The summer before my senior year of college I worked as an apprentice butcher. If you know me you’re laughing right now: Bill a butcher!
But if you were in the meat market with me for those three months when I was 21 years old you would not have laughed — you would’ve cried for me. It was one of the most painful times in my life as I experienced my first Dark Night of the Soul.
I Cried on the Inside
That summer the butchers butchered me.
Every mistake I made (there’s a lot more to cutting meat then you might realize!) was harshly criticized. And they harassed me at every chance they could because they resented that an executive in the company had put me in their shop, not so that I could learn their trade and become a butcher but as a favor to help me to make money for college. They ganged up on me and persecuted me for being devoted to Jesus. They talked dirty to make me uncomfortable. They cussed at me. They laughed at me.
I held back tears. I tried to be strong. I worked my hardest to do everything right and to be a good witness for Christ. But the butchers got the best of me.
I desperately wanted to quit — the money wasn’t worth all that pain! Every day in the meat market I prayed for God’s help. I cried out to God like David did when King Saul hated him and was trying to kill him: “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 13:1-3).
But God didn’t deliver me from my circumstances and unlike David, who hid in caves from Saul and his armies, I had no place to hide. In fact I sensed God say to me: “Bill, this persecution is what I have for you this summer. Trust me. I want to teach you some things.”
The other thing that God seemed to say to me was to direct me to read 1 Peter, which I learned was a letter to disciples of Jesus who were being persecuted for following him. I read 1 Peter every day at lunch, trying to understand what was going on. “Lord, why do you want me to suffer like this? I thought you loved me.”
I kept crying out to God but I didn’t hear anything else.
I became more and more depressed. It was a loooong summer. One day my best friend drove almost two hours just to give me a hug and pray with me on my lunch hour. Every night my mom listened to me and cried for me.
By the end of the summer I was broken, exhausted, and believed I was a failure. I left the meat market feeling like a dog licking his wounds.
From the Butcher Shop to the Monastery
Then I went from the butcher shop into a monastery! At the start of the summer I had committed to spend three days at a monastery to fast and pray in solitude about my future in Christian psychology.
But to be honest I didn’t want anything to do with God at that point! I felt like he had disappointed me and abandoned me.
My experience at the monastery wasn’t much better than the meat market! At least I wasn’t abused, but it was a desert wilderness for me. I had never been to a monastery. I had never fasted for three days. I had never been silent and alone with God for three days. I had taken on way too much!
The first thing I did upon arriving at the monastery was to meet with a monk for spiritual direction. Months earlier when I had reserved this retreat I was excited about doing this because of the books I had read from the old spiritual writers who offered spiritual direction ministry.
But this monk scared me! He was dressed in a long dark robe with a hood and he had dark hair and dark eyes. He seemed strange to me. I felt so awkward. The meeting felt cold and tense and I couldn’t connect with him.
The monk gave me a spiritual book to read but it made no sense to me. It was just like my experience of him: full of dry, obtuse theology that I couldn’t relate to. The only thing I got out of the book (and the retreat) was that the word “grace” was in the title!
Where’s the Grace?
Remember the commercial where a man buys a fast food hamburger and he lifts up the top bun too see a tiny patty and so he complains, “Where’s the beef?”
That’s how I felt. Based on the book the monk gave me about grace I decided that God wanted to teach me about his grace. But I didn’t experience any grace in the book or the monk. Furthermore, as I reflected on my experience in the butcher shop and then at the retreat center I was confused and troubled — if God wanted me to experience his grace then why did he send me to a meat market to be mistreated and then to a monastery to be abandoned?
My whole retreat was dry bones!!!
I spent three days walking around trying to pray, but mostly wrestling with my emotions. I couldn’t feel God’s presence — I just felt hungry? I tried to listen to God but I heard nothing — just the echo of what I heard in the meat market: “Bill, this persecution is what I have for you this summer. Trust me. I want to teach you some things.”
Where was God? I felt so alone, so empty, so hungry, so depressed.
My Dark Night of the Soul
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was experiencing my first Dark Night of the Soul.
God had withdrawn from me the felt sense of his presence. I felt all alone in the world.
I kept crying out to God with the Psalmist: “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). I didn’t know what else to do.
I prayed and prayed, but I couldn’t experience the warmth of God’s presence. It felt like God had no blessings for me! Spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, journaling prayers, and taking prayer walks in nature that used to bring me feelings of God’s love, joy, and peace were now leaving me flat and empty.
There seemed to be no spiritual light at the end of my dark tunnel.
Years later I would come to understand that my Dark Night of the Soul was a time of loving discipline from God in which he was teaching me to trust in his goodness even when my circumstances and feelings were telling me that God was not being good to me. It’s one of the most important lessons we can learn in life.
After my three days were finished I left the monastery more desperate and dejected then when I had arrived. I hadn’t heard God’s voice for my future. I didn’t even like God at that point!
But the next day was one of the turning points in my life. I was in church singing, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news. Good news. Announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness. Our God reigns! Our God reigns!”
Suddenly, when I least expected it, God gave me a gift of grace: I had a vision.
What kind of a vision from God am I talking about? It was like God put into my mind a very short movie that he produced for me. It was like a dream only I was wide awake. I wasn’t trying to imagine anything. I wasn’t even trying to hear God at that point. The vision appeared to me out of nowhere and with my spiritual eyes I saw it all happen.
(First a disclaimer. You should know that having a vision or special experience of God’s grace does not mean that you’re a better or more mature Christian than someone who doesn’t. If there’s any correlation it’d be the reverse: those who are less mature in their relationship with Christ may need extraordinary revelations while the more mature stay strong in Christ with only God’s still, small voice to guide them)
The Mountain I had to Climb
It all happened in a flash. In my mind’s eye I saw myself at the bottom of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. I had seen this mountain in my mind’s eye many times before because as a young man I used to imagine that while I read the Bible or prayed I was climbing this mountain to go into God’s presence.
Once again I wanted to climb to the top to meet with God, but for the first time in my life I felt unworthy and unable to climb it. I felt the same sense of shame and isolation that I felt in the meat market and in the monastery. But I was telling myself that I had to get up. I had to work at it. I had to try harder and do better.
Then my anxious, self-critical, and self-demanding thoughts were interrupted…
I saw Jesus coming down the mountain! He was looking at me — as he had looked at Peter after Peter denied him — with eyes that saw right into my soul and knew all my sins and struggles. But Jesus didn’t condemn me he had compassion for me! Tears for me were streaming down his cheeks.
You know how in a dream some things don’t make sense on the surface level? The vision God gave me was like that in the aspect that even though Jesus was circling down the mountain going all the way around it we never lost eye contact — he kept looking into my soul with eyes of compassion. I realize now that it was like that because the vision was conveying spiritual reality, which is a different world than the visible, material world.
Jesus stopped when he came to me and he picked me up and put me over his shoulders. He started to carry me up the mountain — as if I was a sack of potatoes! Just like I used to carry my kids when they were little!
A crowd formed. People started to insult Jesus. They spit at him, yelled at him, and beat him! And still he kept carrying me me up the mountain. I realized that Jesus Christ, the Holy One, the Son of God, was taking onto himself the persecution and pain that I had experienced. And he was paying the price for my sins and failures too.
As I hung over his shoulder looking over his back all I could see were his feet: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!”
I was the Cross!
I suddenly realized that I was the cross on Jesus’ back. He carried me all the way to the top of the mountain, into the presence of God.
I experienced the grace of God in Christ and it set me free of all the pressure I’d been putting on myself to perform for God. From that day forward I began to experience the joy of a new freedom in Christ. I didn’t have to make things happen for myself or anyone else. All I needed to do was to rely on Jesus Christ who loved me and gave his life for me!
Grace. So that’s what the monk was trying to tell me!