Dark Night of the Soul
The great world's alter stairs
That slope through darkness up to God.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
St. John of the Cross wrote,
God perceives the imperfections within us, and because of his love for us, urges us to grow up. His love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason he takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness. In doing so he is able to take away all these vices and create virtues within us. Through the dark night pride becomes humility, greed becomes simplicity, wrath becomes contentment, luxury becomes peace, gluttony becomes strength. No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the Dark Night.
One of the best biblical examples of St. John's Dark Night is Elijah. Here's a man who stepped directly from the wondrous heights of Carmel into a dark, bleak canyon of despair. Israel's historian tells the story:
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep (1 Kings 19:1-5).
Exhilarated by his success on Mt. Carmel, the prophet "outran Ahab to Jezreel," a distance of about twenty-five miles. As Elijah ran, illusions of grandeur danced in his head: the death of state Baalism, a court chaplaincy, legislative prayer breakfasts, another opportunity to vindicate God's honor and make His mark on the world.
But Jezebel had another idea: "Dream on," she said and sent a messenger with this bit of terse verse: "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them" (19:2). Elijah's snappy rejoinder was to turn and flee: "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life" (19:3). The text may also be translated, "Elijah saw!" He got the picture!
Fueled by raw fear, Elijah ran all the way to Beersheba, a distance of about seventy miles, where he found shelter under
a broom tree, dropped from exhaustion and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, Lord," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors" (19:4). "Enough!" he cried. "I'm a failure! I quit!"
Elijah's come-down is classic. Over-extended and emotionally depleted, brooding over his feelings of inadequacy and apparent failure, he collapsed into self-pity, withdrawal, and self-destructive thoughts.
Everyone has times of deep discouragement. Time and pain wear down our resolve. Broken in spirit and bruised beyond repair, we get weary of soul.
We ask ourselves, "What have I been spending my life for? Who is any better off from all my effort?" We find no pleasure or consolation in God or in his work.
There is an abiding sense of failure. Our yoke seems unbearable; our burdens are heavy beyond endurance. And what makes our difficulties even more grievous is that we feel such terrible loneliness: no one seems to care; no one shares our outlook; even God seems to be shunning us. And so, like Elijah, we cry, "Enough already!"
Sometimes our dark moods are nothing more than physical and emotional depletion. Like Elijah we've been running scared, over-doing everything, committing ourselves to more projects and plans than anyone could ever do. We string ourselves out, expending all our time and energy trying to be all things to all people at all times, adding our will to God's trying to do well what he never intended for us to do at all.
We tax our bodies and give them no chance to recover. We provide no margins in which to adjust to unexpected emergencies. Over-worked and under-slept, we finally reach our yield point and fold. Our bodies can't take it anymore. Unlike that battery-powered bunny we just can't keep going.
It's good to know that our melancholy may be nothing but natural weariness. We're too inclined to make something
spiritual out of it, thinking that somehow we've gone wrong. We've forgotten that we're only human, that "we have this treasure [Christ's divinity] in vessels of common clay [our humanity]" (2 Corinthians 4:7). The treasure is the only enduring element; the rest of us is frail and gives way easily.
"Fatigue makes cowards of us all," Vince Lombardi said. We start to lose focus and lose our grasp on reality. We implode withdraw into a state of self-condemnation and apathy. We lose focus and concentration. We say things that we would never say if we were fresh and well-rested. We make unwise decisions based on feelings of inadequacy, and sometimes the decisions are irreversible. We should never trivialize our weariness.
Elijah lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, Get up and eat." He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, "get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you." So he got up and ate and drank (19:5-8).
God understood Elijah's weary despair, and he let him sleep. Sleep is God's gift to his weary servants: "He grants sleep to those he loves" (Psalm 127:2). Sometimes the most urgent and vital thing you can do is to take a complete rest. Being spiritual doesn't necessarily mean expending effort in contemplation and prayer; it may mean eating supper and hitting the sack.
God sent his angel to touch Elijah. No lecture, no rebuke, no chiding only a gentle touch from one of the Lord's tender angels, awakening Elijah to find food and drink. He commands his angels concerning us, to keep us in all our ways (Psalm 91:11).
God finds us when we're down and out, when we have nothing left to give. He comes to take away our weariness. He never awakens anyone to disappointment, but to the good things Love has prepared.
John, who learned God's love on Jesus' breast, tells in words so simple and direct: "We know and rely on the love God has for us" (1 John 4:16). I go back to these words again and again.
Perhaps the best way to know God's love is to experience it in times of declension and deep discouragement, when we feel most undeserving of it. "His lovingkindness is better than life" (Psalm 63:3).
Strengthened by food and rest Elijah "traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night" (19:9). In the strength of God's angel food, Elijah journeyed into the wilderness to Mount Horeb (Sinai) , the mountain of revelation, where God always spoke his mind. There the Lord addressed the deeper elements of Elijah's discouragement.
And the word of the Lord came to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He replied, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he
pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (19:9-13).
"The Lord is going to pass by," Elijah was assured, and so he looked for signs of God's passing. First there were winds of hurricane force, then a devastating earthquake and a fire storm of titanic proportion. But in each God was conspicuous by his absence. When he did pass by, Elijah saw nothing, felt nothing. The only evidence of God was a still, small voice a nearly inaudible whisper.
You never know about God: He may appear in extraordinary and melodramatic ways in hurricane, earthquake, or storm. But he's usually much less obvious. God's heroics, when they appear, are rarely as expected. He works in quietness, his Spirit gently wafting like the wind, here and there, touching one, touching another, working in silence to get his work done. The obvious is usually spurious. God's best efforts are rarely seen. That's the word from Sinai.
The problem with Elijah was that he had wholly unrealistic expectations of God. He had seen the Lord manifest himself in stupendous display on Mount Carmel. He expected a repeat performance that God would make short work of Jezebel, blasting her off the face of the earth with a fireball. But instead of a lightning bolt, Jezebel got God's forbearance and Elijah got a contract on his life. He collapsed into disappointment and depression.
God's way of correcting Elijah's perspective was to bring him to the place of revelation, which is what he must do with us again and again. It's in that quiet place that we hear God's voice. That's where we hear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That's where we get real.
Folk Christianity that perspective nowhere taught in the Bible, but generally believed says that everyone is a winner:
no one gets Alzheimer's disease, no one dies from cancer, no one fails in marriage, no one falls to mental illness. Everyone lives happily ever after. But that's not the way it is.
Life is difficult. "The world is painful in any case; but it is quite unbearable if anybody gives us the idea that we are meant to be liking it," Charles Williams said. When people tell me that life is hard, I reply, "Of course it is." I find that answer more satisfying than anything else I can say. Every year confirms my belief that life is difficult and demanding. Any other response is unrealistic.
Life rarely goes as we think it should. We lose our jobs; we lose our health; we lose our children, one way or another. Our stocks fall, our retirement plans fail, our dreams go belly up.
We labor long hours with only fragmentary results. We're disregarded and ignored, slandered and maligned; we get trampled on by insensitive people. Some days we fall flat on our faces. Our best efforts are a disaster, our best foot forward becomes a bitter embarrassment. As my friend Fred Smith says, "Anything is possible with God, even failure."
But not to worry: The events that we call tragedies, setbacks, and failures are opportunities for God. He knows how to draw glory even from our ruin. "Not to be downcast after failure is one of the marks of true sanctity" (Dom Augustine Guillerand).
The hour of deepest humiliation, when we feel defective and utterly disqualified may be the hour that God uses us in unparalleled ways. Years of "wasted" effort may be the years when God plants an eternal harvest.
There's more going on than we can ever know. Though we think our efforts have been in vain, there's something in the wind. God's Spirit is wafting about, deftly and tenderly touching others, touching us, making us more like him than we ever thought possible, using us to influence others in ways we never imagined.
He is at work, if not in the strong winds then in the gentle zephyr; if not in the earthquake then in our heartbreak; in crowds or lonely hearts.
The "wind blows where it will." We can't control it; we can only believe that it is true. That's the perspective Elijah learned in that quiet place; that's what we learn.
So let the noise subside,
And listen deep inside;
He will speak; he will speak.
But it won't be an earthquake;
And it won't be fire;
Or the whirling wind;
Taking you higher.
It will be a still small voice;
And you'll have no choice;
But to hear; but to hear.
- John Fischer
One way to get going
Elijah missed the message. When asked again, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" he repeated himself, "I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too."
The Lord said to him, "Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shephat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to
death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him" (19:15-18).
God's word was insistent: "Go back! You still have work to do!" There were things of great importance for Elijah to do: He was to anoint Hazael, the Syrian king who unwittingly became Elijah's ally in the struggle against Israel and Ahab (2 Kings 13:22). He was to anoint Jehu king over Israel, the man who eventually brought the evil Jezebel to her well-deserved end. He was to anoint Elisha, his companion in ministry and successor to it.
Furthermore, God assured Elijah that he was not alone; he was part of a significant whole. There were yet thousands in Israel "all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him."
Elijah couldn't master his emotions and snap out of his dark mood; not even God would insist upon it. Nor did God's word immediately take hold. Our emotions are beyond our control and black moods can continue long after the causes of depression are removed. Sadness needs its time to be.
No, Elijah wasn't asked to alter his mood, but he was asked to choose his will was operative. A century ago, British minister Francis Paget said, "It may be impossible at times to feel what one would; it is not impossible to will what one should; and that, if the will be real and honest, is what matters most."
John White writes, "There is no place for giving up. The warfare is much bigger than our personal humiliations. To feel sorry for oneself is totally inappropriate. Over such a soldier I would pour a bucket of icy water. I would drag him to his feet, kick him in the rear end and put a sword in his hand and shout, "Now fight!' In some circumstances one must be cruel to be kind. What if you're not the most brilliant swordsman in the army? You hold Excaliber in your hand. Get behind the
lines for a break if you're too weak to go on and strengthen yourself with a powerful draught of Romans 8:1-4. Then get back into the fight before your muscles get stiff!"
We can get back into the fight if we will. And therein lies the rub: Do we want to deal with our discouragement? Blue moods can initially be pleasurable; pandering to our misery and nursing self-pity feels good for a season. But like all illicit pleasure, the aftertaste is bitter. Sowing to one's own flesh inevitably leads to corruption (Galatians 6:8-10).
We must decide that despair must go. We must not be passive and wait for it to go away by itself. We must learn to battle fiercely against discouragement. We must stay near the place of revelation, sit at our Lord's feet and listen to his words. He reminds us there of the things that matter: who he is, what he has done and what he is doing. It's there that we get his perspective, regain our focus, and re-establish our priorities. In that quiet place we hear again, "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it" (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
We must get up and get going. There's always something God is asking us to do, something as simple as going to work. He only asks us to do what he empowers us to do. We must shake off our lethargy and, like that other cripple whom Jesus restored, get up from our beds and walk. It's necessary for us to take that first step, for God "will carry us in his arms till we are able to walk and he will carry us in his arms when we are weary and cannot walk; but he will not carry us if we will not walk" (George MacDonald).
Hard to do? Indeed it is! Like plunging into an icy stream. But it can be done. When we choose to do his will, God gives us what we need to comply. Our feelings may lag. Our dark mood may linger. But God will indeed carry us in his arms until we're back on our feet. And so, "Elijah went from there . . ." (19:19). He got back into the action. Will you?
Table of Contents | Chapter 5