Dark Night of the Soul

I lost my ever-loving mind at God tonight*. 

I have been doing an admirable job of not losing it prior to now.  Even as my mother’s condition worsens, I have been doing all the things a good Christian and a sorrowing Christian ought to do.  I pray often; I dive into Scripture; I surround myself with what is good and true and beautiful; I try to take care of myself as best I can.

But it is hard.   My father-in-law—who is not a believer as far as I am aware—commented, about my mother’s condition, “It’s a shame to see something like this happen to a decent person, when some buttholes just live forever.”  And that, bluntly put, is the size of it.

My mother, beloved of so many and a devoted follower of Christ, is suffering tremendously.  She is so sick that at times she cannot pray.  Relief sometimes comes for a time, but every time our hope is lifted by a treatment or a remedy, another problem plunges us precipitously back down.  It keeps getting worse in new and horrible ways.  She is denied so many of the comforts I imagined even the very sick would have in their illness.

Still, it’s not the circumstances alone that feel unbearable.

The phrase “dark night of the soul” gets a lot of traction in popular culture.  People use it as a shorthand for existential crisis: “I was going through this real dark night of the soul, and then I decided to quit my job and open the bakery of my dreams.”  But the phrase refers less to difficulties than to the perception of God’s presence in difficulties.

“If you ever doubt that an encounter with God’s hiddenness is a part of the pilgrimage of faith,” writes Philip Yancey in Disappointment with God, simply browse in a theological library among the works of the Christian mystics, men and women who have spent their lives in personal communion with God.  Search for one, just one, who does not describe a time of severe testing, “the dark night of the soul.”

Yancey is correct, of course.  And I know this and most believers know this.  But experiencing it is altogether different.

What has been hard is not just watching my mother suffer.  Not just watching my father suffer by witnessing her suffering.  What has been hard is begging God for any small mercy—any tiny crumb of ease—and receiving no sense of response.

For my entire Christian life, I have been aware of God’s presence around and about me.  Sometimes, when I was younger, in loud and obvious ways.  As I have grown older, He made His presence known in Scripture and prayer, and sometimes those curious moments when a thought springs to mind that is clearly not mine.  Sometimes, He speaks through others. 

But during this disaster?  Ringing silence.  Prayer feels like talking to a wall.  Every dedicated hour feels impersonal, remote. Quiet messages and nudges and even the sense of peace and reassurance I used to receive in prayer?  Gone, even when I stay awake in bed and beg. No scrap of acknowledgement anywhere in all of this suffering.

I’ve gone beyond asking God to heal my mother, or even to ease the misery.  Just please, I often ask at night, let us know You’re here with us.  Please just let us feel it, a little, somehow.

The miseries continue.  So does, as I perceive it, the silence.

But I persevere, or try to, because I know God is present and does care in spite of whatever I might be perceiving.  Which is why I decided to listen to a Gospel reading tonight.  The app read aloud the soothing verses of Matthew 7:7-9:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

And I snapped like a twig.

In the dark on a random neighborhood corner, I fell into furious response.  “Really?  Really?  Because we are living on nothing but stones here.  Stones and snakes.  Stones and snakes!  And I’m not asking you to take them away, I know how this goes, I’m just asking you to show up and let us feel your presence so this can at least be bearable.” 

I could not stop.  I stood there ugly-crying, just unloading depths of disappointment and misery, while people very discreetly tried to walk their dogs on the opposite side of the street.  I think I swore.  I was so disappointed.  And sad.  And desperate.

At one point during the tirade, I looked up to see that the clouds had rolled away to reveal the moon before they covered it back.  I snort-sobbed—hey, look, a metaphor—and then out of the blue, for the first time in what felt like ages, one of those strange thoughts-from-nowhere:

Keep going.

I sniffled.  I was running out of steam.  But I did keep going, chastened, and mumbled what is at the heart of every dark night of the soul: “It’s not that I don’t believe. I do.  That’s why it hurts.”

And again, a thought-from-nowhere:

I know.  Lance the wound.  Drain it all.

But it wasn’t a reprimand.  It seemed for all the world like God was sitting quietly nearby, listening.  So I cried and sniffled and snotted more, and apologized, and eventually realized I had to walk back to my house. 

I sat down.  And I did two things that I will recommend to you if you ever find yourself going through this: I grabbed my Bible, C.S. Lewis’ On Grief and Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God, and I read some of the most desperate Psalms and a good chunk of job and then the salient bits of Lewis and Yancey.  I came out feeling exhausted but much more settled.

I’m not writing this down to make myself look good.  Obviously.

I’m writing it because I have been a Christian for a very long time now.  Because I know and have always known the deal: in this world you will have trouble, the best people can experience suffering, the Hall of Faith is full of people who got shipwrecked and martyred and sawed in two.  Because I knew all of this, saw it coming, expected it, and it still knocked me off my feet.

I’m writing it because, in the end, this is about faith.

This is about whatever particular test waits for you that will try your resolve.  This is about the valley of the shadow of death—when the Lord is your shepherd, but you somehow can’t see Him standing there.  This is about Job, howling his desperation into the wind.  This is about Jesus, who cried out about being forsaken.  This is about the time you will feel alone, and will have to choose whether or not you believe that you really are.

We live in a world that—more and more—tells us what we deserve, what we have a right to, what we need, what we should demand.  And if we live in accordance with that secular philosophy then we have a laundry list of items to demand from God: we are owed answers for our pain, we are owed a (good and thorough) explanation, we deserve to know why we’re dealing with what we’re dealing with, and God ought to be accountable to us. We expect that God ought to tell us where He is and what He is doing and what the plan is to deal with our stuff.

But Christianity says none of that.  Christianity simply asks, are you willing to give up your right to these things to believe?  Are you willing to acknowledge that whatever is happening is bigger and greater and more complex than you might understand?  Are you able to accept that there are answers you may not receive?  Can you be comfortable with a God who is accountable to no one but Himself?  Do you trust Him that much?

I do. Even in my greatest upset I do, or I wouldn’t be yelling at Him on dark street corners. If I thought He genuinely didn’t care or wouldn’t hear, I’d never bother. And I can’t explain why or how I found peace after all that except to say that the sorrow and frustration I felt during my outburst came from love.  And I experienced with certainty that it was heard in love.  Of all the things that I might say to God, “You don’t know what it’s like down here” is not one of them.  Christ was not exempt.  From my ugly ranting, the Holy Spirit fashions an offering. For me, that makes the difference.

 I suspect that is the choice every believer must make, when the time of trying comes.  But most of all I write this so that when it comes for you, I hope you remember it comes for every believer.  That there is a time of testing that will be most difficult and that, in spite of all your experience, you may not be prepared to encounter.  You will look for God and suddenly when you need Him most it will seem He isn’t there. He is. Keep reaching out. You will endure.   I promise – from right in the middle of it where I sit.

*Written late last night, posted today

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7 thoughts on “Dark Night of the Soul

  1. Your letter to us during this time is very poignant. Thank you for sharing the pain of your grief with us! May you rest in the power of God’s sovereign grace when you able to rest at all.

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    1. Thank you very much. Strangely – or perhaps not so – I feel more settled and calm in myself and in God now than I have in weeks. It’s not as though the worst has passed – except perhaps for the soul, it has. For whatever reason, it seems as though this particular trial had to be endured before getting to the other side. I am grateful for all prayers!

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      1. There are times I receive a strong unction. This is one of those times. I received a sense of peace having followed it. Prayers will be going up for you and your mother, as well as your whole family, from folks you will never know here on earth. Thank you for allowing us to share in your suffering. The Lord is with you!

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  2. Thank you so very much for your honesty and your courage in writing this post. Many of us who are going deeper into our faith are experiencing what you so candidly expressed. There is a unhealthy notion that once you give your life to Christ life becomes easy and happy. From my experience that has not been the case. More and more these days it has become a daily struggle to keep the faith as the world tumbles into the abyss. This age is ending. Christ will soon return to set the world right! We need to keep our lamps lit! Thank you!

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    1. Kasi, you are so welcome. The more of us who share these times, the less alien it will feel, I think. And yes, it is a particularly difficult time to be keeping the faith as so many things fall apart around us. Yet we endure – and we look on with hope in spite of it all. Hard-earned hope!

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