WILL all Christians go through a period (or periods) of spiritual darkness? After all, did not the Lord Jesus say that everyone who follows him will have much trouble in this life? (Jn. 16:33). In the 16th century, there emerged
several prominent spiritual writers and guides who took the position that every Christian who is following Christ will be taken through a “dark night of the soul”. The biblical record of the desert wanderings of Israel on their way from slavery to blessing, from Egypt to the Promised Land, became a standard paradigm for the Christian journey. Soon it became the normative pattern expected in everyone’s life.
The writings of the Spanish mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila promoted these ideas which became popular. Thus John spoke of the “dark night of the soul”, as a period of lonely desolation in which spiritual realities dry up. There is no joy left, no desire to read the Bible or pray, no sense of the presence of God. However, if one persisted, and hung on by sheer faith, God will bring one to the light, into a new depth of spiritual life. Like a train that has to go through a dark tunnel to continue the journey, the Christian must recognise that the spiritual darkness is an essential part of the journey.
Teresa of Avila, too, in describing the journey of the soul towards God, said that the path is not smooth. It will take the Christian to mountain highs and also deep shadows. The terrain is a necessary one and we must walk faithfully along this path.
Such ideas were also embraced by writers like the godly William Law, an 18th century Anglican clergy. John Wesley, his contemporary, respected him highly and read his works regularly. Law taught that God would test us at times to strip us of some of the things that we may have come to rely upon for our lives. Even our great spiritual experiences may hinder further growth, and God may take these away so that we stand with a faith stripped of all that is unnecessary, a “naked faith” that will enable us to rely on God more wholly.
While Wesley respected John, Teresa and Law, he disagreed with their views regarding the dark night of the soul. He made this clear by preaching and publishing a sermon entitled “The Wilderness State”. He used Jn. 16:22 as his text arguing that the gladness that Jesus gives us can never be taken away from us.
On one count, Wesley and the others agree. The dark night of the soul is an inner experience; it has very little to do with external circumstances. In other words, sufferings caused by external circumstances, such as persecution, or even illnesses, are not the same as the dark night of the soul. One can have everything going well externally for oneself and still feel the dry suffocating desert within. WESLEY differed from the others on two counts. Firstly, he challenged the universality of the experience of the dark night. He insisted that Christians need not have this experience; it was not essential to the Christian journey. He was consistent here in that while suffering was Promised for every disciple of Christ, periods of spiritual darkness were not part of the fine print. Secondly, he differed in his understanding of the causes for the dark night. While John, Teresa and Law saw it as part of God’s design for the Christian life, and that this experience does not mean that we have sinned against God in some way, Wesley viewed this experience as primarily caused by sin, ignorance or disappointment arising from an unrealistically rosy view of the Christian life.
Because they differed in their views, the solutions offered are also quite different. For Wesley, if one went through such a period of spiritual darkness, the solution is, clearly, repentance, Bible reading (to remove spiritual ignorance) and developing a more realistic and robust view of the Christian life. The key is repentance from one’s sinfulness. Those he differed from would prescribe a different solution. They would suggest that one needs to recognise the terrible experience as God’s chosen method to deepen our lives. The primary task is not repentance, but continuing faith and faithfulness.
Who then is right here? It is important to determine this, if not for anything, at least for its pastoral significance. How does one guide a person who is going through a period of spiritual darkness?
If Wesley and the others with whom he disagreed were to have met and discussed more deeply (though they, except Law, came from two different centuries), I believe they may have come to a common position that will dispel the difficulty for us.
Wesley is right in insisting that the dark night of the soul was not universally normative. Not every Christian has to experience it, though many Christians seemed to have had a brush with periods of spiritual darkness. We would also have no difficulty agreeing that some of the causes of this kind of experience would be personal sins and ignorance. What would have been immensely helpful, though, is if Wesley had included in his list of causes some space for unknown causes. Sometimes, people experience spiritual darkness with no identifiable cause (like sin or spiritual attack) except that God wants to take them through it for the higher purpose of deeper holiness, trust and love.
Wesley himself had such an experience. Seven months after his heart-warming Aldersgate experience, Wesley sunk into darkness. He wrote in his journal, “My friends affirm I am mad, because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm I am not a Christian now … For a Christian is one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which are love, peace, joy.
But these I have not.”
It can be said that Wesley went through a dark night of the soul more in the terms of John and Law.
It is easy to read Wesley’s sermon wrongly and say that the road can always be blessed with sunshine. The real road has both sunshine and darkness, but God is always present with us, as the 23rd Psalm assures us. To have only the sunshine road paradigm is to miss reality.
Is it true that our songs in church these days seem to be limited to the sunshine road? – there are few that speak of the dark days. Our older hymns, many of which were written in the shadows of despair and darkness, have a more accurate picture of the spiritual terrain upon which we are called to walk.
We must take into account the “wilderness state” in the journey and offer the right perspectives and help for those who may find themselves alone in the dry overpowering sands of a spiritual desert.