"Finding Freedom" part 4
The Dark Night of the Soul
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
March 21, 2010

This past Thursday night was a miserable night in the Hanson household. Can I tell you about it? It’s actually a little gross, but it’s life. Actually, it all started off quite well. Thursday evening we had supper, after supper Noah fell asleep in my arms while Shera gave Nate a bath, and we had both kids in bed at a reasonable time. Everything was going great, but that was about to end.

A few hours later, just as we were getting ready to turn in ourselves, we heard some coughing and whining coming from the boys’ room. It sounded like Noah, so Shera went in to check on him and it actually wasn’t Noah… it was Nate. Nate had thrown up all over himself and all over his pajamas and all over his bed, and he was whining because he was still half-asleep and he laying in this mess and he didn’t know what to do.

I know… it’s not a pretty picture. Just be glad you weren’t there!

Anyway, Shera took Nate into the bathroom to clean him up while I stripped down the bed, used some disinfectant on the mattress, and put on some new sheets.

But Nate was obviously still not feeling well, so I took him out to the living room, I sat in the La-Z-Boy, and Nate sat in my lap and just kind of laid against me. And for the next three hours – in 10-20 minute increments – Nate continued to be sick. Until finally, around 3 a.m. I finally got Nate back in bed and crawled into bed myself.

And I wish that were the end of the story. But about 3 ½ hours later, Nate started crying and calling “Daddy”. Shera was already up getting ready to head to work, so she went in to check on him first… and she discovered that he was now… well, he was now shooting from both ends. So once again, she took him into the bathroom to clean him up while I stripped and disinfected the bed. And that went on throughout the next day. (And actually, right into Saturday.)

But you know what? That was a miserable night. And unfortunately, it’s one that will probably be repeated a few times in the years to come. But poor Nate… he’s two years old! He didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t know why his tummy hurt. He didn’t know why every time he would begin to nod off he would be jolted awake for another round. He just didn’t understand what was happening to him. He was tired, he was aching, he was frustrated, he wanted to sleep… he was hungry and wanted to eat, but every time he would take a bite of food or even a sip of water, it would come back up again… It was a miserable night.

Way back in the 16th century, there was a Roman Catholic priest named Saint John of the Cross who wrote a poem about a different kind of miserable night. He called it the “dark night of the soul,” and he described the hardships and setbacks and painful experiences that people often face as they strive to grow in spiritual maturity and in union with God.

And that term… the dark night of the soul… has come to be used to refer to a crisis that a person may experience in their spiritual journey… often a prolonged crisis… and it might include loneliness, disappointment, frustration, hopelessness, despair, a sense of spiritual dryness, you feel defeated, you don’t think you’re going anywhere, you might feel like God has distanced Himself from you, you might even feel abandoned or disillusioned by other Christ-followers. It’s the dark night of the soul, and some of you may know what I’m talking about. Maybe all of you do. Maybe you’ve experienced it in the past, or maybe you’re experiencing it now.

Just like Nate with his Dark Night of the Stomach Flu this past Thursday night/Friday morning, maybe you’ve experienced the Dark Night of the Soul. Actually, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote…

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.”
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

That was certainly the case with Nate this week. But maybe you’ve felt like that too, in a spiritual sense. Maybe you just don’t understand what’s going on in your life. You don’t understand why you’re hurting. You don’t understand why you just don’t seem to be making any progress. You want to be nourished, you want to be fed, you want to move forward spiritually, but you just can’t seem to keep anything down. You’re spiritually dry and hungry, and you’re at a loss to explain why.

And the real kicker is, when you’re going through one of these dark nights of the soul, even the spiritual habits that usually can help you grow seem totally useless. You pray but don’t sense the communion with God that you once did. You worship but don’t feel His presence like you used to. You study His Word but don’t feel closer to the Author. You meet with His Church but you don’t feel the sense of community. You fast, but all you feel is hungry. You do what you can to live the way God would have you live, but you have no assurance of His presence, no feeling of spiritual progress. That’s the dark night of the soul.

We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about finding freedom: Freedom from bondage to sin, freedom from your past, freedom from addictions… and today, we’re going to talk about finding freedom when it comes to all these feeling that come with the dark night of the soul. But this is different from everything we’ve been talking about so far in this series. So far, it’s been about finding freedom from things… freedom from sin, freedom from the past, freedom from addiction. But today, we’re not talking about freedom from the dark nights of the soul. Because as we’ll discover, they’re actually a good thing. No, we’re not talking about freedom from the dark night; we’re talking about freedom in the dark night. And you discover that freedom by understanding what the Dark Night of the Soul is all about.

(And by the way, when I talk about the Dark Night, I am not referring to Batman. At least not this morning.)

So let’s get at it. We’re going to look at a few examples of people who experienced those dark nights, and see what we can learn about how to handle them ourselves. Let’s start with who’s probably best known for his dark night of the soul… Job.

Exhibit 1:
Job faced the “Dark Night” after losing his wealth, his children, and his health

Job endured tremendous suffering. Job went from having it all to having almost nothing. You can read about his story in the Old Testament book that bears his name. And in the middle of all his trials and suffering, he cried out to God. This is how he felt…

Job 30:20 (NLT)
“I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer me. I stand before you, and you don’t bother to look.”

That was his dark night of the soul. He felt completely disconnected from God and abandoned by God. Have you ever felt like that? Like God was nowhere to be found? Well, for Job, that feeling of abandonment went on for 37 chapters. God was completely silent.

And remember, Job had done nothing wrong! Job was considered a righteous man. In fact, we know that God was actually proud of him. But Job still lost everything. If anyone ever had a reason to feel betrayed by God, Job did. And he didn’t understand everything he was going through. He cried out to God and received no apparent answer.

But despite what he was going through, I think Job understood something that we need to understand, too. Even though these dark nights of the soul may be difficult… they may be painful… they are actually for our good.

You see, God uses the Dark Nights of the Soul to help us move from feelings to faith. When our relationship with Him is based solely on warm fuzzies, that’s a pretty shallow relationship. But when we’re able to love Him and trust Him and obey Him and worship Him even when we don’t feel His presence, that’s true spiritual maturity.

Your spouse, your kids, your best friend… do you love them? Of course you do. But do you always feel like you love them? Of course not. But real love is not dependent on feelings. It’s not based on emotions.

It’s the same way with God. If your relationship with Him is based solely on feelings, then it’s nothing more than a schoolyard crush. And your relationship won’t move beyond it until it moves beyond your feelings.

As one wise philosopher put it, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” The simple truth is, you can’t rely on your feelings because they’re not reliable. They fluctuate from day to day. And any relationship founded on feelings will be subject to the ebbs and flows of those feelings. This is in your notes:

“Dark Nights” help me move on to spiritual maturity

It’s in the Dark Night when you learn to depend on God, where you learn to trust Him, where you learn to worship Him not because of how you feel or for what’s in it for you, but simply because of who He is.

You see, God intends for the Dark Nights to draw you toward Him, not push you away. Although ultimately, you decide which will happen. Job understood this. Listen to what he said. He talked about searching for God and said…

Job 23:8-10 (NLT)
“I go east, but he is not there. I go west, but I cannot find him. I do not see him in the north, for he is hidden. I turn to the south, but I cannot find him. But he knows where I am going. And when he has tested me like gold in a fire, he will pronounce me innocent.”

Job knew full well that no matter how unpleasant the process, it was necessary for him to grow and mature and be refined like gold being refined in the fire. So even when he felt abandoned by God, he boldly declared…

Job 23:12 (NIV)
I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

Floyd McClung, in his book entitled Finding Friendship With God, wrote:

“You wake up one morning and all your ‘spiritual feelings’ are gone. You pray but nothing happens. You rebuke the devil but it doesn’t change anything. You go through spiritual exercises, have your friends pray for you, confess every sin you can imagine, then you go around asking forgiveness of everyone you know. You fast, still nothing. You begin to wonder how long this spiritual gloom will last. It feels like your prayers bounce off the ceiling. In utter desperation you cry out: ‘What’s the matter with me?’ This is a normal part of the testing and maturing of your friendship with God. We all go through it! It’s painful, but absolutely vital to developing your faith. You see, God is always present, even when you’re unaware of Him. His presence is too profound to be measured by intellect or emotion. He’s more concerned that you trust Him, than that you feel Him. Faith, not feelings, is what pleases God.”
~ Floyd McClung

Exhibit 2:
The Israelites faced the “Dark Night” in the wilderness

Their Dark Night was a sense of hopelessness, despair, fear, not knowing how God would provide… they felt like they would die in the wilderness. It really was a spiritual crisis, and it could have been their time to shine… but they didn’t respond to it very well.

Now, this is after Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt but before they arrived at what they called The Promised Land. And they hadn’t been out there very long… only about a month. They’d end up spending 40 years in the wilderness, but at this point it looked like they would be going straight to the Promised Land.

They had seen the power of God at work. They were firsthand witnesses to how God defeated the entire Egyptian Army at the Red Sea. These Israelites who had been slaves had been set free by God’s grace. And in the thrill of the moment, they had worshipped God. They celebrated Him and they celebrated their freedom. They were on an emotional high. But when those feelings faded, instead of responding like Job did, they chose to complain.

Actually, their complaining began just three days after leaving Egypt. They were having trouble finding a clean source of water to drink, so they started to turn against their leader, Moses. But God provided water for them and the complaining subsided for a month. But then they started to complain again. Here they are complaining in Exodus 16…

Exodus 16:2-3 (NLT)
There, too, the whole community of Israel complained about Moses and Aaron.
“If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.”

One month. That’s all it took. And they were ready to turn on God and on the person God had chosen to lead them.

Now, was the lack of food a serious problem? Of course it was. But instead of turning to God and trusting Him and seeking His provision, they chose to complain and accuse and rebel. And on top of all that, they were wrong. They were remembering a past that didn’t even exist. They were glamorizing their time in Egypt, and they seem to have forgotten that they were slaves… they had been beaten and abused there, they had been worked without mercy, the Egyptians were killing any newborn sons the Israelites might have…

Yeah, that’s the life they longed for. Listen, I can understand them feeling disillusioned and abandoned and worried about how they were going to survive. Those were real concerns. But instead of going to God and trusting Him to provide for them… instead of sticking it out because they knew in the end they could count on Him… they decided to turn on Him and on Moses, the leader God had given them.

Well, when the complaining and the dissension reach Moses and his brother Aaron, this is the message they delivered to the Israelites:

Exodus 16:6-7 (NLT)
So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “By evening you will realize it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. In the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaints, which are against him, not against us. What have we done that you should complain about us?” Then Moses added, “The LORD will give you meat to eat in the evening and bread to satisfy you in the morning…”

In other words, he’s saying…

“Guys, it’s not going to be much longer. You will soon see that you have not been abandoned. You will soon realize that the Almighty God has been leading you all along. He will provide for you. And even though you may have doubted that and you may have even been tempted to forgo His plan in favour of your own plan, you will soon see His glory.”

“Dark Nights” allow me to prove my trust in God

The Israelites chose to complain instead of trust. That was their response to their Dark Night. But a better response would have been for them to trust that God would come through for them… that He would provide the food and drink that they needed to survive. And perhaps even more importantly, to trust that He would fulfill Him promises to them and guide them to their new home. Even though it may take some time, He would fulfill His promise to them.

“To mature your friendship, God will test it with periods of seeming separation-times when it feels as if he has abandoned or forgotten you. God feels a million miles away. … This is a normal part of the testing and maturing of your friendship with God. Every Christian goes through it at least once, and usually several times. It is painful and disconcerting, but it is absolutely vital for the development of your faith. … Yes, he wants you to sense his presence, but he's more concerned that you trust him than that you feel him.”
~ Rick Warren, PDL p.72,73

So if you’re going through a dark night… where you question what God is doing in your life and you wonder if He’s even there… if you even feel like God has left you out to dry… then don’t give up on Him. Don’t turn your back on His plan for you. Stick with Him and trust Him, believe His promises, and you will see His glory revealed.

Exhibit 3:
Elijah faced the “Dark Night” while all alone right after a great victory

This is a classic case of how perception is not reality. In Elijah’s case, his perception was that he was all alone. And it wasn’t must a mild case of loneliness where he was bored and couldn’t think of someone to call to invite over for a visit. No, he thought he was really alone. He felt like he was all alone in his faith, he felt defeated, and he felt like there was no reason for him to go on. Of course, he was wrong. But that’s how he felt. He was going through a Dark Night of the Soul. So he complained to God…

1 Kings 19:4 (NLT)
Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

It’s ironic, because this happened right after the emotional high of seeing God defeat the prophets of the false god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah went from that mountaintop experience to just sinking into this deep depression and believing the lie that he was all alone.

So God decided to take him on a trip to Mount Sinai, the very mountain where God had given Moses the Ten Commandments centuries earlier. But as far as Elijah was concerned, he went there to die.

And it was there that he met up with Earth, Wind and Fire. [PowerPoint] Okay, he didn’t actually meet with the R&B group, Earth, Wind and Fire. But the Bible does talk about how Elijah went there to meet with God. And while he was waiting, there was an earthquake. But God wasn’t in the earthquake, there was a windstorm, but God wasn’t in the wind. And there was a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. But after all of that had passed, he heard the still small voice of God. And so Elijah told God how he was feeling…

1 Kings 19:10 (NLT)
“I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”

You see how lonely he felt? Have you ever felt like that? Like you were all alone? Like maybe everyone else was out to get you? Oh, you’ve probably never felt like people were actually out to kill you. But have you ever felt like you were so completely alone?

Well, God responded by explaining to Elijah how he could be part of God’s great plan to bring the nation of Israel back to Himself, that Elijah’s life had meaning, and He wrapped it up by promising Elijah…

1 Kings 19:18 (NLT)
“I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!”

You see, Elijah felt like he was all alone. But that wasn’t reality. And so God revealed to him that there were 7000 others on his side. Elijah wasn’t alone. God was with Him, and all these others were with him, too.

“Dark Nights” reveal the faithfulness of God

When you’re going through a Dark Night of the Soul, you can be sure that God will prove Himself faithful. He will not let you down. You remain faithful to Him, and He will be faithful to you. Remember His promise…

Hebrews 13:5 (TEV)
“For God has said, ‘I will never leave you; I will never abandon you.’”

Like a father teaching his son to ride a bike, He may have taken His hands off to let you grow a bit. But He’s still right there. Like it says in Isaiah…

Isaiah 8:17 (TEV)
The LORD has hidden himself from his people, but I trust him and place my hope in him. 

You know who experienced a prolonged Dark Night of the Soul? This might surprise you. Mother Teresa. That great woman of God, the woman who served God so faithfully and lovingly on the streets of Calcutta, battled depression, doubt, and spiritual darkness for nearly half a century. That fact was revealed in some of her writings discovered after her death. Look at what she wrote…

“Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith. …
“For the first time in years—I have come to love the darkness—for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a ‘spiritual side of your work’ as you wrote—Today really I felt a deep joy—that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony—but that He wants to go through it in me.
“I just have the joy of having nothing—not even the reality of the Presence of God. I accept not in my feelings—but with my will, the Will of God—I accept His will.”
~ Mother Teresa

Wow… She’s saying, “I have nothing… not even a sense of the presence of God. My life is full of emptiness and darkness… I don’t even feel my faith. But I have joy, because I know my faith goes beyond my feelings.” That’s a woman who was able to see beyond the Dark Night of the Soul… understanding that it was in actuality an opportunity for her to grow closer and closer to God.

So… if you’re here this morning and you feel like you’re smackdab in the middle of your own Dark Night of the Soul, then don’t give up. Keep prevailing until you make it through this time of spiritual dryness. Because you will make it through. And you will be stronger and more mature because of it. And when you come through the other side, you will have a much stronger and much more profound understanding of who God is.




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