Navigating the dark night of the soul

Andrew Grills

28 September 2020

The Christian faith is joyful! ‘He is risen!’ is the Easter message. And because he is risen we are not only made right with God but we are filled with his resurrection life. This life brings peace and power and wonderful joy. It is glorious, but we are wrong to think that it is easy.

St John of the Cross spoke four hundred years ago about something that he called “The Dark night of the soul”. This term has come to refer to what one writer called 'a period of utter spiritual desolation, disconnection, disorientation and emptiness in which you feel totally separated from God. A time when you feel completely lost, hopeless, and consumed with melancholy.”

It is not clinical depression (although it can be linked). Depression is something that can afflict Christians and non christians alike, but the dark night of the soul is something uniquely experienced by those in relationship with God. It might be called “spiritual depression”. A darkness of the soul which centres on God and which can seem overwhelming and total. A darkness which leads us to cry out in agony with Psalm 88: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (v14).

Indeed Psalm 88 as a whole is a song from the dark night. It is one of the few places in all of scripture which are without hope or light of any kind. As he puts it: “You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” (v6) and “my companions have become darkness.” (v18)

What hope can we find in a psalm like this? Why would we even read it? Surely it will just make us feel worse? Let me give you two reasons.

First, because this psalm cries out that there is nothing wrong with us or our faith. Well-meaning friends can say ‘rejoice in the Lord!’ ‘Give thanks always!’, “God loves you and Jesus is alive!”. These things are true. We know they are true because God tells us so in his word. But his word also includes Psalm 88. It reminds us that we are not the first to experience this depression of the soul and we will not be the last. The dark night of the soul is a normal part of our pilgrimage.

Second, because it is a paradox that sometimes we can hear more when God is silent than when he speaks. Psalm 88 is an authentic and raw experience of the silence of God. Time after time the psalmist calls God’s name. Time after time he puts his complaints to him in forceful accusing language. The whole Psalm is an authentic cry wrung from a soul lost in darkness. This kind of prayer is good for us! David Taylor puts it like this: It is yet again evidence of the kind of visceral honesty that belongs in the place of faithful worship. This is no faithless cry against the Almighty. This is not the attack of an atheist. This is the wrestling-out of faith in the presence of the Lord.

This wrestling, while it is unpleasant, makes those who undergo it stronger than they could ever be without it. We might not see it or feel it, but God is working through it. He is bringing good in it. This is one reason that St John of the Cross also said: ‘in the dark night of the soul bright flows the river of God’.

You see God will never really leave us or forsake us. We might feel that he is absent in our suffering, but Paul says in Romans 8 nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing. On the cross Jesus Christ was forsaken that we might never need to be.

The poet William Cowper was someone for whom spiritual depression and the dark night of the soul was familiar ground. He wrote these helpful words:

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

These big dark clouds are full of mercy. Precious to God are his children. His face may be hidden from us, but his smile remains for us.

Psalm 88 reminds up to be gentle with those who are suffering the dark night of the soul. If lamentation, like joy and celebration, is also a part of normal Christian life, then do not condemn or look down on those in the valley. Do not give them platitudes like ‘just think positive’ or hint that they have somehow brought it all on themselves. Rejoice with those who rejoice, yes, but also mourn with those who mourn. Recognise that there is a place for Psalm 88 in the life of the Christian.

Ours is a resurrection faith. Full of hope and life and peace and power. But it is not an easy faith. There will be times when you will journey through the darkness and experience the dark night of the soul. At times like these remember Psalm 88, and remember that in the dark night of the soul bright indeed flows the river of God.

Andrew Grills

Andrew is the Lead Pastor of City on a Hill Geelong. He has spent most of his life as an officer in the Australian Army. Graduating with the Sword of Honour from the Australian Defence Force Academy, he served in Infantry and Intelligence, including operations in East Timor with the commandos. He holds a postgraduate degree in International Relations from Oxford University and an MDiv from Ridley College. Andrew later became an Army Chaplain at the Australian Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, before leaving the full time Army in 2013 to plant City on a Hill Geelong. Andrew has been married to his beautiful wife Danna for over 20 years and has five young children. He loves the ocean, traveling, camping, playing with his kids (including attending their innumerable sporting matches), and reading military history.