Dark nights of spiritual struggle are not normal seasons of the spiritual life
There will be seasons of great joy, increasing fruit, successful initiatives, incredible intimacy, watching others frolic and play with God, sweetness before the Lord, and many other incredible moments to celebrate in the grand scheme of life in God. We can tend to over-spiritualize, over-analyze, and over-think just about every season. When we do this we rob the potential joy inherent to the season of life God has us in.
I recall a season of life I went through where it was all I could do to struggle to make it to the next day. I found little things I could look forward to that would keep me going, a meal to look forward to, a basketball game to watch, a new movie release, and any number of other small things that would keep me focused on the day ahead. I was stuck in a survival mentality. The circumstances of my life were chaotic, the relationships in my life were a mess, I had no deep root within myself and no deep relationships in my life. This was not a dark night. I was living in sin. The ramifications of sin will be a life fraught with chaos and decay.
When Adam and Eve fell in the garden of Eden, there were certain consequences they faced. One of those was removal from the tree of life.
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.” Genesis 3:22-23
Adam and Eve had been warned not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because, “…in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” But how did they experience that death? The previous passage in Genesis gives us a glimpse: their experience of death was a removal from the source of life (the tree of life). Simply put, they began to decay. Without constant communion with the source of life (God), they were subject to the decaying agent of sin they had introduced into creation. Those living in sin are in a constant state of decay. Life is chaotic and haphazard primarily because of our emotional investment into our circumstances.
When I was younger in the midst of a dark season, my life was chaotic not because God was perfecting me, but because I was in rebellion. It is not worth over-analyzing rebellion against God. Over time, the circumstances of a rebellious life will play out in order to show man the fruit of his choice. This can take weeks, months, and years. This is not a dark night of spiritual struggle, this is merely sin playing out in the life of the one un-submitted to God.
Dark nights are specific seasons and require specific responses. They generally don’t last more than a few years at a time (though they can), and can last as short as a couple of days. Shorter season often serve as a reminder not to depart from the singular reliance upon God learned in the dark night seasons of the past. Longer seasons are generally designed root out our reliance upon our own fallible nature.
If you find yourself having been through a consistent season of intimacy with God and then abruptly it shifts to absolute dryness, chances are you are in a dark night struggle for spiritual growth. This is the single greatest characteristic of the dark night: great intimacy to great dryness. It is not a dark season, it is a season in which your spiritual senses are darkened to his presence.
This is the design, to show us that we have nothing apart from him. If this is the case, how are we to go about responding to dark night seasons?
Resolve to follow God no matter what
Because we are so used to placating the emotional centre of our life, our relationship with God begins in a “what can I get out of this” state. We are used to the blessings of his presence, the warmth of his tenderness, and the general “tingle” of the Holy Spirit’s presence. What we don’t know is that all of the manifestation of his presence in our life begins at a surface level. There is a deep need yet to be met. We are generally unaware that we have a deep place crying out to him.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me. Psalms 42:17
He has yet to touch the deep place of longing within our soul to be accepted and loved.
In these initial seasons of prayer we become used to the feeling of his presence rather than faith in his person. If I spray a perfume my wife wears in to the air and spend all my time enraptured by the lingering fragrance I will miss a whole panorama of experiencing the presence of the woman I love. I would have sacrificed a lifetime of adventure for a temporary thrill. Anyone that does that would be crazy to continue. Why would I hold a fragrance when I can hold my lover?
But that is what we learn to do. We learn to treat our relationship with God as a vending machine, “What can I get out of this in the present moment?” But that is not deep intimacy, that is immaturity at least, and manipulation at worst. Dark nights of spiritual struggle break us from the need to feel the presence of God, and move us to faith in the person of God. The first response when you recognize that you are in one of these seasons is to resolve to pursue him regardless of the cost, and regardless of the benefit. Hebrews 12:4 states, “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.” This echoes Jesus shedding drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing what he was about to submit his life to, to fulfill the will of the father, Jesus resisted the temptation to quit before he suffered what he was called to endure. Many of us think we have resisted sin and temptation, but how many can claim they have fulfilled this statement? How many have resisted to the point of shedding blood? We must resist the temptation to throw in the towel, and resolve to pursue God, even when you don’t get anything out of it.
Repent and Resist
Abba Pachomios once said,
“Have mercy on me, Lord, in order that I may not perish. If the enemy finds even the slightest part in me, unless you support me, I shall submit to him.”
Someone can be serving the Lord for 50 years yet still fall to the same old temptations. Pride, lust, jealousy, greed, etc…are all knocking at the door of the heart waiting to consume the interior life. But God is passionate about your eternal destiny, much more so than your temporary comfort. The so called “prosperity gospel” has something right about the generosity of God. However, it is not your finances he cares about so much as the inner disposition of your heart. God will orchestrate everything in your life to bring you prosperity of heart. This prosperity is greatly aided by repentance.
These dark night struggles teach us about the reality of our interior life. They show us our own depravity. They show us what we are made of and that without the grace of God we are but a moment from stumbling. The moment I think I sustain myself I have stumbled.
This purification of heart that the journey of repentance brings is for depth of intimacy:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8
The person in the midst of one of the struggle of purification becomes increasingly aware of his or her weakness. They realize their heart is fickle and pulled a thousand different directions by a number of different vices. They become increasingly aware of their propensity to sin. It is not so much that they enter into temptation, but it is the inner awareness of sin that becomes so apparent. Purity brings with it an heightened awareness of its lack.
This person begins looking at repentance as a way of life. Repentance does not so much become an action as it is resisting sin on a moment by moment basis. If I recognize the propensity within myself I can repent and resist. Repentance become the tool the Lord uses to cleanse the heart in order to restore purity and the true vision of intimacy the Lord desires to bless the individual with. Each and every circumstance and heart response that plays out in dark seasons is the avenue the Lord uses to demonstrate to us our own inability to resist without his grace.
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6
From our teenager years on we begin to learn to become self-reliant. We learn to care for ourselves, feed ourselves, support ourselves. Through various different circumstances most will learn that people will disappoint them and end up relying entirely on their own strength to sustain them in any season of life. The problem with this is, of course, that you are just as liable to disappoint yourself as anyone else. We are a terrible source of self-life.
The dark nights of spiritual struggle show us just how little reliance we can have upon our self. It is an interior wrestling in which God begins to grasp your own self-will out of your hands to mold you in the image he always envisioned for you. Our inability to find God in any given circumstance shows us our singular reliance upon our self:
Pride has a stranglehold on our heart because we learn to only trust ourselves throughout life. God is teaching us to trust a higher source, but that trust has to be demonstrated. And it often plays out by finding yourself failing time and time again. What you were so gifted to accomplish in previous seasons no longer works. You come to the place where you have no hope in yourself anymore. This is by design, so that you would place your hope and trust in God. This is humbling yourself. Recognizing your lack and his ability to sustain is the core of moving from pride to humility.
God desires to place us in a position to accomplish great things on his behalf. Our problem is that we would accomplish those things on our own behalf and not for God. God is preparing you for more anointing and our resistance is rooted in our own pride. This is precisely the thing God is killing by baptising you in your own failures throughout these dark nights.
True humility is defined by Walter Hilton in the 14th century work The Scale of Perfection as.
“…if you will be very humble, you must think a venial (light) sin in yourself more grievous and painful to you…than great deadly sins in other men."
True humility teaches us to love others as Christ loved us. It teaches us that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It teaches us that love covers a multitude of sins. Without true humility we will take the gifts that God intended to cover another and use that gift to expose the other in order to make us look like a saint. In order to work within you the ability to love others as he loves others, God will orchestrate humility into your life.
Humility is an attractant to the anointing of God. God will exalt the humble heart, he promises this throughout scripture. True humility requires admitting that you do not have every answer, every gift, or the greatest revelation. You are one part of God’s tapestry of creation. God loves you, but no more or less than any other person he created. Your gift, call, or revelation does not make you special. You are created by the God of this universe and that makes you special. Humility will ignite your gift because it will prove to God that your heart is to see others transformed for his glory and not your own. The truly humble person has no self-interested thought.
To humble yourself, begin by seeing the offenses that others have caused you as smaller than the offenses you have caused others. See the hurts that others have caused you as smaller than the hurts that you have caused others. God is after your effectiveness in these seasons. In order to be an effective worker for God he will teach you to love others as more than yourself. This just may take a difficult disappointment or two.