God’s followers will fall into tough times, but how do we know if we’re facing normal bumpy roads or a darker, rougher path?
In 1979, Mother Teresa wrote to Rev. Michael van der Peet, a friend and spiritual confidant, “’Jesus has a very special love for you,’ she assured Van der Peet. ‘[But] 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 [a] free hand.’”
She wrote in an earlier letter, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.”
Many of these letters were released to the public after her death in 1997, and people were shocked that such a dedicated believer and missionary could have felt such despair and spiritual loneliness.
Being tormented by doubt or spiritual dryness despite seeking God is hardly an unchristian experience. In fact, quite a few biblical figures also wrestled with prolonged dark nights of the soul.
What’s the Difference Between Trials and Dark Nights?
The term “dark night of the soul” is occasionally used a bit flippantly in the American church today, often to describe difficult situations or an unsatisfactory prayer life.
Life is not easy. To suppose otherwise is like expecting Christmas to never end.
When we are faced with conflict in our relationships or we make decisions that don’t have the desired outcome, this is normal. When we stand up for our belief in Christ and face persecution (such as it is in the Western world), this is perhaps a trial. Jesus even promised his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). We shouldn’t be discouraged or surprised.
However, when circumstances outside of our control blast us off our feet and our prayers appear to go unanswered, sometimes for years, this can become a dark night of the soul.
For many, this is the valley of the shadow of death that Psalm 23:4 describes.
In that deep darkness, all we can do is trust that God is beside us. We are utterly dependent on our Lord to defend us because we have no strength left. Surrounded by our enemies, we must wait for God to supply us with food because we can bring nothing to the table.
This could be caused by the death of a close friend or family member, a marriage that plunges into acrimonious divorce, a church imploding with conflict, a shattered life-long dream, a debilitating illness, a wayward child, sexual abuse, infertility, betrayal.
This is the pain that brings us to our knees, leaves us gasping and makes us contemplate abandoning everything to escape.
Are Dark Nights of the Soul in the Bible?
The Bible does not specifically use the phrase “dark night of the soul” anywhere. The term is an English translation of “Noche oscura del alma,” retroactively given to a poem written by St. John of the Cross while he was in prison.
Lucinio del SS. Sacramento notes in his critical analysis that this 16th century work describes the “complex psychology of the soul under the purifying influence of grace.”
While it may not be a strictly biblical term, a dark night of the soul would certainly describe many biblical people’s experiences.
Moses was rejected by his own people, banished from his homeland and left to wait for 40 years in the desert. David was driven from his home on false accusations of rebellion; he was forced to flee Saul’s army then pretend to be insane in the scornful company of his worst enemies for somewhere between 10 to 13 years. Hannah was burdened by infertility, unanswered prayers and her husband’s second wife taunting her in the midst of her grief.
All of these historical figures and many others went for years with their prayers unanswered and their suffering seemingly ignored.
The Bible may not plainly state a reason for the years of silence, but we know from the evidence of their lives that their struggles and persistent returning to God for answers was important.
In fact, the moment that a biblical figure is sent into a long stretch of pain, obscurity and injustice, it’s as if the entire story holds its breath.
God is preparing this person for something important to happen.
Why Do Dark Nights of the Soul Happen?
In one of his devotional The Suffering of Saints, David Wilkerson reminded us that it is important for every Christian to accept that God has a purpose in all sufferings. “You see, it is suffering people who receive the consolations and comforts of the Lord.
“They know the sympathy of Jesus, because his voice speaks true comfort to them in their hour of darkness. These sufferers become rich in spiritual resources. They develop a confidence born out of having endured tribulations and testings. Best of all, God gives them an influence they could not have gotten in any other way.”
No test comes into our lives without God allowing it, and one of his purposes behind our trials is to produce in us an unwavering faith.
Empowered by this kind of enduring faith, most biblical figures went on after their dark nights to take on very important roles.
Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, but more importantly he helped redefine their ideas of worship, religion and God. He was also called the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3). David went on to be one of Israel’s most famous and revered kings, whom God himself described as a man after his own heart (Acts 13:22). Hannah raised a little boy whose life was defined by listening for God’s voice when no one else could or would stop long enough to hear that gentle whisper (1 Samuel 3), and that little boy went on to choose Israel’s first two kings.
A dark night of prolonged suffering reveals three, hard but incredibly vital truths that Christians must awaken to before they can grow in their God-given spirituality.
- You are not in control.
- You are going to die.
- Your life is not about you.
While we may intellectually agree with those three points, living with this kind of grace and submission to God is quite another matter.
Moses, David and Hannah all emerged from their dark night with a changed, more humble faith in God and his purpose for every impossible obstacle they faced. These are the stories of those who clung to God in the middle of the dark nights.
The Brokenness of an Irresistible Life
“People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like,” writes Shane Claiborne in his book The Irresistible Revolution. “Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery, like a beautiful, wise old granny.”
What stands out most in his recollections of her, however, are her feet.
They were painfully deformed, so badly in fact that Claiborne originally speculated that she had contracted some kind of leprosy.
Finally, one of Teresa’s fellow nuns explained that their Mother would always dig through the donated shoes and choose the worst pair for herself in order to spare the younger nuns’ feet.
Some have heard this story and found it deeply inspirational. Others have derided this altruism, saying that it’s an unfair and unrealistic example for most believers.
Regardless, Mother Teresa’s life of self-sacrifice, humility and passion for the downtrodden has challenged many to reexamine their own dedication to a God-given calling.