I’ve lived in Minnesota for 37 of my 47 years on earth – the last 12 years spent way up north, just 60 miles from the Canadian border. We moved here in the summer – which is the only time you should ever move here.
One of those first gorgeous summer evenings, I was marveling to my wife at how long the days are. At the peak of summer, the sun rises before 5 a.m. and doesn’t set until after 10. The summers are great!
We hardly had a moment to relish it before we quickly realized that if the summer days are longer here, the winter days will be shorter. It’s not quite three months of darkness, but it sure feels that way sometimes.
Winter happens here every year whether we like it or not. The sky grows dark. The air gets unbearably cold. The wind feels like needles piercing my skin. Every year I wonder how I’ll make it through, but somehow, I always do.
Winter happens when the earth tilts away from the sun. The “winter of the soul” happens the same way. Something moves, shifts, or turns, and our heart grows cold and darkness overwhelms our soul.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Several years ago, our church was really starting to grow and take shape. Many good things were happening in the church and in peoples’ lives. My family life was great. Everyone was healthy. Our bills were being paid. Everything was wonderful… except that I was dying on the inside. God seemed absent. My prayers seemed to just bounce off the ceiling. My heart was cold. Everything seemed very dark.
It all came to a head when I was getting ready to go play disc golf with some guys and I couldn’t find my discs. I searched all over and couldn’t find them anywhere. Then I suddenly and uncontrollably broke down sobbing.
Because I couldn’t find my discs?
Because my unsuccessful search for my discs was a reminder of my spiritual state – searching everywhere for God and coming up empty. All I wanted to do was find Him (and those stupid discs!) again.
The 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote a poem in his tortured prison cell where he described such a “winter” as the “dark night of the soul.” He described it as “a time when all the joy and pleasure you once received from your relationship with God is gone.” It is a period of suffering or despair where one feels abandoned by God. It is a time of spiritual desolation.
Five Reasons We May Experience a “Dark Night”
After the resurrection, Jesus is walking and talking with some of his followers, but they don’t know it’s him.
You’re telling me they didn’t recognize the teacher they’ve been following for three years? Why not?
“But God kept them from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:16)
Sometimes God just hides himself. I don’t understand why. I don’t particularly enjoy playing hide-n-seek with the Creator, but maybe He hides Himself so that He can reveal Himself – in a different way than what we’ve come to expect.
Whether literal or figurative, we just go through different seasons in life. Some seasons are good; others are bad. Some are short; others are long. We may cling to God in a particularly difficult season and completely ignore Him when things are going well. If we’re in a long season, spiritual matters may become routine and dull, causing us to grow apathetic. This seasonal rollercoaster may cause us to drift like debris in the ocean going where the current takes us – sometimes closer to shore, sometimes further out to sea.
There is a direct correlation between our character and our connection with God. Every choice to sin – no matter how small – causes us to hide ourselves from God. Continued unrepentant sin will cause us to drift further and further away, greatly reducing our ability to see and hear the voice of God.
Losing a loved one, job, home, health, or identity can cause us to spiral down into a dark place. It can be particularly hard to believe in the goodness and love of God when we’re hurting. It’s difficult to understand why God would allow us to endure such pain and suffering. Feelings of being abandoned by God in these circumstances are very real.
Dark nights can also be introduced and/or amplified by a neuro-chemical imbalance in our bodies that may require therapy and/or medication to cope. It’s hard to do good when you don’t feel right. And it’s hard to feel right if you’re body chemistry is legitimately out of whack. Therapy and medication are not substituting for God, but rather gifts from God to help us through the darkness.
You may be able to move somewhere warm to get away from the cold weather (Lord, I hope to, soon!), but there is no avoiding the “winter of the soul.” For whatever reason, it seems to be a journey everyone must take at least once in their life.
- Part 2: Four Realities About the Dark Night of the Soul
- Part 3: Four Actions to Take When the Light Goes Dark