At the recent National Youth Worker’s Convention in Atlanta, Mark Yaconelli taught a session on navigating times where God appears absent and nothing works to revitalize our spiritual life. Commonly called the “dark night of the soul,” Yaconelli described it as a time in our lives when all you hear in your prayers is your own voice. Prayer seems like pretending. It can be full of doubt, confusion and struggles.
Quoting some from the diary of Mother Teresa, Yaconelli illustrated how even mighty saints have had to fight through these times. She wrote, “It’s as if Jesus left me.” Yaconelli said that these times of apparent isolation and futility are critical for us to surrender our soul to God.
The dark night is not just about tragedy. It is not restricted to mystics or overly spiritual people. It doesn’t even always have to be unpleasant. Dark night may refer to a time where God seems hidden and the path to enlightenment seems obscure.
Yaconelli said, “God is seeking to free us from our attachments and restrictions.” Our ideas about God and the things that worked in the past can get in the way of our progression to something deeper. Sometimes things have to stop working so that we will try new spiritual disciplines. The chemical high induced in the brain wears off in our relationship with God just like it does in physical world interactions.
The dark night is a time when you “feel like you lose control of your spiritual life.” Nothing you do seems to work. You tend to lose words to describe what is going on inside of you. Many tend to feel like a hypocrite, especially as they minister to others. Frequently, we continue on because we don’t know what else to do. We respond to something inside of us and keep going thanks to a blind faith. Some respond by sinning. Yet, sin does not work to satisfy either, even if it did for a moment in the past.
This made me wonder, “Is doubt a necessary process for most of us to get to true, lasting faith?”
Getting to a place where nothing works is critical for most of us because we tend to try to control our spiritual lives. God takes away these proven methods so that a greater transformation can take place below the surface. Yaconelli said, “God has to liberate you in secret because as soon as you know what is going on, you will try to control it again.”
Many of us don’t realize that the enemy of our soul is as much us sometimes as it is demonic forces. Unseen transformation frees us from our previous prisons of perception. Who God is in our lives gets bigger because walls come down. We come to discover how much we thought about God and His will for our lives was wrong. Our souls got in the way. This caused me to ask myself, “What prison in my life is of my own making?”
Spiritual enlightenment is not a linear progression. We can drift in and out of the dark night experiences. Some many never experience it. Yaconelli said, “If you think you are in dark night, you probably are not.”
Yaconelli talked about faith as a “gift.” He said it wasn’t just something we muster up on our own. This caused me to stop and think about our need for God to help us do even the basic step of believing. I am not sure where God stops and we begin on the whole faith issue. But I do know that I need God’s help to have the kind of faith that I desire.
Outlining a few action steps for navigating dark night experiences, Yaconelli said that we have to accept the darkness and be willing to enter a state of trust despite not knowing what is going on and when things will work “right” again. We may even have to pray for tears like the Desert Fathers once did. Yaconelli encouraged sojourners to let go of anything that seems forced or false. Less can truly be more as we learn to rest more in the life of Christ.
A critical step is to lean on others, especially those who have proven themselves to offer godly counsel and friendship in the past. This is difficult for many who feel spiritually isolated from other believers.
The most important thing to remember is to trust God in the darkness. God is working even though we may not see it.