Nov 1, 2022 in Counseling

Dark Night of the Soul

Where are you in your Spiritual Development?

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We experience a time or times in our lives, and maybe you have already experienced it, where you might have asked the question: “God where are you? What is happening? Why don’t you make yourself as clear as you have at other times in my life?” or “Lord, make Yourself clear for the first time in my life”. If you are honest with yourself you would say, “God, I don’t know where you are. I don’t feel your presence”.

When looking at our Spiritual development, we cannot overlook that experience of the felt absence of God and what it means in the life of the believer. And it is unacceptable to dismiss it and say” well you must have sin in your life”. this is an insensitive and incorrect assumption to make. We need to give more attention to the felt absence of God in our lives and to be able to effectively facilitate the spiritual development in our lives.

It may be that God is very present and very active in our lives at those times and if that is the case, we want to understand what is happening so we can participate with him and join in the “dance” by following his leading in our hearts.

There are times in our life when God seems close when God feels present. They are those times when Bible reading is insightful; when prayer is wonderful; when worship is exciting; and even times of brokenness – those times are deep and meaningful. They are times we just sense the Presence of God, and they are indeed incredible times. These are times that taste so good we would like them to last forever.

There are times in our life when God feels so close but there are going to be times And I am just going to tell you what you most likely already know: there ARE going to be times, where it will not be the case. You will feel like God is now just distant. And it may be that you haven’t done anything wrong, there’s no sin of which you are aware because you’ve checked – that’s your first response to a sense of God’s absence.

And I am not going to be talking about a person who is walking away from the Lord: that person who just doesn’t want anything to do with the Lord anymore. That’s a whole different situation.

This is a point where you’re going to have to be honest with yourself. Honesty is one of those meta-virtues of the spiritual life. It’s - “calling it like it is, not the way it should be in your life.” That honesty is so important now because that’s where God is working. God is working where you really are. We’re not interested in the fantasy that you and I have about ourselves.

So, there are going to be times when God feel distant to you. You haven’t done anything wrong; you haven’t sinned (any more than normal), your vices (Moral weakness) are still there, your virtues (The quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong) are still developing, but now God is going to seem far away.

Have you ever wondered in the deep part of your heart in times like that, “God, where are you? Are you there? What is wrong with me? Why do you seem so distant? Why do I feel so dry inside? Why don’t I seem to care about you, why don’t I have a hunger for reading the Word, or a desire for prayer, or a joy in hearing sermons the way I used to? What have I done wrong? God, what have you done?”

This is horrible times, you are going to feel miserable, and you are going to look everywhere, under each rock for a reason for that felt absence of God’s presence and you are going to try and clean yourself from every possible sin to reclaim God’s presence. All the time you will feel shame and guilt for something that you know you must have done to cause God to withdraw his presence from your life. You know it’s your fault and you must figure out why.

Let us look Psalm 13. - the book of Psalms is the prayers that were sung in the Old Testament community. And when the New Testament Church begins, this is their songbook. In Psalm 13 we have what are called Lament Psalms. A Lament is a complaint. Generally, there are 3 types of complaints that we see in the book Psalms. They are all complaints to God but there is a complaint to God (1) about other people. You know these; they are the “God, strike them down!” complaint psalms. There’s a second type and that is the complaint to God (2) about yourself, and then the third, there’s the complaint to God (3) about God. And when you look at them there are in fact more of that third type (complaint to God about God) than any other Lament Psalms.

Before we dig into Psalm 13 to look at what was happening in the Psalmist’s life, we need to look at it from the setting of Psalm 40. Psalm 40:1. This is a prayer sung by David where he says, “I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined to me, and he heard my cry. He brought me out of the pit, and he put joy in my mouth, and a new song of praise to our God”.

 That’s nice, isn’t it? We would all testify to times when we have felt like that.

But now look at Psalm 13. This is the first of the Lament Psalms – of that 3rd type (complaint to God about God) Same type of praying that is sung but listen to the difference:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

“How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1b)

Wow. There’s David - he expounded (elaborated)on his lived experience in this prayer-song. And it comes out, “How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I take counsel in my soul, sorrow in my heart all the day”.

What David was saying was, “I’m tired of thinking about this”. His weariness was coming out of his heart because his prayers had become nothing more than just taking counsel (advise/ guidance) in his own soul. His grief was felt as he experienced the very real felt absence of the presence of God.

He expresses his weariness and grief of not sensing God’s presence and then he moves to the enemy:

“How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”

In his despair David cries out, “God, you haven’t dealt with this. God, I have a trial in my life. God, consider and answer me O God, enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him.”

What don’t you see in this Psalm? Did you notice? There is no answer of David’s prayer. There is no resolution that we read. But what we do see in the Psalm is a resolution (result) of commitment. Look at verse .5: “Nevertheless, I have trusted in you”.

Basically, David has no answer and no deliverance here. He’s complaining to the Lord, “God? God, why don’t you answer me?” “Where are you?” “Why do you hide your face from me?” Nevertheless, God I’m going to trust you”. “I am going to trust you because in the past you have dealt bountifully with me”. David has no sense of God hearing his prayer, sees no evidence of God answering his prayer yet he resolves in his heart to trust God because of what God has done in his life in the past. This is going to be a fundamental approach to those times when you have that very real absence of the felt presence of God.

Our response to what we “feel” in these times of spiritual development is critical for the desire of God to be accomplished in our lives.

Another Psalm to look at is Psalm 22:1: “My God My God why have you forsaken me?”

David feels absolutely forsaken by God in this moment.

As we think about this lived experience of David, we must be honest about our own lives. And we must ask ourselves, in all honesty, what is really going on in our prayer life?

For many of you, it might be hard to admit that you had such a living experience as David - the feelings of absolute forsakenness by God. And it could be for you like saying, “I’ve committed some sin. I know I have, because if I had not sinned, God would feel close”. “But I can’t be in sin because that’s shame and guilt. And I don’t want to feel shame and guilt so I should be better. I should be doing better. That’s what must be happening”.

The saddest thing about this is that you literally are not able to see yourselves. And you hide from who you really are, and you hide from the God who loves you with unconditional agape love. And accepts you unconditionally. Because of your shame and guilt, you are just not able to look and see the truth in your life.

But in Christ we can come out of hiding – from ourselves and from God. Because of the reality of being totally forgiven and totally accepted – fully Justified and fully Righteous in the eyes and heart of God. Because we are in Christ.

“My God my God why have you forsaken me? Far from my deliverances are the words of my groaning. Oh my God I cry by day, and you don’t answer and by night, yet I know you are holy! I know you deliver. But I’m a worm. I’m not a man. I am a reproach (Disgrace or shame). David’s despair and feelings of abandonment by God, is raw, deep, and very real. (Same as some of your experiences)

As you think about your life and your walk with God, there will be times when you will go through something like this. You may be experiencing it now. They are those times in your life where the cry of your heart is, “God? Where are you? Why aren’t you clear to me? As clear to me as at other times in my life? What is going on? What’s the truth of what is happening?”

There are two foundational truths, which we need to express, so that we can then build upon them and try to understand what the Spirit of God is doing in these times. So, here’s the first foundational truth:

God is always present.

That is a theological truth that we need to repeat and repeat until the truth sinks into our hearts and takes root. Because our understanding of the feelings of God’s absence has to be understood in light of this truth. And God is not just present by his Omnipresence; he is present by his Indwelling ministry. This is the witness of Scripture. In 2 Peter 1:4, Peter tells us that, “We have become partakers of the divine nature.” In 1 Corinthians 16 Paul tells us, “Those who are joined are one spirit with him”. So, the truth is that you may not feel like God is there, but he is always there. If we are going to understand spiritual development and what God is doing deep down in our hearts to conform us to the image of Christ, you and I need to understand more about this “felt absence of God” and we will do that from the biblical truth of his “promised presence”.

The second foundational truth is this:

God will never leave you.

This is now a promise of the New Covenant. God will never leave you This is the reality we read of in Romans 8:35 where Paul is talking about Justification and there towards the end of the chapter, he tells us that, “If God gave his own son, who could bring a charge against God’s elect now? If we have Christ’s righteousness, who could do anything to bring a charge against us? What could possibly separate us from the love of God?”

And so, Paul goes through this long list: there’s nothing in heaven and there’s nothing on earth. And then he takes it into the deep - there is nothing in your heart. There is no act that you can do; there is nothing that could separate you from the Love of God.

Your sin does not separate you from the love of God anymore. That’s just a truth of the New Covenant. Now, it separates the unbeliever. But your sin does not separate you from the Love of God. In fact, if your sin separates you then you’d be always separated from God. Think about that for a moment.

“If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” The implication is that it is you that has moved.

There is a time in a disciple’s life which is called the Beginner stage. And what is meant by Beginner is that no matter what had happened in your life prior to this, whether it is an immediate thing after conversion and baptism or sometime later, but this is the stage where the faith began to take hold in a person’s life. This is when there is a firm grip on the fact that you were saved, and you would talk about having your sins forgiven. It all was a lived reality for many.

This is a little of the pattern we see in 1 John 2:12. There is in fact a bit of the spiritual developmental picture here in 1 John 2:12-14. He talks there about the “little children”, and this would correspond to the Beginner stage. And the next verse, almost like the bookend for the “little children” is, the “fathers”; the ones who have come to know God who has been there from the beginning, the Sovereign Lord. And then there is this middle period of wrestling, and you can see that in the passage – the young men who have battled and overcome the evil one.

Looking at these texts, here’s the observation made: hat at some point there is a time when we became a Beginner and suddenly there was just this sense of the felt presence of God. It was a real awareness that “God is here, I’m forgiven, this is my faith. It’s not my parent’s faith anymore. I want to pray. I want to hear sermons”. And growth in the faith becomes theirs.

We call this time Consolation. And this time of Consolation is often just an incredible time in a person’s life. It is a time when they become aware that God is at work, and it is all a very personal relationship with God for them.

This time of Consolation would go on for a period and then it would begin to plateau (Level out, reach a stable state of little change). The faith was not as exciting as it used to be. There was in fact a bit of a decline to the curve where it was getting worse and worse and worse and there was this growing sense of the felt absence of God. The time of questioning of, “God, where are you?” Remember that this is not a believer that has turned away from the faith. This time is called Desolation.

The observation made is truly surprising. And the surprise was: here is a person who has a feeling of God’s presence: Consolation (comfort). God is with them; they are aware of that, and they see God working in their life. Now, time moves ahead, and the person is more mature. they are more mature but now there is less Consolation. And what we thought was that there should be a steady straight line of growth in an upward direction the longer a person knows and walks with the Lord. Character maturation and the felt presence of God should grow together. As we get more mature, we should experience more of the presence of God. And as we experience more of the felt presence of God, we’re going to get more mature.

That is what we expect. I know that we all would like that model of spiritual development for our life, but it is not always the reality for our lives. Looking back at the earlier days when we were a young Christian, and we were so excited about God and then came times where this life was not what we imagined it was going to be at all. Questions came like - “God, where are you?” we may feel like He is not even aware of where we are and what we’re going through. It can become so worse to the point where we might just lose all sense of life in God. There are no rivers of Living Water. We can begin to feel truly guilty - real shame. - no awareness of God’s presence in my life. And we cry out, “God what is wrong with me?”

Dark Nights are attempts by God to purge your heart of certain things. In the dark night it is God’s desire that you would open your heart to recognize and purge it of false idols. These come in several ways in our lives.

1. The first idol that the dark night is trying to purge out of our lives is our dependence on Consolation. the truth is we can become Consolation junkies. Churches can become Consolation junkies. Worship times become times when we simply feed the habit and we try to create experiences. We try to create spiritual highs and to get people passionate.

Consolation is not a good measurement of the presence of God. I think many people do. When you are desiring to sense the presence of God, ask yourself, “Do you desire God, or just the feelings of the presence of God?” That can be a revealing question. We can oftentimes desire the good feelings of God’s presence more than we desire the God behind those feelings. I know I did. Therefore, when I began to experience a dark night, my first response is, “God, am I doing something wrong? What’s wrong? Where are you?” I had no idea that God was at work and the work he needed to do in me was to purge (purify/clean) me because I became hooked to Consolation. I would crave the feelings of the Presence of God more than I would the purity in my life that God desired. And in a dark night God says, “No, I’m going to take you into issues of purity. I’m going to open-up places of vices (moral weaknesses/frailties) in your heart. I’m going to take you on a journey and.” And my response is, “I don’t want to go there!”

I wouldn’t mind God doing some miracle in my life to just say, “Be gone lust or whatever frailties is in your life – behold perfect love! Behold perfect joy!” I would really like that. Other than the fact that it would just be easy there’s a deeper reason I would like that.

And here’s the reason: if God would do that miracle I’d never have to confront or be confronted by my lack of joy. I’d never have to look at, my UN-love. It’s kind of what I think of having Transformational Experiences out of our soul. You may have heard of those people that claim to have these out of body experiences? If we are honest, I think many of us would confess to wanting Transformational Out of Soul Experiences:

a. I want to become Loving, but I don’t want to see how Unloving I am.

b. I want to have Perfect Peace, but I don’t want to see how little peace there is in my life.

c. I want Perfect Kindness, but I don’t want to see how un-kind I am.

You know you’re not going to be able to have it that way. God is going to be able to transform who you are, and so you have got to “put off” that person and deal with who you are in the depth of your heart. It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s just the way it is.

2. There is a 2nd thing that God will use a dark night for and that is to purge the Vices from our lives. He is going to begin to show us things in the dark night like our excess anger – our wrongly ordered capacity for anger. Or he may show you your unkindness or your self-centeredness and selfishness. He’s going to begin to open places in your heart where the Vices have taken hold and taken root over time. When you begin to see that mirror of your heart – the “who” you really are down in your heart – it can be a very painful experience. It is also a very humbling experience. You think you are a lot further along than you are. And then you realize that God loves you despite and with all those things down in your heart. It is humbling – and it leads to gratitude for the love of God and, over time, deepening trust that even in those dark nights where God seems absent, there is work going on in your heart and the Spirit is closer than you could ever imagine. And he is at work in you, lovingly doing heart surgery to conform you to the image of Christ.

3. And the 3rd thing that God will use a dark night for is something that generally happens when you get to be older in the faith. God is in fact going to purge us from our Fleshy Virtues (The quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong). Biblically as we saw in 1 John 2, what is going on in these Dark Nights is like young men wrestling. And this is where God withdraws consolation. At some point, Bible reading, or hearing sermons and prayer may lose their pleasure dimension. Ministry may lose its excitement. This is where we are left experiencing parts of ourselves, but it is a realization that we’re really filled with ourselves. We’re not really filled with the Spirit. And this dark night and withdrawal of the “bottle” of consolation that we drink from is a gift. It doesn’t feel that way, but this is a gift to experience those parts of us that are “self” or “flesh” filled. It is a gift that draws us to a genuine hunger for God and not just the experience of Consolation. But it becomes a hunger for the God who is at the source of Consolation.

These are times in your life when God says, “Okay, I’m going to take the bottle away”. And we don’t want to give it up. In fact, the more that you lived a life prior to conversion hooked on pleasure, the bigger your bottle will probably be. That’s just the way it usually goes. The more you were hooked on pleasure and drinking it before your conversion the more likely that God will probably give you a correlate (corresponding) bottle to attract you to these new things.

“What do you want? Do you want Consolation? Or do you want God?”

If you want God, what you are going to get is a conversation because God is interested in “truthing” it with your heart. He’s going to speak to you about the real you deep in your heart. And it won’t always (rarely, in fact) be easy to hear. But the promise is that despite what he knows and reveals to you, He won’t give up on you. He is ruthlessly, relentlessly committed to you. He loves you deeply and you can trust him in that conversation. It will be a conversation full of grace, seasoned with salt.

So, the experience of the dark night will be one typically where there will be dryness, sometimes a felt distance from God. Now, remember here: God is not distant. In fact, he’s right there. So, if he is right there and he feels so distant, the question we need to consider is, “How do you stay connected to God when he’s trying to open your heart?” This is an opportunity for you to enter into your weakness and you are going to hate this. Why? Because you’ll want to be in your strength! You will fight this, and your response will be something like this: “No, I really DO love God. No, I really have grown as a Christian! Let me show you what I can do!” If you want the Spirit of God to do his work in you, let God just show you your neediness. Do not be afraid of it. The Father already knows it. It does not alter your full acceptance, your “acceptableness,” your full forgiveness and full righteousness one bit. God is leaning in. The only one resisting is you.

How do you know if you are in a Dark Night?

There are 3 highlight signs that you might be experiencing a dark night in your life:

1. The first thing you will notice is that it is very difficult to stay focused when doing spiritual disciplines. And what’s happening is that the Lord is pushing up and trying to show you what’s really in your heart. So as a result, your mind is just going to be wandering all over the place. Because that is what is in fact down inside of us. And it can really get frustrating, especially for those who are truly prideful. And you will find yourself almost yelling at yourself to stop it and get your mind back under control because, you tell yourself, “You are better than this. You can get a handle on it. You’re Superman!” And that’s not true. What is happening is that God is trying to give you an experience to help you see what is in fact down in your heart – that your heart is in fact elsewhere.

2. A second thing: you will find that you won’t even want to do certain spiritual disciplines at times. And the reason is that it is painful to do it. You feel guilty. This is generally the time that people’s quiet times and devotional times get smaller and smaller and shorter and shorter.

3. There’s a 3rd sign that you might be in a dark night. This 3rd sign must be there or if it is just the first two it could mean that you just don’t care about God anymore. “I can’t stay focused, I’m totally uninterested. I don’t want it anymore.” This 3rd sign is the key and that is that you are genuinely worried about this. You are anxious about it. You find yourself wondering, “God what is wrong with me? Have I left my 1st love? (Revelation chapter 3). What’s happened? I’m concerned”. And this last one, it is indicative of the fact that there may indeed be a dark night in your life. And you can be thankful for this third sign.

We saw the various temptations we need to resist if we find ourselves in a dark night. It is so very important to remember that even though you feel separated from God and there is no awareness of the felt presence of God, remember God is so close.

This dryness is a new, more profound work of God in the deep part of your heart. This is a work of God in the deep to have a new level of relationship with you. It is the beginning of an honest relationship about your heart. This is the Spirit attempting to reveal the truth of ourselves in neediness. His desire is to help us give up on ourselves and to depend on him.

What do we do during times of Desolation (loneliness)? What might God be doing and what do we do?

1. As we saw in the Lament Psalms, you need to come out of hiding and you need to begin to complain to God. You need to ask God a question. And the question is not: “What am I doing wrong?” That’s the wrong question. Now, if you’re walking from the Lord and you have no interest in God, then that’s the right question. But that’s not the person we are considering here. The right question is the same question all the Psalmists ask and that is: “God, where are you? What are you doing? This is not what I expect! This is not what I want! What are you doing?” Come out of hiding and ask God what he is doing in your life. You might be surprised with his answer.

2. A second thing you can do in a dark night is to be open to the fact that it may be God who is doing a work in your soul.

3. A third thing is this: during this Dark Night, spiritual disciplines have changed in terms of their intended purpose in your life. They are no longer to give you encouragement or felt nourishment. it is going to be a mirror. It’s going to nourish you in a different way. It’s going to be a mirror into your weakness. It’s going to be a mirror into your neediness.

4. Fourth, in a spiritual dark night you need to resist the temptation to try to spiritually fix yourself. The temptation is that “Something is wrong with me, so I have to pull up my socks and fix this”. Basically, what we are saying is that “By my working I can get the presence of God back.” We cannot create the presence of God by our works. It is the gift of God. The Dark Night is trying to cure you of this temptation. You can’t fix yourself. This is a time of opening yourself to God to say, “God, I need you.” It’s not a time to fix me. This is a time when you need to say, “God, I don’t want to just have “out of soul experiences” with you anymore. I want you to transform this soul. I want you to teach me about my soul. I want you to take me on a journey. I don’t want to be afraid of my unlove. I don’t want to be afraid of my unfaith. I don’t want to be afraid of my lack of hope or my lack of joy. God, that’s where you’re going to take me because you’re going to transform that”.

5. Fifth, during a Dark Night we must resist the temptation to use spiritual disciplines to generate a feeling. This is so crucial. During a Dark Night we must resist the temptation to use Spiritual Disciplines like prayer and reading the Word to generate Consolation. This will get you off on a sidetrack for a long time.

Those who are in a dark night need to be faithful to the spiritual disciplines in their lives. Use them to bring yourself to that place where you continue to open yourself up to what God is doing in your heart.

In conclusion as we think about the Dark Night, we need to remember this is a time where the Lord is inviting you into his love. This is Jude 21:

 Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus

Christ to bring you to eternal life. (NIV)

This dark night is a 2 Thessalonians 3:5 moment.

May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.

This is a time when you need to direct your heart into the love of God. And ask:

“God, take me on a journey. Show me my heart. I trust you”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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