as much as we want to, still God is present with us, caring for us and teaching us. The Holy Spirit is deep inside us helping us with our weaknesses, praying for us, and forming the prayers of our hearts to help us learn about ourselves and our relationship with God and to grow (Romans 8:26).
For instance, in a time of desolation God may show us that our spiritual life has gotten into a rut and he wants to lead us into a new rhythm of life with him. Sometimes the disciplines we use become stale or we may be using them in a pressured or harsh way and in that case God wants to show us this and then, ultimately, to renew us and lead us in his gentle way of grace, fitted to our personal need and season of life.
2. Share Honestly
Becoming more aware of our emotional struggles presents the need and opportunity to seek support from one another – if we don’t slip into guilt or shame. The danger in times of desolation is that we may feel bad about our struggle and try to hide it or to fix it so it goes away.
Instead, if we share our feelings of being distant from God, frustrated with unanswered prayer, or lack of motivation in practicing spiritual disciplines then we discover how desolation can be God’s gift to us. By taking courage to share vulnerable with one another vulnerably we open ourselves to the compassion and grace of God that we need. And we let others who are also in desolation know that they are not alone.
This is an important part of how we grow in discipleship to Jesus and are formed into his image. And it’s why in our conversations with one another we need safe and focused times to share with one another about our consolations and our desolations. This is the heart of what it means for us to be an authentic community. There is no spiritual growth without honestly wrestling through the stresses and hurts in our lives.
And it’s just as important for us to share with one another our consolations: the new things God is teaching us, what disciplines are helping us to grow and how, or about our special times of closeness with the Lord. To verbalize our spiritual learnings and experiences with others helps to reinforce them. And when others hear these consolations shared in a spirit of humility it can encourage them with an example of spiritual growth that is possible.
3. Grow Out of Causal Thinking
Desolation shows us if we’re bringing causal thinking into our relationship God. If this is the case then we’ll get frustrated that our participation in church services or our practices with the spiritual disciplines aren’t producing for us the consolation that we want. We may interpret our experiences of desolation as being due to some sin in our lives or are lack of sincere and faithful devotion to Christ. The assumption here is that we experience God’s consolation because we’ve sought him in spiritual practices. But Scripture and research both debunk the simplistic and prideful rationale that if I do A then God will do B.
We must learn that our feelings of God’s presence do not necessarily correlate with the reality of God’s presence or our spiritual maturity. Early in our Christian life and in times of spiritual renewal we tend to experience a growing sense of consolation from God to reinforce our commitment to Christ and our spiritual growth. And often it is the more mature disciples of Christ that are likely to experience times of desolation that test their faith, bringing their sins and weakness to the surface and helping them to go deeper in their trust in the Lord.
4. Wean Ourselves Off of Dependency on Feelings
The ability to feel emotions is one of God’s gifts to us. It is very important to be aware of our feelings. And what a blessing it is when the Lord gives us the consolation of a felt sense of his presence or a felt sense of his guidance for our life. But if we are overly reliant on having good feelings it is a problem. Indeed, in our culture we will do almost anything to feel better! We may even take this attitude into our worship so that more than worshiping God we worship the positive feelings he gives us or that we generate ourselves in our excited celebration.
Times of desolation from God hold up a mirror to us and show us if our love for God is rather dependent on feeling his blessings, in which case we need to learn to trust and love God simply for who he is. This means being weaned off of depending on having the feeling of God’s presence in order to love and serve him. It is desolation that teaches us to look for God beyond our feelings and to develop a way of knowing God that is deeper than feelings alone.
Thomas Merton put it well when he said:
God, who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when he is absent than when He is present” (No Man is an Island).
5. Learn to Endure
Ultimately, in times of desolation we hope to learn what David demonstrated in Psalm 13 during a time of desolation:
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?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.
David suffered so much injustice at the hands of Saul and had to live out in the desert for years, foraging for food, sleeping on rocks, being hunted like a criminal year after year. And yet he had faithfully served Saul, risking his life as a soldier in his army, playing the harp for the king when he was depressed, and submitting to the king’s authority. He learned how to rejoice in God in the midst of his unfair and painful trials. He appreciated that the privilege of being a part of God’s kingdom in his midst was of greater importance to him than having his life circumstances improve.
The Bible is full of encouragement for us to help us deal with times of desolation. We have the models of our heroes who endured times of desolation and trusted and loved God in the midst of the darkness, not only David, but many others including Job, Jacob, Joseph, Naomi, Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus in his passion.
The Psalms are the prayer manual we need and they are full of Laments, like Psalm 13, that put words to our sadness and struggles. (Based on the songs we sing and the lines from the Psalms that recent generations of Christ-followers have been reciting in church you’d never know it, but actually there are more Psalms of Lament than there are Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving or any of the other types of prayer in the Psalms.) The laments are very important for teaching us how to pray in times of desolation, how to become the kind of people who honor and love the Lord even when we’re not feeling his presence or his blessings. We need the laments brought back into our corporate worship!
Over the course of our journey with God we will flow back and forth between consolation and desolation. These movements of up God are like the waves of the sea. They rise up and come in. They come down crashing to the shore. Then they flow back out to sea and cycle again.
Or they are like breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. In and out… Receive and release… Be strengthened to face difficulties and be emptied to make space to receive new blessings…
We need to accept this rhythm – not just that it’s a reality that is bound to occur, but that it is ordained by God and it is good for us. It is God’s training for us to learn how to follow Jesus in the good times and in the bad times.
In the good times we need to hear the Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are you in your time of health (or prosperity or fortunate circumstances) because yours is the kingdom of heaven.” The real blessing in times of consolation is not in our pleasant circumstances, but in our favored standing in God’s kingdom. And when we don’t appreciate our spiritual blessings, then in reality what we think is a time of consolation is really a time of desolation!
Similarly, in the bad times we need to hear Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are you in your time of sickness (or financial loss or troubled circumstances) because yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Even in the unhappiest of circumstances it is possible for us to learn to tap into the joy of the Lord because he is with us, he loves us, he is teaching us, and he is empowering us to work alongside him in his glorious kingdom forever! As we learn to appreciate the kingdom of God in our midst we discover that our experience of desolation is really God’s consolation!
My Story: Following Christ in the “Dark Night of the Soul”
Saint John of the Cross taught us much about the kind of desolations in which God purposefully withdraws the felt sense of his presence from us in order to teach us (this is his loving discipline/training, not harsh, angry punishment). He called this the “Dark Night of the Soul.” It is by submitting to the sovereign work of God and trusting him through these Dark Nights that our love for God matures beyond seeking pleasure from him.
I’ll never forget my first experience with the Dark Night of the Soul. It began the day I stepped out of the hot humidity of a Chicago summer and into the freezing chill of the grocery store meat market where I started work as a 21-year old collegiate trying to earn money for my upcoming senior year of school. I was introduced to the Head Butcher, a very wide and squatty man covered in black hair and with two big dark eyes staring out from behind an acne-scarred face. This meat cutter looked more like an ogre than a man and I was to be his apprentice!
That summer was hell on earth for me. The Head Butcher and his meat cutters were foul-mouthed, perverted, and abusive. They denigrated me every time I made a mistake. They persecuted me for being a “nice Christian kid.” They blasted hard rock music, told dirty jokes, gave me ridiculous jobs, gossiped about me behind my back, laughed at me to my face. I got depressed and withdrawn and then they taunted me for that! In short, they harassed me every chance they could because they resented that their store manager hired me to enable me to make money for continuing my studies at a Christian college and not to become a butcher.
I held back tears. I tried to be strong. I worked hard and did my best to do a good job. And everyday at lunch I prayed, read Peter’s teaching on suffering for Christ in 1 Peter, and cried out to God to help me. Where was my “God of grace” who would “restore” me after I had suffered “a little while”? (1 Peter 5:10, NIV). I wasn’t feeling God’s grace and it didn’t seem to me like I was suffering “a little while.” I certainly didn’t “greatly rejoice” in the midst of my trial (1 Peter 1:6). I felt no sense of God’s presence and no help from him. I lasted just over two months and then I quit. I was exhausted, broken, and believed I was a failure. I went home like a beaten dog, whimpering and licking my wounds.
At the beginning of the summer I had planned to take a three-day private retreat at a local monastery right before going back to college. I needed to make decisions about my future. What was God leading me to do with my psychology degree? What would it mean for me to become a Psychologist and where would I go to graduate school? What seemed like a good idea three months earlier looked frightening now! Again and again in the Bible, not only Peter, but also Paul and James told me to “rejoice in my trials” (Romans 5:3, James 1:2) and here I was despairing in mine and certainly too depressed to wait on God by myself for three days! I felt horrible about myself. I failed at my job, was a lousy witness for Christ, and couldn’t sense God’s presence. I wasn’t sure I even liked God any more! But I was stubborn and I kept my commitment.
So there I was in this monastery. Monks in hooded dark habits surrounded me with hands folded at their waist, shuffling by me as they chanted their songs. They were enjoying God’s presence, why couldn’t I? But I was in silence so I couldn’t ask them (I was too scared to talk to them anyway!). For three days, I didn’t say anything except prayers to God, I didn’t eat anything except the Scriptures, and I didn’t go anywhere except my prison-cell-like room and the grounds around the monastery. It seemed that all I did was cry out to God, “Why did you want me to be butchered? Why didn’t you comfort me? How long will you be silent? Will I ever feel your love again? Will you ever speak to me about my future? You don’t care do you?!”
I felt nothing from God except darkness and I was sure that it was all my fault. What a disaster my summer had been! What a disappointment my retreat was! I now know that I was being refined in fires of the Dark Night of the Soul. Looking back from the vantage point of the life-changing vision and wonderful blessings from God I experienced after this Dark Night, I’m so happy that God led me into that time of suffering and that he hid his face from me for that season! Now I can see that the Lord did a deep work in my soul, stripping me of my performance based self-esteem and my dependence on feeling God’s blessings in order to rejoice in Christ. This was my first lesson in learning to worship God for who he is even when he’s not doing I want, to trust him even when everything in my life felt bad.
The Dark Night of the Senses
The Dark Night of the Senses is the first of two distinct types of Dark Nights of the Soul according to Saint John of the Cross. This is what I experienced as a young man in the meat market. The Dark Night of the Senses is a time when God seems distant – we don’t feel his love or blessings (e.g., Job and the Psalmist, “O Lord, why is your face hidden from me?”). These times of not being able to sense or feel God’s love are a great test to our faith and our learning to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
If we accept this trial and learn from it then in our spiritual development we can transition from the first stage of loving God for his blessings to loving God for our relationship with him, from loving God for the pleasure he gives to loving him for the opportunity to be close to him.
The growth opportunity in a Dark Night of the Senses is to move from a “top-down” spirituality (passively receiving blessings from God) to a “bottom up” spirituality (participating with the Spirit’s deep work of truth and grace inside us). God wants to develop an interactive relationship with us in which we are in continual conversation with him: he speaks and we listen, he leads and we follow.
And another challenge to our faith in this Dark Night is that the Lord wants to helps us grow out of the causal and conditional thinking that says, “If I do A then God will do B for me.” (e.g., if I have enough faith then God will heal me, if I practice the right spiritual disciplines then God will bless me).
The Dark Night of the Spirit
The second type of Dark Night that God uses to mature our love is the Dark Night of the Spirit. In this case the opportunity is for us to transition from loving God for our relationship with him (stage two) to loving God for God – to bless him and to advance his kingdom. This is a very mature love. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to sometimes and in some ways to live in this kind of generous love and full “union” with Christ’s sufferings and resurrection and his purposes.
In the Dark Night of the Spirit God asks us to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to him so he can live through us. We learn to submit more and more to God, to want only what God wants for our lives, loved ones, and ministry. The Bible gives us the example of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac – his precious only son and his God-given dream for his life to be the father of many nations. This, of course, foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice. And Jesus gives us the ultimate example of this faith, not only on the Cross, but also in the Garden of Gethsemane when his sweat was as drops of blood and he prayed three times to his Abba, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”
Years ago, Ray Ortlund, in his discipleship group, and then Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, introduced me to John Woolman, a Quaker tailor who lived in the 1700’s. What I learned had a profound impact on me. Woolman had a dramatic experience in which he heard a voice so melodious and harmonious that he believed it was an angel and the message was: “John Woolman is dead.” Deeply puzzled over these words, he went into prayer to try to understand. Then he felt the Spirit move his mouth to declare “I am crucified with Christ” and at that moment he realized that he was to die to his own will. So he lived simply, quietly and faithfully serving his share of customers needing their clothes tailored and generously referring many to other tailors. He learned the secret of letting God live through him. This deeply satisfied his soul and it empowered him to do great things for God like advancing the cause to abolish slavery from America.
My heart resonated when I heard about John Woolman. I thought back to an experience I had when I was 18 years old and preparing to go to college. I had shared a special weekend with my two best friends that included some deep times of worship and during a period of private prayer I heard the words, “You will die for me… You will die for me… You will die for me.”
What did this mean? Such awful words… Or were they awe-full words? Indeed the voice was so soothing and so heavenly. I felt warm all over my body. I started crying tears of joy. I knew God was good and he had something wonderful for me that I didn’t yet understand.
Later, I told my mother and she worried that I’d be a martyr, but I was so in love with Jesus and so full of his love, joy, and peace from my experience that the thought of dying literally for the Lord didn’t scare me… Until my mother bought me Foxes Book of Martyrs. Those stories were frightening to me! And the weird looks that I got from my friends and family when I tried to explain my experience bothered me. I started to wish that I hadn’t ever heard those words. Worse, years later when I spoke of my experience to the Christian Psychologist who was helping me at the time I left his office thinking, “Maybe I was ‘hearing voices.’ Maybe a screw did get loose.”
But then after learning of John Woolman’s experience and the wonderful effect it had on his life I didn’t feel crazy or even scared – I felt set apart to the Lord! “Yes, I’m to die to myself for Jesus!” I remember sitting in Ray’s discipleship group and praying that God would help me to be like John Woolman, to be glad to share my client referrals with other psychotherapists, to give my will entirely to Jesus like John Woolman so that I too could live simply and powerfully for him.
I now realize that as a young man I had an early vision into the way of the Dark Night of the Spirit. Again and again in my life God has called me to fall to the ground and die like a kernel of wheat so that his life could live in me and be seeded from me to others. He’s called me to take my desires and dreams to the altar of submission to God, following in the footsteps of Abraham who offered his son Isaac on God’s altar: As a young man who was single and wanted to be married to a certain kind of ideal woman… As Ph.D. trained Christian Psychotherapist working full time as a security guard and wanting to be a successful Psychologist… As a new Christian Psychology author and speaker dreaming of writing best-selling books and being a sought after keynote speaker… You will die for me… You will die for me… You will die for me…. Each of these times (and other times as well) God’s answer to my plea was, “Wait on me Bill. Die to your self. Leave your dreams here on the altar. Let my love be enough for you. Realize that you’re significant because you belong to me, not because of what you accomplish.”
I’m still learning! I go in and out of this state of surrender to God and his kingdom. Like Abraham I’ve had to learn not to make my own Ishmael, but to wait for God’s Isaac and then when God gives me an Isaac to offer him back to the Lord. God doesn’t give me what I think I want when I want it. He gives me what he knows I need when the time is right. And what I need is him: His LIFE flowing into me and out from me to others.
As I’ve learned to surrender my dreams and my self to God to live with and for Jesus an amazing thing has happened: he’s brought me more than I could’ve ever asked for or even imagined (Ephesians 3:20). And he’s changed my dreams, making them far better and more wonderful: the wife he gave me in Kristi is far better than the one I asked for; providing Christian Soul Care for a few clients is much more rewarding than the successful psychological practice I wanted; and quietly writing and teaching on Christian spiritual formation to website visitors, students, discipleship group participants, and pastors fulfills my purpose way beyond writing and teaching as a famous Christian Psychology guru ever would have done.
Help for the Dark Night of the Soul
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