Part 20: Dark Nights: When Sin is not the Problem


Dark Nights: When Sin is Not the Problem

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.

Cleanse me from my secret faults.
— Psalm 19:12b

“Through God's grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God's own works, but we can't think our way to God. That's why I'm willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think. He can be loved, but not thought. By love, God can be embraced and held, but not by thinking.”
The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th century

“Even now my soul is suffering, but I am aware that it is the life of self which causes us pain; that which is dead does not suffer. If we were really dead, and our life hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), we would no longer struggle with those pains in spirit that now afflict us.”
Francis Fenelon, Spiritual Letters, 18th century

“A brother asked Abba Matoes, 'How is it that the monks of Sketis succeed in doing more than the commandment says, that is, in loving their enemies more than themselves?' 'Up to now,' replied the Elder, 'I have not even loved Him Who loves me as much as I love myself.'”
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4th century

“It makes me laugh, and yet it makes me sad, when I hear of the things which people come here to beg us to pray to God for; we are to ask His Majesty to give them money and to provide them with incomes-I wish that some of these people would entreat God to enable them to trample all such things beneath their feet.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, 16th century

The erosion of pride

For some, the dark night becomes a source of pride. They assume they have been through it and it becomes another notch on the belt of their spiritual maturity. However, the dark night begins to effectively erode pride from your life, and you become more fully aware of your brokenness then you have ever been. If the very thing designed by God to destroy your own pride becomes the source of pride, you may have a problem. Dark nights of spiritual growth do not work perfection in you, they work brokenness within. To be broken is to admit fallibility, to admit fallibility is to be human, and to be broken is to be human.

Presently in Christianity we have a theological viewpoint that is concerned with where we are seated in Christ. The favorite verses of people that are proponents of this view are Ephesians 2:6 (that we have been seated with Christ in heavenly places) and Revelation 3:21 (those that overcome will sit on a throne with Christ). There are problems, however, with this theological viewpoint. Yes, Ephesians 2:6 does state that we have been seated with Christ, but Ephesians 2:7 goes on to state what the ramifications of being seated in heavenly places are; namely that we would be partakers of his grace in the ages to come. It is future oriented.

The application

As far as Revelation 3:21 is concerned, there is one question necessary to clarify the application: when was the last time you were angry, jealous, prideful, or envious? Very few can claim that they have overcome those vices. And those that have overcome them have only done so by recognizing the tendency within their hearts towards those things. As such, they would never claim to have overcome. Arrogant theological structures are a present problem within Christianity. They lend themselves to pride in the heart of man. They place man at the heart of the Gospel and not Christ. Any encounter with Christ through the bible, and throughout Christian history for that matter, has convinced the individual of their total unworthiness. And these dark nights of spiritual struggle will convince you of your total unworthiness.

Depression vs Emptiness

Additionally, the dark night is not depression. Depression carries with it a certain despondency and an ability to put effort into daily life. One who is depressed has difficulty motivating themselves and finding energy to accomplish anything throughout the day. Someone struggling with depression is full of anxiety. This is not the dark night experience. When someone has entered into these seasons they are filled with an intense longing that has not been fulfilled. The feeling of emptiness is not despondency, it is desperation. Where there was once sweetness in the spiritual life, there is now emptiness.

The journey from Christ’s ascension to the in-filling of the Spirit at Pentecost was a sort of dark night for the disciples. The physical presence of Christ is removed in order to grant the in-dwelt presence of Christ in the heart. They were to go from a primarily physical relationship with Christ based upon sight to a deeper, spiritual relationship with Christ based upon faith. This hinged upon the removal of his presence. The good news for those in these seasons is that the removal of the presence of Christ is always designed to grant a deeper union of our spirit with his Spirit.

How to Tell You are in a Dark Night (or have been)

Indication #1

Have I Dealt With Sin?

Sin is not what gets you into these dark nights, God’s grace is what gets you into these dark nights. The first question to ask yourself when it comes to whether you have been through, or are in, a dark night struggle is this: is there conscious, willful sin in your life?  If this is the case, your dryness has more to do with the need to repent than it does with God’s hidden ways.

Let me clarify something: in dark nights you will feel sinful. But an honest search of the heart before the Lord will turn up very little willful sin. Dark nights are present on the path to intimacy with God, they are not on the path to initial conversion or conviction of overt sin. There is a spiritual maturity that is associated with graduating into a dark night. Generally, those that find themselves in dark nights will have been committed to the process of repentance, redemption, and growth in Christ for some time. These seasons are the rewards of diligent seeking. God is responding to the heart desperate for more of him by scrubbing from the heart imperfections of the inner life. It is not the time that God is dealing with conscious sin. In the dark night he is dealing with unconscious imperfection not conscious rebellion.

David said in the first part of Psalm 5:7,

But as for me, I will come into Your house in the multitude of Your mercy.

The loving-kindness of God draws us into relationship with him. We are enraptured with his presence and a growing fondness is developing for him. Psalm 5:7 goes on to say, “In fear of You I will worship toward Your holy temple.” It is through the dry seasons of spiritual growth that we learn the holiness and worship of God. It is when we are broken and refuse to leave his house and press on to his temple that we learn the fear of God. It is the fear of God that begins to work righteousness and holiness within the individual. Love leads you into relationship with God, fear develops depth of relationship with God. Paul said, “Having known the terror of the Lord…(2 Corinthians 5:11)” He goes on to say that the terror of the Lord has inspired his ministry. Fear of God is a necessary component to intimacy with him.

Indication #2

A Broken Prayer Life

A common mark of these dark night experiences is a broken prayer life. Everything that used to work suddenly has dried up and no longer leads you to the co-mingling with his presence to which you have grown accustomed. What seemed to be a strength has now become a chore. For most in these seasons the option to cease prayer (rather than to pray unceasingly) has to be totally removed from the table. There is a fortitude being worked deep within to press into the heart of God regardless of feeling. Prayer in these seasons is done by faith, not by feeling.

Our feelings in our prayer life can often get in the way, and until we come to a place where we recognize the total failure of our emotions to lead us, we must be broken from our reliance upon them. Our entire existence is ordered around fulfilling our own will, and being led by our emotions. Nearly everything we do finds its fulfillment in what we feel like doing.

Just think of the last time you chose a meal. Chances are you asked yourself what you felt like eating. There is an emotional center that we are so used to placating that our prayer life and relationship with God ends up resting upon these fickle feelings. In order to break us from our habitual responses to his presence, God removes the felt component of the prayer life. The end result is we feel as if our prayers are broken.  However, they are not. Again, our feelings are terrible leaders.

When I say ‘darkness,’ I mean the absence of knowing (and feeling). Whatever you don’t know and whatever you’ve forgotten are ‘dark’ to you, because you don’t see them with your spiritual eyes.
— The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th century

Regarding Hezekiah, 2 Chronicles 32:31 says, “God withdrew from him, in order to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart.”

It is the distance of God that begins to deal with what is in the heart. The mark of the dark night is this perceived distance and emptiness as it pertains to the infilling of God. To clarify another point: God has not abandoned you, nor will he ever. If he abandoned you, you would cease to live. David stated that he only awoke because the Lord sustained him in Psalm 3:5. Without God’s presence, all of existence would cease to be. It is impossible to be forsaken of the Lord and continue to live.

David was also familiar with this perceived distance.“Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1).” In the dark night we learn to mourn the presence of God.

Indication #3

Awareness of the Interior Life

When moving through dry and arid seasons we come face to face with our inner darkness. The third sign you are in a dark night is that you are becoming ever more conscious of your sinful habits and tendencies. This is not to say that you are becoming aware of overt sin. The sins you are becoming aware of are what the world would call ambiguous sin. These are not the sins of pornography, addiction, violent anger, sexual sins, etc… Those are obvious sins and do not require dry seasons to expose, anyone can see them. What you are becoming aware of are habitual tendencies. These are things such as defensiveness, selfish ambition, vainful attitudes, desire for personal recognition, etc…

For example, anger exists on a spectrum. We can be angry and not sin (Ephesians 4:26), and we are commanded not to murder (Exodus 20:13). Jesus however draws a distinct parallel between these two attitudes in Matthew 5:21-22. The one who calls his brother a fool is guilty. Murder is not just an action, it is an attitude of the heart. In these dark nights, our inclinations towards anger may be dealt with, whereas at conversion our actions of anger should have been dealt with. These arid seasons deal with the heart attitude that would drive an individual to anger. One does not enter into a dark night when he is committing murder, one enters into a dark night to see that he commits murder in his heart every second.

This is because he is purifying our heart in order to better prepare it to carry his presence:

In all your journey as a believer, you will have two categories of spiritual experiences. One is tender, delightful, and loving. The other can be quite obscure, dry, dark and desolate. God gives us this first one to gain us; He gives us the second to purify us.
— Michael Molinos, The Spiritual Guide, 17th century

We live a hypocritical life. James says that with our words we bless God while cursing man. The dark seasons of spiritual growth bring to our awareness our inner tendency to live a hypocritical life. We become ever more conscious of our sinful habits. 

As James 3:11 states, “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?”

Oftentimes, our desire for sin outweighs our desire for God. We want the purity required to host the presence of God without the effort required to prepare the vessel.  We would prefer to hold a spring that carries both bitter water and fresh water, but it cannot be so. God purifies our bitterness so that we can carry the “fresh water” of his presence. We are beginning to see the “hidden faults” David prayed that God would cleanse him from.

Take heart from this. The very fact that there remains a struggle testifies to God’s desire to purify you. Without the struggle there would be no purity. Temptation and action are two separate things. Temptation, and the struggle against it says that there is within the heart the desire to pursue righteousness. The struggle proves regeneration, and the dryness proves the care of God to preserve by grace your pursuit of him.

This will be painful; for vain thoughts will press into your heart very thick, to draw your mind down to them…But there you will find this: a dark and ill-favoured image of your own soul, which has neither light of knowledge nor feeling of love of God. This image is…clothed with black stinking rags of sin, as pride, envy, anger, covetousness, gluttony, sloth and luxury. This is not the image of Jesus, but the image of sin, which St Paul calls a body of sin and of death.
— Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, 14th century

When you embark on this journey you will come face to face with your own depravity. Jesus will begin to withdraw to show you what is on the inside. In the early stages of prayer you feel his presence in bodily form, as you seek him in deeper places he removes his presence in order to reveal the chaos on the inside.

Indication #4

Spiritual Struggle

In these seasons you will feel as though are battling against yourself, and in a way you are. You are fighting the habitual, ingrained responses that are contrary to the kingdom of God. It is as if you are in the midst of the struggle that Paul described in Romans 7:15.

“For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” 

We have little understanding of the things that compel us. God is busy making us aware of our internal world, and, in doing so, we struggle against these forces within.

It can feel like a personal apocalyptic struggle, and at times it is a struggle for your very soul. This is what Paul claimed when he said, “Who will save me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Many of us would like to claim we have realized that it is Christ who frees us from this struggle, but few of us have actually realized this freedom that Paul speaks of in Romans 8. Yes Christ frees us, but have we submitted ourselves to his freedom? Paul has already told us in Romans 6:16.

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?”

Many of us claim to want to know Christ, but few of us are willing to put in the effort to get to know Christ. Submitting yourself to the righteousness of Christ and being delivered from your “body of death” is not just a theological problem, it is a practical reality.

The problem we run into is that we want to keep our habitual tendencies and celebrate the freedom of Christ. Jesus said as much when he stated,

“…men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)”  

There is a lustful attraction that accompanies deeds of darkness. This internal war is between the desire for righteousness and the appeal of darkness. This war wages itself in dryness. It is the rupturing of ground to prepare it for the harvest. God is preparing the heart for his refreshing rain, and the dryer the ground the greater its longing for water. This internal war is between evil and good, between light and dark.

“For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (John 3:20)”

But the struggle only comes because the fight is worthwhile. Before building oneself, the cost is counted.

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it. (Luke 14:28)”

If God has baptized you into an arid night, it is because he has counted you as worthwhile and able to overcome. Take heart, and trust in his grace. He will finish the work he began in you.