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When Henri Nouwen Couldn’t Feel God’s Love

The warmth of God’s presence can be elusive. In his secret journal, Henri Nouwen is vulnerable about a dark season in which he couldn’t feel God’s love. 

He’d helped millions of other people around the world into a more tender and intimate experience with God, but he was in a Dark Night of the Soul.

The spiritual darkness overtook Nouwen around his transition of leaving his work as a seminary professor to live and serve in a community of developmentally disabled adults in 1988.

Eight years later and shortly before his death he agreed to publish his secret journal as The Inner Voice of Love. Here are some excerpts from that short and heartfelt book:

“Everything came crashing down — my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God… everything.” 

“Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness.”

“What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.” (p xiii)

“It was as if the house I had finally found had no floors…”

“I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I… could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness.” (pp xiv-xv)

Henri Nouwen finally experienced consolation from God through two spiritual counselors. Through them the Lord spoke to his heart and to ours:

“You have to trust the place that is solid, the place where you can say yes to God’s love even when you do not feel it.” 

“Right now you feel nothing except emptiness and the lack of strength to choose. But keep saying, ‘God loves me, and God’s love is enough.’ You have to choose the solid place over and over again and return to it after every failure.” (p 8)

“Don’t whip yourself for your lack of spiritual progress. If you do, you will easily be pulled even further away from your center. You will damage yourself…” 

“It is obviously good not to act on your sudden emotions. But you don’t have to repress them either… Acknowledge them [and] befriend them so that you do not become their victim.”

“The way to ‘victory’ is not in trying to overcome your dispiriting emotions directly but in building a deeper sense of safety and at-homeness and a more incarnate knowledge that you are deeply loved. Then little by little, you will stop giving so much power to strangers [who make you feel insecure].” (pp 42-43)

“When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, even if only for a moment…

“But no human being can heal that pain.” 

“Still, people will be sent to you to mediate God’s healing, and they will be able to offer you the deep sense of belonging that you desire and that gives meaning to all you do.

“Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you.” (pp 47-48)


Listen to this blog’s companion podcast: “When You Don’t Feel God’s Love Anymore”

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