Life & Health Theology

The Dark Night of the Soul

November 2, 2016

This past weekend I had the opportunity to share about my own personal “dark night of the soul” with my church, both as I taught Sunday School and in a 10-minute interview as part of panel during the main service (which you can watch here: Living In Light of the Wall – my interview is about 10 minutes from 36:25-45:45). Afterward, I realized that I haven’t written anything about the dark night of the soul on my blog – which surprised me because it is something that I have become very passionate about. There has unfortunately not been much teaching within the church today about the dark night of the soul (I had no idea about it even until a few years ago), so I want to share my own experience and understanding of it here in hopes that it may help someone else who is going or has gone through something similar. Part of me is afraid to share this because of how intimate and personal it is to me, especially since it is still ongoing. Or I’m scared someone will misunderstand what I’m saying and think I’ve gone mad or heretical (I blame the chemo…). But I hope it resonates with a few and reminds them that they are not alone on the path they walk. That alone will be worth it.

dark-night-of-the-soul

My Experience of the Dark Night

My experience of the dark night is an experience of the silence of God. I would say that I entered the dark night of the soul about three years ago, when I was nearly at the end of my studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. At the time, everything was going according to plan and I was very involved in ministry both at my church and at the seminary. I was leading a prayer ministry and recovery ministry at church that I loved, I was surrounded by good community, I was preaching periodically and had opportunities to teach, and I felt close to God. It was about a year before I was going to finish seminary, so I was starting to look for a pastoral position and had begun talking with some churches and sending out my resume to find a job. My whole life I had found nourishment and fruit within the Scriptures and now I was beginning to take that passion and translate that into my life’s vocation as a pastor.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but somehow everything that had worked my entire life in my relationship with God all of a sudden stopped working. Whereas I used to enjoy personally reading the word, and often it was what kept me going in dark times of despair and dryness – now it seemed barren and empty. Sermons that I used to be challenged or encouraged by now did absolutely nothing. Everywhere that I used to hear God and feel his presence, now only reminded me of his silence. I felt like I could produce amazing sermons and teaching, and even counsel people well and lead ministry well, but personally I felt like all I heard was the silence of God – that he was deus absconditus (“the hidden God, or God who hides himself”). But it was a sharp sense of his absence. I was haunted by the starkness of his silence. In retrospect, I think the feeling of absence may have been there longer than I remember, sort of growing with time, but I wouldn’t admit it or didn’t recognize it until the end of seminary.

For about a year I had no idea what was going on or why this was happening to me. I was further distressed by the fact that it came at the worst time possible. I was starting to look for a job as a pastor – by definition a person who helps people relate to and hear from God. That would be my job, but now I felt like a hypocrite. How could I tell people “thus saith the Lord” when I didn’t hear him say anything to me? How was I supposed to direct people to know and be close to God when all I knew was the sharp sense of his absence?

I imagined some of the interviews I might have gone through:

Church: So you want to be a pastor here?

Me: Yes, that is my desire.

Church: Ok, we have your doctrinal statement and credentials, but what has God been teaching you lately?

Me: Um, I’m not really sure. Nothing, maybe.

Church: What do you mean? How do you personally view God?

Me: Well, he seems silent and absent to be perfectly honest.

Church: And you want to be a pastor and tell our people how to know and hear from God?

Me: Yes.

Church: Ok… Well, uh… thank you for your time. We’ll let you know our decision soon…

That didn’t seem like the best of things going for me as a pastoral candidate. I mean, I could lie – but then I’d feel like a hypocrite. And lying on the interview to become a pastor sort of seems like an oxymoron (although I bet it happens more often than not, sadly).

It seemed like a crisis of faith. I felt like I was on the top of a mountain ridge, and on one side if I fell I would basically just abandon Christianity, while on the other side I had to just live life as a hypocrite and pretend to know and experience God even if he remained silent and absent. Both options seemed horrible, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had spent my whole life working up to being a pastor – and now God had gone silent on me right when I was ready to begin really making a difference for him. It was incredibly scary, and very lonely and dark. I remember at many points wanting God to say something – anything! I didn’t care what it was: he could yell at me, or judge me, but I just wanted him to say something. Martin Luther once prayed, “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But do not remain silent!” That’s exactly how I felt.

In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff described exactly what I wondered:

“And where are you in this darkness? I learned to spy you in the light. Here in this darkness I cannot find you. If I had never looked for you, or looked but never found, I would not feel this pain of your absence. Or is it not your absence in which I dwell but your elusive troubling presence?

Will my eyes adjust to this darkness? Will I find you in the dark – not in the streaks of light which remain, but in the darkness? Has anyone ever found you there? Did they love what they saw? Did they see love? And are there songs for singing when the light has gone dim? The songs I learned were all of praise and thanksgiving and repentance. Or in the dark, is it best to wait in silence?”

So I panicked. I had no idea what to do. I almost dropped out of seminary and just quit at the finish line. Unfortunately, not many people I talked to had any idea what I should do either.

Eventually, I decided to take a year off seminary and move back to Midland to just work a non-ministry related job and try to figure things out. I stopped reading my Bible (which I know for some is paramount to leaving Christianity), didn’t listen to sermons, stopped reading anything related to theology, stopped serving or leading within church… I even skipped church sometimes.

edinburgh-at-night

Learning about the Dark Night

Sometime over the next year or two I began corresponding with a mutual friend who had done much of her study on spiritual formation and particularly the dark night of the soul. For the first time she explained to me what the dark night of the soul was. She wrote:

“I wish the Dark Night of the Soul was taught and understood more in the Church. It is often reduced to simply a difficult time in life or a difficult spiritual experience. I see it as a prolonged season during which God removes the felt sense of His presence and a clear hearing of His voice. While a person might have experienced God, His presence, and His voice in Scripture reading, prayer, church, etc. God chooses to withdraw this sense. Often a person loses desire for certain spiritual practices in which they used to find great meaning and experience of God, however (and this is an important difference), they do not lose their desire for God.”

I was shocked at how well she described what I had been experiencing for so long, and so it made me want to learn more about the church’s teaching about the dark night of the soul. I was surprised to find that many prominent saints within the church have had a similar experience and understood it as a dark night. It was encouraging to find out that people who I respected and looked up to had gone through something like my experience. Martin Luther wrestled with the “Backside of God” (his term for the spiritual darkness was Anfechtungen), and Mother Theresa felt the silence of God for most of her life even until death (see this article: A History of Darkness). Perhaps the most encouraging for me though, was learning about C.S. Lewis and his writing about his own dark night of the soul (particularly in his books Till We Have Faces, and A Grief Observed – two of my favorite books of all time). In fact, for my quasi-senior thesis at DTS I wrote a paper about the dark night of the soul and C.S. Lewis, which you can read here: C.S. Lewis & the Dark Night of the Soul).

What I found during this searching was that I was never alone in my experience of the dark night of the soul. St. John of the Cross, in his book The Dark Night of the Soul (where the phrase originates, although the idea may be found in earlier Desert Fathers), teaches about the experience as an important part of growing towards union with Christ. To quote Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm, I was encouraged that “[I was] not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.”

What is God doing in the Dark Night?

As I learned from reading St. John of the Cross and others, the dark night of the soul can largely be summarized as a period of time when God removes his felt presence and clear hearing of his voice from someone, yet at the same time there remains a deep desire to know God more. While personal experiences of the dark night will differ in other ways, these primary things are the same throughout. Many people (myself included for most of my life) often use the phrase “dark night of the soul” to refer to difficult circumstances or seasons of their life that challenge their view of God – but this is not what St. John of the Cross meant by the phrase. Difficult things may be a part of the dark night, and going through hardships may contribute to the dark night – but the dark night of the soul is not just going through hard things. When I speak of being in a dark night of the soul, many people think I’m referring to wrestling with my sister’s death, or going through chemo, or even still dealing with my dad’s death – I’m not. For example, I think that my dad’s death and subsequent absence in my life may have contributed to the feeling of God’s absence and silence, but what I was wrestling with in the dark night was God’s absence, not my dad’s absence. Constance FitzGerald, a Carmelite scholar, says the “Dark night is not primarily some thing, an impersonal darkness like a difficult situation or distressful psychological condition, but someone, a presence leaving an indelible imprint on the human spirit and consequently on one’s entire life.”

malakhiThe language of darkness can be difficult for some, but it doesn’t have the modern connotation of being sinister or evil that we often associate with darkness. The term for St. John of the Cross is la nocha oscura, which can literally be translated as the “obscure night.” The darkness has to do more with the unknown or mysterious and not being able to see what is going on around us. In that sense it can be scary to be in the dark unknown, but the dark night is actually about coming into contact with the presence of God even though it seems like his absence and silence.

I hesitate to share too much here about what I think God is doing during the dark night of the soul – partly because I would not consider myself any scholar on the subject, but partly because I don’t think I am out of the dark night myself, and I am only now beginning to see glimmers of light of what God has been doing while I have been unaware. By sharing glimpses of God recently it might seem like I’ve left the dark night – but I still very much feel that I am in it, even if perhaps it is growing less dark and lonely and mysterious. But I have seen God working to destroy my faulty understanding of who he is, and I want to share a few things that I believe have come from this experience:

The Great Iconoclast

First and foremost, in the dark night of the soul, God is breaking our idols that we make of him. Gerald May, in his book The Dark Night of the Soul, suggests that part of the reason God feels absent and silent during the dark night is because we have “made an idol of our images and feelings of God, giving them more importance than the true God that they represent.” God must break us of these idols, and if we cling too tightly to our feelings of God’s closeness as we used to experience him, then we will never let go of our idols. C.S. Lewis says in A Grief Observed,

“Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”

In my own experience, I thought that I had God figured out. I thought I had studied him enough in seminary, and read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, so I knew exactly what God was like. I could pull him out of my pocket and explain him to anyone who wanted to know about him. But in reality I had made an idol of my ideas. God is so much bigger than I can understand, and I was arrogant to think I had him figured out at 27. So God had to destroy my idol of him – he had to knock over my house of cards or I would have clung to a picture of God instead of the real thing. I was so enthralled with the word of God that I would have missed it if the Word incarnate had showed up in front of me. I had grown to love a picture over a person, and I needed the picture destroyed. So I see it as the grace of God that he snuck past me in the dark night when I could not see and took my idol from my prying hands. He had to do it in the dark, or I wouldn’t have let him get near me at all.

God Himself or My Feelings of God?

I also believe that during the dark night God is teaching me to love him more for himself than for what he could give me. My friend who initially told me about the dark night went on when she wrote about what God is doing during the dark night: “I see God as doing a multitude of things through this experience, but I will just speak of a couple. I see God as asking the person, “Which do you love more, your experience of me (and the positive emotions that come through this) or myself?” ” I had gotten comfortable with a formulaic God, who responded when I inserted the right things into the equation:

I do my quiet time + avoid and confess sin + go to church = God feels near to me

I study a passage + do a Greek word study + consult scholarly commentaries = I hear from God

I serve in church + get into community + pray consistently = God uses me to build his kingdom

But God is not cosmic vending machine that I insert the right coins and he gives me comfort and closeness. He doesn’t dispense his voice because I had paid him enough to finally speak to me. He is not obligated to let me feel like I’m being used and productive for the kingdom because I’ve put in enough hours serving or praying. He’s welcome to do all these things – and he often does – but it is not because I entered the right coins before. God is not tame – he’s not safe. He’s actually pretty terrifying when you get close to him.

I feel like the biggest question that God has been asking me for the last 2-3 years is:

“Jason, can I still be your God even if you never hear from me again?”

That is one of the scariest questions I can think of right now.

“Jason, can I still be your God even if you feel like I am silent and absent the rest of your life?”

Do I love him for what he gives me, or for himself?

“Jason, can I still be your God even if you never become a pastor and feel like you waste your whole life?”

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

light-on-stairsThe final glimmer of light I’ve seen in my own dark night of the soul is that God has begun to show me that my view of him is way too small. I thought I knew where I could always find God: in the Scripture. I had such a tiny view. Now, I’m not saying that Christ in the Scripture is small, or that he’s not in the Scripture (he most certainly is!). But I’ve slowly come to see that “Christ plays in ten thousand places” and that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God is so much bigger and more beautiful than I had ever imagined – and “he hides in all that’s fair!” God has begun to reveal himself in new and beautiful ways that I had never dreamed of before. They’re still small and far between, and only glimmers or shadows now, but I’m starting to have eyes to see.

The dark night has helped me open my eyes to see Christ in new ways that I never would have seen before because my eyes were so fixated in one place. I’ve seen his beauty in the woods of Oregon and the rugged mountains of Banff, or on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. I’ve learned of his love from the statues pinnacling the Cathedral in Milan, or in the simple hills around the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. I’ve heard echoes of his voice in the songs of Andrew Peterson and Jon Foreman, or in the company of men who love him like Vince or Eric. I’ve felt the hands of God in the love and comfort of my church during chemo, or my brother-in-law’s church as they came around us when my sister died. All of these have been very subtle and far between, almost like the whisper for Elijah. God still feels silent and absent, like he’s only letting me see his backside – but the glimpses and echoes are encouraging.

Helpful Resources on the Dark Night

I also want to share some resources that have been helpful or have been dear to me as I walk through the dark night. Some of these have to do with the idea of the dark night and some are more personal in how they have ministered to me as I have wandered in the dark night. I share them in hopes that someone may find something that they identify with and learn that they are not on an untrodden path but rather the main road. I’ll give a brief description of each and why I’ve added it to the list.

First, here is a helpful lecture by John Coe about the dark night: Going on with God in Dark Nights (John Coe Lecture Audio)

The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross.

This is obviously a good place to begin to learn about the dark night, but be warned it is written in the 16th century in Spanish and can thus be hard to understand in translation at times. Plus, St. John is a mystic, and can often use language in different ways than we are used to using it.

The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May.

May is looking at the dark night of the soul as a psychiatrist, and talks about the difference between it and something like clinical depression. Overall a helpful read and introduction, though.

Seasons of the Soul by Bruce Demarest.

In dealing with different seasons of spiritual formation in the lives of Christians, Demarest has a chapter devoted to the dark night of the soul. Although brief, the section is a helpful overview and introduction. One of the primary benefits of this section is that it lists prominent Christians and their experience of the dark night, alongside some of their views on the dark night.

The Critical Journey by Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich.

This book, like Seasons of the Soul, seeks to delineate the different “stages” in spiritual formation. Instead of talking of the “dark night of the soul” it uses the language of “the wall” as well as “the journey inward” (stage 4) to describe what I call the dark night. I will warn that while the book and its ideas were helpful for me to find out where I was, the book and chapters themselves are not very well written.

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr.

Again, this book does not explicitly use the language of the dark night of the soul, but Rohr talks about the two halves of life, and what separates (or bridges) the two is what I would call the dark night. So this book was helpful for me to gain a little bit of orientation about what was going on in my dark night,

A Grief Observed and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

Like above, C.S. Lewis does not explicitly use the language of the dark night of the soul (except in a letter or two of his), but I believe A Grief Observed and Till We Have Faces are the two books that he wrote while he was working through his own dark night of the soul. In A Grief Observed he works through it by writing honestly in a journal, and then in Till We Have Faces he works through it in a story – and does so most beautifully, if I may say so. They have become two of my favorite books of all time and are very dear to me. I re-read them often. I’d highly encourage you to read each. For a further explanation of how I see the dark night in these works and Lewis’ life, you can read my paper here: C.S. Lewis & the Dark Night of the Soul.

Silence by Shusaku Endo.

This is a novel about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan in the 17th century when Christianity became persecuted by the empire. It is a poignant telling of one man’s wrestling with the silence of God in his life. I cannot highly recommend the novel enough. Also, Martin Scorsese just finished working on his film “Silence,” based on the book, which he worked on for more than 20 years, and it will be released on December 23rd, so you should read the book before then and then watch the movie.

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

This is the collected letters of Mother Teresa, where she corresponds with her spiritual director about the darkness that she felt for the majority of her life. It is a lot to read, and obviously reads like letters, but is a helpful look into her dark night of the soul that lasted longer than any of us could imagine. You could also watch the movie The Letters to see her life story and what she wrote about her dark night in her letters.

I also have created a “Dark Night of the Soul” playlist on Spotify which you can listen to below. These are just songs that I have grown to love during this season of my life, for different reasons. Hopefully, they can be some form of encouragement.


Finally, a few questions:

  • Has anyone else experienced the dark night of the soul or the silence/absence of God? I’d love to have some other people share (either with me privately or with others) their own experience. I know sharing can be scary, especially since this is so intimate and personal – so feel free to message me (there’s a link to a contact form at the top of the blog).
  • Do you have more resources or songs you think would be helpful to post? Let me know, I’d be glad to add anything that I may be missing.
  • If you already knew about the dark night of the soul, where did you learn about it? I’d love to know if others are teaching about this and I was just unaware.
  • Any other thoughts, suggestions, or criticisms? As always, I welcome interaction.

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14 Comments

  • Reply Amy Littlepage November 2, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Really such life giving encouragement Jason. I related to so much of what you said and I have seen part of the purpose in myself as God breaking down my motives for why I do what I do, separating my identity in Him from what I do and reestablishing it in WHO I am in Him…not from His standpoint but from my own. The working of humility in our souls that we might ACTUALLY draw near to Him with a heart of humility and desperate dependence.
    Praying for you brother and always blessed to peak inside your brain and be strengthened by your encouragement…

    • Reply Jason Custer November 3, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Amy. Glad to have you along and praying.

  • Reply Sandra Glahn November 2, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    Me, too, Jason. Thank you.

    http://www.fathommag.com/stories/in-the-spirit-of-thomas

    • Reply Jason Custer November 3, 2016 at 10:49 am

      You’re welcome, Dr. Glahn. Thanks for sharing the article – and for being so open to share about your own dark night. Italy was one of the brighter times during my dark night. It was when I started to get the strange sense that God wasn’t really absent even though he still very much felt that way.

  • Reply Jennifer Callaway November 3, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Jason, we’ve never met, but our paths have crossed in so many ways…thank you for sharing this. It occurred to me that maybe faith is it’s purest during the dark night…if it truly is believing what we cannot see or hear, or touch, what strength must it have to endure such silence? Thank you for your honesty, and for the resources, and for using your pain and suffering to bring comfort and healing to others. Many blessings. Jennifer

    • Reply Jason Custer November 4, 2016 at 10:03 pm

      You’re most welcome, Jennifer. I’ve heard it said that we worship an unseen God (for the moment, at least), so the dark night is the chance for those who love God to experience that in the fullness – for faith to ground their love of God, even when they get no response from him. I’m glad this was an encouragement.

  • Reply Mark Zeck November 3, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    Jason, in chapter 15 of The Bruised Reed, Sibbes penned three sections called ” We Must Not Look to Ourselves”, “Christ Makes Us Feel Our Dependence”, followed by “The Triumph of Grace”. These seem to ring consistent with part of your message. They ministered to me, as did your well penned words.

    • Reply Jason Custer November 4, 2016 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks, Mr. Zeck. I’ll try to look into those sections when I get a chance.

  • Reply Leslie November 4, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for this. I can’t tell you how helpful it was for me to realize that a dark night may not have anything to do with present circumstances. There is nothing more terrifying to me than acknowledging all that I have to be thankful for in my life (which I know is a lot; I truly know it… I have been blessed beyond measure) and yet to feel this pervading absence; this “presence leaving an indelible imprint on the human spirit and consequently on one’s entire life.” I have heard of the dark night of the soul before, but this was the first time I have ever read anything describing it so well. You have a gift, Jason. Thank you for putting this into words with such poetry and vulnerability. I have read some of the books on your list, and am now intrigued by the others, as well as your playlist. As someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression, I am especially interested in understanding the difference, so I shall start with that one. 🙂 Praying for you daily, brother.

    • Reply Jason Custer November 4, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      You’re most welcome, Leslie! One of my best friends’ experience of the dark night was that he basically got everything he had hoped for at 30, and yet he was frightened by how unsatisfied he was and longed for something more from God and had this feeling that something was just horribly off. If you have any thoughts or revelations as your reading, listening, or reflecting – I’d love to hear them! It’s always great to hear from you, Leslie. I still fondly remember that night I stayed at your house in DFW and went to church with y’all in the morning. Thank you so much for your prayers.

  • Reply Robert February 11, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Thank you. This was very enlightening. This concept clarified my struggles during one of the hardest periods of my life. I had followed what I believe was a direct word from God to work overseas for a humanitarian organization. I was expecting to live out the missionary stories I grew up reading. Instead, all the bad things that happened — being manipulated by a controlling boss, being cheated by fellow church members, and relationship problems with my wife (which led to our eventual divorce) — only left me shocked and numb and confused. I’ve always looked for meaning in that experience and struggled to find any. I hadn’t attached later breakthroughs in my relationship with God and my church to this dark time but your post leads me to believe that God had to destroy my idols before I could grow.

    • Reply Jason Custer February 11, 2017 at 11:53 am

      You’re most welcome, Robert. Having idols destroyed is a very painful process, as I’ve been discovering, so I hate to tell anyone that I’m glad they’re going or have gone through the dark night of the soul – but personally, it’s something I’m glad I’m going through. I wouldn’t have it any other way, even with all the pain. I’m sorry you had to go through all of that, but I’m glad to hear your relationship with God has grown. Thanks for reading and sharing your story!

  • Reply Nathanael Rea October 3, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Hey Jason,

    It’s Nathanael Rea, you might remember me from Hillsdale Days.

    A good book is The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. It breaks down the spiritual understandings of several Doctors of the Church regarding the progression on the road to holiness. John of the Cross is of course one of them, but there are others who address the same issue with different terms.

    • Reply Jason Custer October 4, 2017 at 2:39 am

      Of course I remember you, Nathanael. Thanks for the suggestion! Looks like I great book so I’ll grab a copy of it.

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