The Darkest Night: Making Sense of Life’s Hardest Seasons - 96five Family Radio

The Darkest Night: Making Sense of Life’s Hardest Seasons

How do we make sense of life’s most agonising seasons, when it feels like God is either distant, or not present at all?

By Brian HarrisFriday 24 May 2024Christian LivingReading Time: 4 minutes

About 40 years ago an older friend spoke to me about “the dark night of the soul” that he was going through.

I had never heard the term, but he told me it was initially coined by St John of the Cross in a poem of that title. I was struck by the idea, conjuring up images of a stormy night when in the thunder, damp and gloom you temporarily lose perspective and doubt the goodness of God. Not that I related to the idea. My own life was going well – I was recently married, we had brought our first home, doors were opening up to me – there was one good thing after another.

But my friend told me that though much of his life had been lived with an awareness of God’s close presence, that had changed very suddenly. The God who was close now seemed to be the God who had evaporated; the God who opened doors now seemed to close them; the God who brought light into his life, now seemed to have disappeared into the deepest darkness.

The social worker in me wondered if he was spiritualizing depression – making the black dog sound like a faith crisis. I advocated counselling and positive thinking and all those other things you suggest when you don’t have a solution but want to feel you have been helpful.

Depression Versus a Spiritual Crisis

He wasn’t one to be fobbed off, and told me he knew the difference between depression and the dark night of the soul, because depression was an old enemy of his that over the years had turned into a friend. He knew depression’s script, and how to navigate its seasons, but this, he said, was completely different. This was spiritual. It was about a profound sense of absence. And it was awful. But it was also an invitation to trust at a completely new level. He quoted someone (I no longer remember who) saying, “It is rather a privilege to be allowed to trust God in the dark rather than to be treated like a young child in need of a night lamp.” Clearly it made an impression on me, for four decades later I can recite it back – though I googled it and it didn’t come up, so perhaps I have remembered it wrong.

Feeling somewhat out of my depth, I left the conversation thinking I had been given much to ponder, but was soon back into a lovely worship routine where raising your hands was the new mark of spiritual maturity and a sign of a genuine encounter with Jesus. I loved it.

A few weeks later I heard news that this same friend’s wife had died. She was in her 40’s and there was no warning. He arrived home with his daughter and they found her dead on the floor after a massive coronary. I had stayed in their home a few times and she was one of the warmest and kindest women I had met. Their daughter was just 12. The dark night of the soul indeed.

Making Sense of the Worst Times

How do we make sense of life’s most agonising seasons? Let’s not be trite. It was Evelyn Underhill who wrote: “If God were small enough to be understood he would not be big enough to be worshipped.” Who can dispute her wisdom?

One experience from which the people of God have sometimes drawn comfort is the dark night of the soul – counter intuitive though that may sound. Why a comfort? Because knowing you are not alone in what you are going through helps keep things in perspective.

Why might we go through the dark night of the soul? God alone knows, but perhaps these reasons might turn a flickering light on…

St John of the Cross wrote: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” When we can’t see, and can’t make any sense of things, keeping on can be the deepest form of trust. It can serve a profound purpose, for the dark night of the soul is sometimes the space between who we have been and who we will become. As we commit to the deepest changes, we might feel bereft, for in that liminal space we don’t know who the “new me” will be, and are deeply aware of what we have lost. But it is a journey, and we trust the God we cannot see or experience to guide it well, even when the evidence of that is less than convincing.

Psalm 88:18 finishes with the haunting words: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” If there is any consolation in these words it is that if this is our experience, we are not alone. 3000 years ago it was the Psalmist’s lot. Perhaps we can make an amendment possible for those experiencing this. Though darkness might be their closest friend, perhaps we – their friends and neighbours – can make sure we are not removed at this time, but stay especially close.

In No Man is an Island Thomas Merton wrote that God “may be more present to us when he is absent than when He is present” And even if you can’t get your head around that, why not keep trusting in the dark?

Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by GRAY on Unsplash