In May of 1975 I came across an article in Christianity Today (May 23, 1975; 7-8) by Stanley Lindquist, a professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno, that has been defining for my life and ministry ever since. Called “Dishonesty on Cloud Nine,” Dr. Lindquist said that Christians are just being “dishonest” when we “give the impression that God’s presence keeps us always on ‘cloud nine,’” when we act as if we are living lives of perpetually “exalted mood and no defeat” (7).
Dr. Lindquist described his own life as being immensely “interesting and rewarding.” He said that his life’s assignments were truly challenging, and that his life’s accomplishments were deeply satisfyingly. “Yet at times,” he still confessed, “I am caught up in feelings of hopelessness, defeat and horrible despair. Sometimes nothing goes right. Mistakes accumulate in rapid succession, and I feel ready to give up. Life seems not to be worth the herculean effort I am making to keep things going” (8). And Dr. Lindquist insisted that it was our emotional dishonesty as Christians, the “false picture of a (continuously) victorious Christian experience” that we try to paint for others that perpetuates the distorted view of Christianity as the “bubbling function of life.”
This was the very first time that anyone gave me a “heads up” about the seasons of dryness, discouragement and darkness that are just a natural part of the genuine spiritual life. Oh, believe me, I’d already had some. By 1975 I’d been spiritually “awake” for nearly a decade, and in that time I’d known some stretches of spiritual bareness when it felt like God was absent and silent. A familiar preacher’s illustration was the only wisdom that I’d been given up to that point to help explain my experience before finding that article in 1975.
An older couple was sitting in their car at a red light one day. The wife looked over at the car next to them and saw a young couple, obviously deeply in love, sitting close to each other. The woman looked over at her husband and said, “I remember the days when we used to sit that close to each other.” And her husband just grunted and said, “Well, I didn’t move.”
The truth of this narrative was that any distance that I might be feeling in my relationship with God was my fault. If God wasn’t close then it was because I’d “moved.” Believing this, Psalm 51:10-12 became my frequent and heartfelt petition –
Create in me a clean heart, God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit.
Beginning with a “cloud 9” assumption that my life as a Christian was supposed to be one of “exalted mood and no defeat,” when my experience proved to be otherwise, my first response was always to just automatically assume that I had done something wrong that needed to get fixed before the joy of my salvation could return.
I “Job-ed” myself.
In the book of Job it was Job’s friends who explained his misery by arguing that because bad things only happen to bad people, that he must be bad. And so, when my spiritual life turned barren, I scolded myself using the familiar scripts of Job’s friends. Obviously it was because I’d “moved” that God was suddenly distant. And there were times when this assessment proved to be exactly right.
St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life observed –
It is ourselves who are often the cause of our own sterile, arid state… God holds back consolations from us when we have foolish compliance in them and are subject to the worms of presumption… When we neglect to gather the dear delights of God’s love at the proper season, he takes then from us in punishment for our sloth…
Psalm 51:10-12 is exactly the right thing to pray in this situation and under these circumstances. Repentance, confession and the renewal of faith in Jesus Christ as our “Advocate with the Father” (I John 1:5-2:2) is the right course of action to take when the distance that you experience between yourself and God is the result of your own spiritual negligence, rebellion and infidelity. In words that ought to send a shudder through our souls, God tells us that there are a variety of circumstances and conditions of heart when He won’t listen to our prayers or respond to our cries (Isaiah 58; Malachi 1-2; I Peter 3:7). There are times of spiritual desolation when we, in fact, have “moved,” and the only way back is by penance and forgiveness.
But there are also times of spiritual desolation when we haven’t moved, and that’s what Dr. Lindquist alerted me to in his defining 1975 Christianity Today article. There are seasons of the spiritual life when it is God who “moves.” Known in the spiritual literature as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” and/or, the “Dark Night of the Senses,” this is when God purposefully withdraws His “consolations” (the “felt” dimensions of God’s presence – e.g. “peace,” “love,” “joy”) from us in order to deepen our faith. A good Biblical illustration of this dynamic of the spiritual life was the end of the miraculous provisions for God’s people in the wilderness and the beginning of their responsibility to have to farm and herd for themselves in order to meet their physical needs (Deuteronomy 8). Another illustration of it was Jesus’ instructions to His disciples in the Upper Room when it was time for Him to go away and they were going to be left feeling “orphaned” (John13-17). Ralph Martin in his masterful book on the spiritual life The Fulfillment of all Desire (Emmaus 2006) writes –
When we continually “see” the work of God in our life, there is less need for faith. When the perception of blessing or presence is removed, there is an opportunity to exercise faith on a deeper and purer level, which is very pleasing to God and unites us in a deep way with Him, even when His closeness to us might not be felt. (170-171)
If the way “back” from the dryness and darkness we experience when we have moved away from God is penance and forgiveness, then the way “forward” through the dryness and darkness we experience when God moves away from us is to “trust and obey” as the old Gospel hymn puts it. The Divine purpose in the “dark night” of the soul and/or senses is to teach us how to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), and so when we find ourselves in the middle of one of them, the best strategy is to plant our feet on what we know to be solid ground. As another old Gospel hymn instructs –
When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale, My anchor holds within the veil.
When things go dark for us spiritually, this is when the spiritual disciplines that have been honed in the light pay their best dividends. The disciplined engagement with Scripture, the daily habit of heartfelt prayer, the hard work of being in community and the weekly gathering at the Lord’s Table are where we find the solid ground where our anchors hold in the high and stormy gales when darkness veils His lovely face.
For me, the most powerful declaration of faith that I find in Scripture is the one that comes at the end of the book of the Prophet Habakkuk –
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (3:17-18)
This is the kind of faith that is born of the experience of spiritual dryness and darkness, and it is the kind of faith that will see us through. DBS+
I believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining.
I believe in love even when I am alone.
I believe in God even when he is silent.
These words were found scrawled on a cellar wall where
Jews had hidden in World War II in Cologne, Germany.