Life + Culture

My Dark Night of the Soul

My Dark Night of the Soul

For me, it’s fitting that a solar eclipse occurred this week. Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1997, I experienced an eclipse of God. And twenty years ago this week, light dawned in my darkness (Psalm 112:4).

I had been asking for it, though I didn’t know I was asking for that. We often know what we want, but when we ask God for it, we usually don’t know what we’re asking for to receive it. I was disturbed at the difference I saw between my experience of satisfaction in God and what I read in the Bible. Specifically, when I read how the apostle Paul, in the face of very possible death, the earthly loss of all things, cried from his heart, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). I believed that truth abstractly, theoretically. But it wasn’t really my heart cry.

Wonderful, Disturbing Life

I was 31, married to my dearest friend on earth, and had a precious baby boy. I was leading a new and rapidly growing ministry, working alongside a mentor and friend I loved and esteemed highly. We were part of a growing, healthy, vibrant church that was reaching its local community and sending people to the far reaches of the globe with the gospel. My wife and I were involved with my brother and his wife in the gestational stage of what would become an inner-city, truly multicultural church plant reaching hard-to-reach and hardly-reached people. Life was mostly ministry, and mostly wonderful.

And that’s what disturbed me: that my life could be mostly ministry, and mostly wonderful, to the point that gaining Christ Jesus my Lord through death did not feel surpassingly worthy to me (Philippians 3:8). I knew I wasn’t wrong to treasure God’s gifts, but I also knew that as long as his steadfast love didn’t taste better than life to me, my heart’s affections were disordered and idolatrous (Psalm 63:3).

So I began to fast and pray that God would do in me whatever it took so I would not turn his gifts into idols, that I would love him supremely. Due to his past dealings with me, I had learned to trust him. I believed he would only answer in ways that were best for me. But I remember praying something that struck me odd even then: “Lord, just don’t let me lose my faith.”

God Went Dark

And my God answered. The details are too complex to include here, and not crucial to the point. But suffice it to say, one day that spring an eclipse of God occurred in the sky of my soul. If the eclipse had a corona, I couldn’t see it. I suddenly couldn’t see God at all. I suddenly saw the world as if God didn’t exist.

This was a new experience for me. As a very young boy, I had an awareness of God’s existence and experienced his intervention at certain remarkable points. I was born again somewhere around age 10 or 11, when I first really understood the gospel invitation. I was earnest about my faith from the beginning. I didn’t waver through my teen or early adult years, as I grew in grace. I was engaged in active gospel ministry from high school on. I had numerous experiences that confirmed to me the New Testament reality of the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I battled doubts off and on, but they never seriously shook my faith.

Until that day. That day I was seized with a Grand Doubt, and scales, rather than falling off, filled my heart-eyes. God disappeared from my spiritual sight for the first time in my memory.

Meaningless, Meaningless

It took no time for the void of God to produce in me the void of meaning. The vanity, emptiness, and striving after the wind that the preacher proclaimed I understood as never before (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Everything appeared hollow. Work appeared meaningless, rest appeared meaningless, leisure appeared meaningless, the cosmos appeared meaningless. Life appeared meaningless.

The hopelessness all the existential philosophers describe raged through me. I cannot capture in words the depths of despair I experienced. For months I had a constant low-grade headache from the dissonance of conflicting beliefs in my head. I remember the terror of realizing that if I embraced this unbelief, the wonder of my wonderful wife and child would disappear, for whatever “love” I felt toward them would be nothing more than some genetic illusion to encourage and protect reproduction.

The bleak darkness was horrible in its truest sense. I did not wish to commit suicide, but I knew I could not endure this darkness indefinitely. And whatever secret envy I had ever harbored for unbelievers, who seemed free to pursue whatever sinful pleasures they wished, was gone. The bankruptcy of that deceitful fantasy was fully exposed.

Flying by the Instruments

However, due to God’s past dealings with me, I had learned to trust him. He had taught me in other ways to trust his promises over my perceptions. So, although God appeared absent to me, and at times I seemed a hair’s breadth away from believing it, I didn’t. The meaninglessness seemed at once compelling and untrue at the same time. I determined that God, not my doubts, deserved the benefit of my doubt.

And I determined to do something aircraft pilots must learn to do: fly by the instruments. When a pilot flies into a dark cloud and loses his points of reference, it becomes a dangerous thing for him to trust his physical perceptions. He might feel like he’s flying straight, when he is actually descending toward the ground. So he must learn to trust what the plane’s instruments are telling him, not what his thoughts and feelings are telling him. His life depends on it.

So I began to fly according the instruments of God’s word and not my perceptions of the world. I kept my habit of personal devotions, despite how Teflon-coated my soul seemed. I kept in church fellowship and involved in our inner-city ministry. I kept my hand to the vocational plow God had given me, and sought to keep providing for my wife and child.

I held nothing secret from those closest to me and those who needed to know. And they were mercifully patient, kind, and surprisingly hopeful and encouraging to me — especially my saintly wife. And I remember my pastor telling me, “The Rock under your feet will not long feel like sand.” I loved him for saying it, but it felt so unlikely, especially when the eclipse lingered week after week after weary week.

The Night Light Dawned

And then light dawned. It was Saturday, August 23, 1997. In the afternoon, my wife and child were running errands, and I was alone in the house. I threw myself on the living room floor and pleaded with God for light and deliverance.

And then I prayed something very specific: “Lord, if you just somehow whisper to me that you’re still there, and I’m your son, and all this is for your good purpose, I think I can endure anything. Just whisper to me I’m your son!”

About 9:30 that night I received a phone call from the new worship pastor at church. He told me the elder who was scheduled to read the sermon text the next morning was in the ER with a sudden illness, and asked if I would be willing to step in and read.

I wanted to say, “No, absolutely not!” And I wondered why he hadn’t called another elder (I wasn’t one). But having just joined the staff, this pastor knew nothing about my spiritual crisis, and I wasn’t going to try and explain it to him then. Feeling a bit forced into it, I agreed.

God’s Discipline and Love

About an hour later, as I got into bed, I opened my Bible to Hebrews 12:3–11, the text I would read the next morning (italics mine):

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I sat in bed stunned, remembering my living room prayer. As suddenly as the eclipse had come, light now dawned. And though it would take a long time for my weakened soul to recover fully, the night was over. I read the Scripture the next morning before the pastor preached with a heart full of trembling awe.

My God Answers

A year later, on Saturday, August 22, 1998, my daughter was born. During the latter months of pregnancy, we had pondered many names. But about three weeks before her birth, we came across the name “Eliana,” which means “my God answers” in Hebrew. I had never heard the name before, but as soon as I saw it, I knew God wanted us to give her that name to remember his deliverance.

The day after she was born, I was in the hospital cafeteria eating breakfast and having my devotions. As I thanked God for Eliana and a safe birth and how God had answered me, I got to thinking, “It was about a year ago the Lord answered my cry. In fact, it must have been right around this time.” So I got out my journal and looked and was stunned again: Eliana was born on the 365th day after God answered me — on the exact corresponding Saturday a year later. I worshiped.

Our God Answers

I write this article as a memorial stone twenty years later. My God answered. He answered when I was disturbed by the idolatry I saw growing in my heart and asked for deliverance. He answered when I asked that he not allow me to lose my faith altogether. He answered by staying imperceptibly near when I feared he was gone forever. And he answered with light when the time was right.

For the past twenty years, I have been feeding off the peaceful fruit resulting from the loving, fatherly discipline of the Lord. I claim in no way to perfectly value death as gain, and with Paul, I’m pressing on to greater realization (Philippians 3:12–14). But I can say this: that dark night of hopelessness revealed to me, like nothing else ever has, that God in Christ is the Joy in all the true, pure joys that exist. He is the source and fullness of all things, and without him, all joys, all loves, all pursuits are hollow and meaningless.

So I bless God for this gift of discipline. And it has only emboldened me all the more to pray, “Whatever it takes, Lord.” For I’ve learned repeatedly that the joy and hope he offers are worth whatever it takes to receive them.

When Eliana was six, I wrote her song that included these lines:

You, Eliana, remind me each day
That God does answer the prayers that we pray.
And when the night falls and we cannot see,
He will bring light, when the time’s right for you and me.

Yes, he will. If you find yourself in a spiritual dark night, trust him. Wait for him. Ask him. Throw yourself on the living room floor if you must. Our God answers.

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