Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Dark Night of the Soul

Anonymous on this post asks:

Is it possible that a true Christian can sometimes have the "dark night," where God doesn't seem real to him or near to him ... or are such "dark nighters" always reprobate non-christians?

i ask because i struggle with assurance of salvation some times for months...and the struggle itself seems to confirm my fears.
It appears to me that this question might have roots due to a misunderstanding of Steve’s original post. Even if that is the case, the question is still legitimate and deserves to be looked at with a Biblical mindset.

To answer the question, a “dark night of the soul” can be, and in fact has many times been, experienced by Christians. It is not an indication that one is reprobate if one has struggled with such a position. Indeed, the assurance of salvation is quite often the most common battlefield upon which a Christian will test his faith, and that battle can last months, years, and even to varying degrees unto the end.

Before I continue further, it is helpful to note that what Steve said of Teresa was not that she was reprobate—in fact, he specifically said he didn’t know if that was the case. If Steve’s post had intended to make the connection that “experiencing a dark night of the soul is proof you are reprobate” he would not have needed to qualify this statement with his uncertainty of Teresa’s salvific status. However, as Steve noted, feeling that God has abandoned you may be an indication that you are unsaved, but it is by no means a certainty.

I also note that I do speak from personal experience regarding “dark nights of the soul.” I have mentioned in many places before that I was once diagnosed with severe depression. In fact, one doctor told me that my case was the worst he had ever seen (this isn’t exactly what you want to hear from you doctor, in case you were wondering). In my case, the depression was linked to a specific physical cause. But this was not something that I discovered immediately. Instead, I spent two years gradually getting worse and worse psychologically, until my boss where I worked pulled me aside and ordered me to see a doctor because of the changes in my personality that my coworkers had noticed. At that time, I started several different types of medication in greater and greater doses, but I never seemed to get better.

Eventually I switched doctors (for reasons unrelated to my treatment at the time). My new doctor gave me a physical and said my blood was too thick. He had me do a pulse/ox test (which is used to indicate your sleeping pulse rate and the oxygen saturation level in your blood stream). The results of that test indicated that several times during the night, oxygen levels dropped and my heart began to race—an indication that I had sleep apnea. I had a sleep test scheduled and the results came back positive. Not only did I have sleep apnea, but the entire time I was tested I never entered REM sleep. In all likelihood, I had not gotten much (or possibly any) REM sleep for over two years. It is no wonder that this would demonstrate itself in the form of depression!

For me there was a simple cure. I got a CPAP machine (which uses air pressure to keep the airways from collapsing while you sleep). About a month after I started with the CPAP machine, I had finished with all medication that I had been taking for depression. And I’ve never been prescribed any depression medication since then. All my problems were apparently due to sleep deprivation.

Now during the time I was at my worst in depression, I had no desire to do anything. I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Many times, I would not go to church because I simply didn’t feel like getting out of bed on Sunday. Now, I’ve never been the type of person who has had problems with assurance of salvation…but that is not necessarily a good thing. You see, there were times during my depression that I literally hated God. But because I have always believed in eternal security, I knew that I could never escape from Him. He would always be there (and while I know that is true in a positive sense, back then I viewed it in the negative sense—like the schoolyard bully who will always be there to pick on you).

Because of my own depression, I have been able to talk to many other people who have gone through depression too. The pain of depression is something that is difficult to describe to people who have never experienced it. The doctor who told me that I had the worst case of depression he had ever seen also told me that he had a patient who was suffering from depression and had also been diagnosed with cancer. This patient claimed to prefer the pain of the cancer to the pain of depression. It is not difficult to understand why. When pain is caused by a physical source, our body has means to cope with it. We can go into shock, for instance. Likewise, we are able to treat (or at least attempt to treat) the physical ailments.

But depression takes place completely in the mind (even if it is caused by physical sources). It creates its own physical pain as well, but this physical pain doesn’t become dulled by shock. If depression gives you a stomach ache, causes you to vomit after every meal, makes you nauseous at the slightest scent, well taking Pepto Bismal isn’t going to help one bit. The stomach ailments are not caused by a stomach problem—they are caused by a mental problem, and only curing the mental aspect will change that.

Because of the Christians I’ve talked with, I know that one of the most common effects of depression is a struggle with faith and assurance. It is easy for us to fake how much we love God when things are going well. But add the overwhelming pain of depression, and suddenly it’s difficult to know where in the raging storm you can find dry land. I know many Christian brothers and sisters who struggle at times of depression with whether or not God has abandoned them. They struggle with this, yet I know as much as humanly possible that they have a genuine faith in God.

We do not need to take my personal testimony and my own witness for evidence, however. The Bible also shows many of these same people. If those who have never experienced it would like a glimpse of what depression is like, I suggest reading Psalm 88. Some excerpts follow:

I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
The NIV translates the final clause in a way that is even more poignant than the above ESV: “the darkness is my closest friend.”

While David did not write the above Psalm (it was written by the Sons of Korah), David also had his share of similar Psalms. For instance we read:

Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. (Psalm 31:11-13)

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11)
David was called “a man after God’s own heart,” yet also in this Psalm he wrote: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” (vs. 9).

David’s examples could easily be multiplied, but we can also include several of the prophets. Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because of what he endured (watching the destruction of Jerusalem, recording it in the book of Lamentations). There were many dark nights experienced by many of the saints.

And we know from Paul why this is the case: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10). And further: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

This brings us to the paradoxical nature of the Christian walk. Despite the televangelist’s claims, Christianity is not about health, wealth, and happiness. It is about weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. It is about being crushed, perplexed, struck down. It is about being a jar of clay, not a steel container. All the more so that God’s strength is revealed more fully.

David was a man after God’s own heart. We know this, in part, because of the anguish he went through. He might be knocked down a dozen times, but he would get up thirteen times. And it was not due to his own abilities—he always acknowledged that it was God alone who could save him, and it was God alone who could deliver him.

Because we are time-bound creatures, we do not have the eternal aspect to measure whether someone going through a “dark night of the soul” will ultimately stand or fall. We only have the immediate temporal vantage point. Because of that, we cannot be dogmatic in determining what any particular person’s “dark night” means. But we do know that it is not automatic proof that said person is a reprobate.

However, as Steve’s post warned us, the existence of suffering is not itself proof that one is saved either. The wicked often suffer greatly in this life too—not all judgment is reserved for after death. Indeed, much persecution can be found between reprobates who are unrestrained in their hatred of other reprobates.

We likewise cannot ignore various other points that Steve brought up: the fact that the Roman Catholic system is non-Scriptural, that it teaches a false gospel, that it glorifies masochism and not just the natural toils and persecutions that will arise as we contend for the faith, all must bring some doubt as to what Teresa’s suffering meant about her spirituality. Ultimately, we do not know if she was regenerate or not; but we do know that the Roman system is not what we find in the Gospel.

And that brings us to the final point: evaluating our own personal experience. If you are currently going through a “dark night of the soul” what should you do? How do you make your “calling and election sure” in order to know whether what you experience is God demonstrating His power through your weakness or whether it is the bare fact of evil that even the unregenerate must deal with? Obviously, the first part of the question gives us some indication: does your “dark night of the soul” make God’s power shine though more fully? If so, then you have every reason to believe that your faith is genuine.

Often, however, this is a position that we cannot evaluate ourselves. When you are in the midst of depression, your perception of reality is affected. I know from my own experience that logic itself was different when I was depressed. For instance, when depressed, it logically makes sense that I should not waste the effort it takes to pay my bills on time. After all, having a phone is pointless; having electricity is meaningless; even having a place to live is worthless. In a world of pain, there’s not much point to anything.

But as soon as the depression lifts, we realize that our previous views were irrational. The logic that we couldn’t see in the depression is so obvious when the depression lifts that one feels stupid for having fallen for it while depressed.

So if you are going through a “dark night of the soul” you are the last person you should ask for an honest opinion of your spiritual state. You are the last person qualified to tell whether God is making Himself known through your weakness. For that, you need other believers.

And that is why God has given us the Church. When depressed, it’s probably the last place you want to be, but it is the very place you ought to be. Only in the company of other Godly men and women can you get an honest answer of whether they can see God working in your life. And if they can see God working in your life, then you know that you can take heart—you are a jar of clay with a great treasure inside.

Finally, remember to also stay in the Word of God. Again, it may be difficult to concentrate on Scripture when you are feeling down, and there are many passages that you will not be able to think clearly on. For instance, when depressed Ecclesiastes is probably the last book you will want to read. But Scripture was given for our benefit, and even if you do not immediately feel anything from it, just being in the habit can sometimes be enough to help pull you through a “dark night of the soul.”

To wrap it all up, then: No, having a “dark night of the soul” does not in itself mean you are reprobate. It does not mean you are saved either, though. Just because you go through a dark night does not mean you are pious; but it doesn’t mean you’re the spawn of Satan either. When you are going through one of those dark nights, you need to have at least one other believer who you can lean on (and preferably more than one other believer—there is a reason we are told not to forsake the assembly!). If you know they are Godly men and women, trust in their judgment because they are going to be in a far more objective position to evaluate your spiritual walk than you will be.


  1. Good post and I can relate. I think my contention with the earlier post was that even though he said he did not know whether Mother Theresa was reprobate or not it SEEMED like he was making the assumption that she probably was. And the post overall was very negative towards Mother Theresa.

    But as to this post I think it was really good.


  2. BH-CARL said:
    I think my contention with the earlier post was that even though he said he did not know whether Mother Theresa was reprobate or not it SEEMED like he was making the assumption that she probably was. And the post overall was very negative towards Mother Theresa.

    I didn't read it that way. I think it was negative toward the Roman Catholic church, not toward her specifically.

    I also think we ought to be fair to Steve here. He was bringing up the "other side" of the issue and focusing on it. Most writers, especially the Roman Catholic apologists, would definitely be focusing on equating Teresa's struggles with godliness. I'm sure he didn't see a need to focus on that aspect because it is so prevalent. However, hardly anyone is pointing out the flip side, which is that suffering is not an indication of piety in and of itself.