“Jesus has a very special love for you, as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me that I let Him have free hand.” -Mother Teresa
Ever feel like you are stuck in a rut? What if you were stuck for years no matter what you did? That is what has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. It affects your emotions, your mind, and your soul. All great men and women of faith have gone through it. Jesus needed 40 days; Moses needed 40 years. Rather than try to avoid it or fight it, perhaps we should embrace the Dark Night of the Soul for what it is: God’s perfecting process to deepen our faith in Him.
The Dark Night of the Soul is difficult to define because it is a unique experience for every individual. Some describe it like a storm; some say it is like wandering and wondering in a wilderness; others say it is a deep depression. However you would describe it, the Dark Night of the Soul is a dramatic change in your spiritual condition and your relationship with God. It comes unexpectedly and usually uninvited. Sometimes it begins with a death or traumatic event; sometimes you suddenly realize you haven’t heard the voice of God in a long time and nothing you do can get God to speak again.
If it is any consolation, many great men and women of God went through similar spiritually dry experiences. Before Moses led the Israelites, he lived in the desert watching sheep for his father-in-law Jethro. “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai.” (Acts 7:30) Joseph spent a lucky 13 years in a pit, a prison, and dungeon before he ascended to his position second only to the Pharaoh. (Genesis 37:2; Genesis 41:46) Before Jesus began His ministry, He also went to the desert. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” (Luke 4:1-2)
So before doing great things and beginning world-changing ministries, the Dark Night of the Soul came to prepare them for service. If you are going through it, perhaps you are being prepared to do great things for God. Jesus needed 40 days. Moses needed 40 years. How long you will need only God knows.
Before you start to think this only happens to people in the Bible, consider the words of Martin Luther and Mother Teresa. Luther began his ministry in a monastery where he struggled to find and love God.
“I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me… . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 24, eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann [St. Louis: Concordia, 2002], 62).
Martin Luther experienced this for 15 years: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 12, 273). At times He even felt as if he “hated” God.
“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, 337)
Mother Teresa experienced the Dark Night of the Soul as she began her ministry and it continued uninterrupted for the rest of her life. She wrote letters to her closest confidants, which were published in a Time magazine article and a book. Here is a portion of that article. http://time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/
“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God–tender, personal love,” she remarks to an adviser. “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.’”
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One. Alone … Where is my Faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain. I have no Faith. I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart & make me suffer untold agony.
Does this all mean that if we go through a lengthy dark period, then we will become as great as Moses or Mother Teresa? That is tough to gauge, but your faith will grow as it never otherwise could.
The dark night of the soul is much like being in the womb. We do not know the gestation period. It is dark and mysterious. Our needs are met, but we don’t have any clue what we want or how to get there. So we wait. And we kick. And we scream, but only to hear our own voice. All other voices (God, our spiritual leaders, wise friends) are muffled at best and sound void of meaning or form. Darkness is our friend and our hated nemesis. We don’t know what is going on, up from down, what is beneficial or harmful, or who to trust or if anything will ever change.
But there’s the rub. If we look back, it is we who have changed. From day to day, we might not notice it just as you don’t notice a puppy’s growth each day until he seemingly suddenly is able to jump up and lick you in the nose when he could barely bite your ankles a month ago. Your faith grows just as subtly. A month ago or a year ago I might have worried more about losing my job or paying my bills or losing my health after feeling a mysterious bump on my neck and assuming it was cancer, but now I just don’t. Is it faith? Am I trusting God more? Or am I too stupid or naive to know if there is anything worth the pain of this senseless waiting.
Mother Teresa didn’t let doubt stop her. She served the untouchables and loved the unlovables in India anyway. Maybe feeling unloved by God helped her better relate to those who no one seemed to love. Maybe God’s silence helped her hear the silent prayers and cries for help of the orphans and widows in Calcutta. Martin Luther was not paralyzed by his own struggles through the Dark Night of the Soul either. Moses went on to lead the Israelites out of slavery to the promised land, Joseph saved thousands from famine, and Jesus saved the world from sin. All of the above became stronger and better equipped to do their calling because of the Dark Night of the Soul. You are called to do something no one can do too. Figuring out why it is happening to you is not as important as learning to depend on God during the tough times.
I wish I could give a simple answer. Having experienced it myself off and on for the past 15 years, I have had many more questions than answers. Well-meaning people often tell me it is a learning opportunity though what I am learning has never been made clear to me. Maybe it is not about learning anything. We may never know why. We might have to become okay with the process anyway.
“May God, then, be pleased to give me His Divine light, because this is very needful in a night that is so dark and a matter that is so difficult to describe and to expound.” – The Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross
For more on the Dark Night of the Soul
When God Stops Talking: How To Know When You Are Going Through the Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross