Part 19: The Dark Nights of Spiritual Growth

Letters on Spiritual Formation #19

The Dark Night of Spiritual Growth

This is article is part of a series of letters on spiritual growth and maturity. To read the previous letter in the series, click here.

You must know how, in the beginning of the spiritual life, the Holy Spirit gives people joy when He sees their hearts becoming pure. But after the Spirit has given them joy and sweetness, He then departs and leaves them. This is a sign of His activity and happens with every soul that seeks and fears God: He departs and keeps at a distance until He knows whether they will go on seeking Him or not.
— Abba Ammonas, 4th century Desert Father
The result is that they frequently imagine that what is not according to their will is also not according to the will of God ; and, on the other hand, when they are pleased, they believe that God is pleased. They measure Him by themselves, and not themselves by Him, in direct contradiction to His teaching in the gospel; ‘ He that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it.’ That is, he who shall give up his will for God shall have it, and he who will have it, he shall have it never.
— John of the Cross, 16th century
When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
— Colossians 3:4‭-‬5‬
As for every other physical delight or spiritual gift, no matter how wonderful or how holy, I say with all due respect that we should take no notice of them. If they come, welcome them, but don’t lean on them much, for fear of becoming weak, It takes too much of your energy to linger any length of time in such sweet feelings and tears. And you might begin to love God-not for himself alone, as you should-but for these. You’ll know that’s the case if their absence makes you irritable and grouchy. If this is your experience, then you’ll know that your love is not pure or perfect.
— Author Unknown, The Cloud of Unknowing, 12th century

The Cycle of Spiritual Growth 

The ongoing cycle of spiritual growth will include periods of dryness, emptiness, and perceived distance from God. They are all designed for your benefit. The most common term applied to these times is the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night of the Soul is a term coined by St. John of the Cross, though there have been many other terms used throughout Christian history: the veil of dryness, the cloud of unknowing, mental dryness, and the wilderness, etc… In these seasons God hides himself in order to make manifest the hidden part of man. The cycle of God’s formation includes: God revealing himself, God concealing himself to induce man to seek him, man’s seeking, the purging of what would hinder man’s seeking, and God revealing himself.

In the 16th century, John of the Cross defined the dark night of the soul in his work to be the season of the life where God moved the individual from a perception of God based upon sensual feeling, to a deeper place of spiritual connection based upon faith. However, there are many types of dark night seasons that we will go through in our life. John’s Dark Night moves a person from a fascination with the feeling of God to a fascination with the being of God.

In the 12th century, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing deals with our ability to mentally perceive God. To him, we must go through a process of learning that we cannot perceive or understand God with our head, but that he must be ascertained in the heart. These times are designed to mature us and deepen our Christian walk.

Even earlier, in the 5th century, Dionysius, the author of Mystical Theology, claimed that since God is not equal with his own creation, but is other than his creation, we cannot perceive his essence based upon created things. Again, his work deals with the perception of God by faith. Each author talks about similar experiences in coming to know God, but from different perspectives.

God veils from us the deep work he is doing in us.

If we saw what he was doing, we would either attempt to control the process, abandon the process, or slink away at the process. By hiding his working deep in our heart through these extended periods of dryness, he induces us to search for him. The search for him drives us along desperately wanting to find what went awry with our spiritual life. In the midst of this seeking there will be moments where he brings your head above water, speaks to you clearly and concisely about the state of your heart, only to find yourself submerged yet again in the inner formation of the moment. What is hidden we can’t control, what is hidden, we can’t question, and what is hidden we can’t claim responsibility for. The simple fact of that matter is that we cannot create inner life or inner dryness. We are subject to the formation of God.

This is precisely the point. Throughout our spiritual journey we will gravitate towards the belief that we have somehow earned the favour and presence of God. We think that we have accomplished something and have become adept at study, discipline, prayer, etc… It takes one day to discombobulate that entire belief structure. The dance of inner formation with God is coming to grips with that fact that we have very little control over what our time in silence and solitude before him looks like. 99% of it is up to his movement.

Psalm 51:12 states that the Spirit of God is a generous spirit. He desires that we would have more of his abundance. It is our own fickle nature that gets in the way. The Dark Night of the Soul is a very specific type of pain experience. The purpose of these times in our life is to reveal the very things that hinder our life of intimacy with God. These dark nights develop within us the tenacity to pray by faith and not by feeling. If you prayer life is based upon a feeling, it is fickle. If it based upon the faithfulness of God, it has potential to last.

The cry of the Shulamite bride in Song of Solomon echoes the cry of one in the midst of these seasons:

“I opened for my beloved, But my beloved had turned away and was gone. My heart leaped up when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.” Song of Solomon 5:6

The Shulamite bride had just been approached by her beloved in the night, supposedly for intimacy. Though she yearned for his touch she finds reasons that she is not prepared for his coming. It is only after this internal wrestling that she gets up to welcome him in, only to find that he is gone. This is the experience of the dark night, when we get up to welcome the presence of God, it seems as though he has left. The whole purpose of these times is to see the ways in which we disqualify ourselves.

Prior to the dark night we are used to a relationship with God that is based upon our senses

We feel that he is there, therefore we have faith that he is there. But that is not true faith, that is trust in a feeling. As the Lord begins the withdrawal of his presence, we go through a form of soulish withdrawal. We are desperate for a feeling and would do anything to recreate that feeling, but what you attempt to create is hollow and shallow. Eventually we echo the words of David in Psalm 131:2

“Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, Like a weaned child with his mother; Like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

A weaned child has moved from the things of lighter substance to things of meatier substance that will sustain them for the rest of their life. The weaning of a child tends to be difficult. A weaned child will cry out when it is deprived. A weaned child desires to go back to the thing that used to sustain them, that is the area of comfort for them. But a good mother will withstand the complaints of the child knowing that the season of deprivation is ultimately for the benefit of the child. So the seasons of life are for us. They are for our benefit, yet they are difficult and draining to walk through. But on the other side of them we have found a deep level of abiding peace, like David, our soul is calm and quiet. A significant factor of that calmness is finally coming to peace with your own deficiencies. Prior to the dark night experiences, we think we have something of worth to offer. But God does not desire our sacrifice, he desires our broken heart.

The Lord desires to touch you at the deepest core of your being. Psalm 51:6 states that God will make you know his wisdom in your hidden part, that is, the deepest part of you. We are generally comfortable with far too many surface level interactions with the Spirit of God. Somewhere along the line, we will have to get real in our pursuit of his presence. The dark night of the soul is the result of the naked desire to pursue God with all your heart. It is the answer to a heart desperate for him. It is because of his great love for us that we go through these night experiences. It is in this night that God purges our souls from that which is in us that would destroy us and keep us from him.

Jeremiah 29:13 says,

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”

The questions that resounds from this verse is, “In what ways do I not seek him with all my heart?” There are areas of your heart that are broken, traumatized, full of pain, and shut down from any external intervention. God begins to work deeply from the inside out in order to bring rest to these deep places of brokenness. The dark nights that we go through begins this process, but the rest of your life will be spent in perfecting it.

These periods of darkness are different for every person

Some are longer than others, some deal with different issues, some are driven by circumstances, and still others are completely removed from these. The same holds true across all accounts thought, these are the times in our life when we begin to see who we really are. They cause us to get real and to ask the questions that we must ask in order to become truly authentic versions of ourselves. If there are things that are hindering our relationship with God, you can be rest assured that those same things hinder relationships with others. God, in his great mercy and compassion for us, drives our souls into a place of complete destitution.

Before a dark night experience it may be difficult to ask some of the deeper questions about ourselves. We are not used to seeing our hidden motivations. These times help expose why we do things the way we do them. It is usually apparent when someone has walked through the dark night, they are marked by humility. Some think that the closer you grow in intimacy with God the more confident you become. While there is some truth to that, the closer you grow in intimacy with God the more concerned you become for his heart. After walking through this season you will be more concerned with the heart of God than with your own heart. It is in this time that you are broken of the need to build your heart and become deeply concerned with ministering to his.

Some have mistakenly equated this time with times of great loss, depression, or anxiety. While it may be true that these things can be aspects that deepen our walk with God given our response, the Dark Night is fundamentally different than all of these. It is actually driven by this one basic idea: God no longer seems near, now what must I do to find him again? The Dark Night is all about developing a deep rooted need to pursue and attain a depth of spirituality that we have never had before. It finds its culmination in the realization that it is you and you alone who hinders your desire to experience a more profound union with Christ.

Continue Reading Part 20…