The Fruit of a Dark, Dark Night


(An edited journal excerpt from June 1991)

Job 14:14-17 NIV, “If someone dies, will they live again? 
All the days of my hard service 
I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer you; 
you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps 
but not keep track of my sin. My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
 you will cover over my sin.”

In the dark night places, as John of the Cross calls them, and in what I’ve been describing as dry or waiting places, I am looking to God to take initiative. “You will call and I will answer You.” So much of my prayer is my calling, expecting His answer. This, of course, has its place in my life. But sometimes my calling isn’t done in a listening posture. I’m only listening for God’s reply to my request, and not listening more broadly for whatever it is He may wish to say.

God calls to us from a place of deep desire. He longs for the one He has made. He longs for me. Do I believe this, especially when dry seasons make God feel far away? John of the Cross says that the dark night is a place where God’s purifying, fiery love does its work in me.

This place of “hard service” is a time of waiting on God’s own renewing work in me. I don’t renew myself. I trust God to do His renewing work.

One thing that encourages me as I think of the bigger story of Job is that his season of deep testing results in an increased level of influence and leadership. “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.” (Job 42:10-12 NIV)

Can I find hope in this for myself? Might this trying, dry season actually be the means by which You drive my roots deeper for future seasons of greater fruitfulness? Father, I look forward to You blessing me beyond anything You have done on my behalf in the past. Thank You, Father.

God, in this season of dryness and waiting is gathering together all of my desires, my thoughts, my motivations and my energies so that He might unite them in obedience to the greatest command, “to love Him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul and all my strength.” 

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The Soul’s Dark Night and Spiritual Influence


Reviewing my journal, I came across this quotation from Madame Guyon. It resonates with my spiritual journey and leadership development:

“Souls whom God destines to draw other souls to himself pass at first through the wilderness state, stripped of the all of self, which is a way full of tribulation to the natural heart. But subsequently, when the soul is prepared, God enriches her and renders her fruitful in himself.” (Madame Guyon. Madame Guyon’s Spiritual Letters. Augusta, ME: Christian Books Publishing House, 1982, p. 192-93.)

What development process makes a person capable of attracting others to God? How does God make our lives tantalizing to His purpose? Guyon suggests that God must take us through dry, barren, desolate places where everything of our small (and false?) self is stripped away or put to death. Everything that smells of self-reliance, self-importance, self-deprecation, and every other form of self-hyphenated sweat, must be refined out of us. Such a purified container is capable of bearing the richness, beauty and fruitfulness of God’s own presence within.

This is what makes our lives a means of drawing others to walk more closely and deeply with God. It is then not at all about us, but truly about Christ in us. Christ comes to more fully abide in our hearts, souls, minds and bodies, not just in our ideas or notional beliefs.

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Faith in God, or Faith in Faith?


faith“At the risk of considerable oversimplification, we may say that all the rest of the Christian life is concerned with the progressive purification of this initial act of faith. This is what all the fearful dark nights described by St John of the Cross are about. We have to be stripped of everything that contaminates the essential recognition that God is God.

This means, for instance, that we must learn to place our trust simply in the fact that God is God; we must be weaned from that kind of trust which rests largely or even partly on the feeling of trust, or on the evidence that supports trust. My faith must not be in my own faith, but simply in the objective reality of God himself.” (Tugwell, Simon. Prayer in Practice. Springfield: Templegate Publishers, 1974, p. 112-13.)

“We have to be stripped of everything that contaminates the essential recognition that God is God.” I fear that too often my faith has been faith in my own faith rather than simple faith in God. We believe in certain formulations or statements of faith. Or we believe because of certain feelings of faith. My faith is in Yahweh, the God Who simply is—“I am.” My faith can end up being in my perception or experience of God rather than in God alone. Even writing that last sentence leaves me feeling uncertain. How can I know God beyond my ideas and feelings? In a way, I can’t apart from God’s allowing my ideas and feelings to be less stimulating, drawing me to distance myself some from them as my primary source of confidence. There is a simpler, quieter faith in God than the noisy arguments and dramatic experiences of faith we sometimes seek.

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Mid-Life Awakening


I came across the extended quotation below from Carlo Carretto on a common experience of Christians at the halfway point of their lives. I’d be curious to hear from you (in the comments below) to what degree this does or does not describe experiences you’ve had if you are at or past this life stage:

“With the exception of those privileged souls who understood right from the beginning what the problem really was, and who immediately set out upon the true, rough road of humility and spiritual childhood, the greater part of mankind is called upon to undergo a hard and painful experience.

This normally occurs around the age of forty: a great liturgical period in one’s life, a Biblical period, a period of the noonday devil, the period of one’s second youth, a crucial period for man: “For forty years that generation repelled me, until I said: ‘How unreliable these people who refuse to grasp my ways!'”(Psalm 94:10).

This is the time when God has decided to take the man who until now has escaped behind a smokescreen of halfheartedness, and make him put his back to the wall.

Disaster, boredom, depression, all these but especially the experience of sin make man dis­cover what he really is: a poor, fragile, weak thing; a mixture of pride and wickedness; inconstant, lazy, illogical.

There is no limit to this misery in man. And God lets him drink the bitter cup to the dregs.” (Carretto, Carlo. Letters from the Desert. Trans. Rose Mary Hancock. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1972, p. 65-66.)

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Thoughts on the Dark Night


Douglas Steere wrote some very helpful books in the last century. Below is a quotation from one of them on the theme of the dark night of the soul that I found helpful.

“Teresa of Avila and her great companion, John of the Cross, have both written of a stage on the mystic way known as the dark night of the soul, where all the light of warmth and joy in their spiritual lives seemed quenched, and where in their desolation they seemed destined to go on wearily plodding through the darkness, forsaken by every comfort and consolation, and despairing of ever finding light again. To those who flung themselves on God and went on, however, they give ardent testimony that this state passed away and a new sense of their utter reliance on Him and His bounty emerged. Now they were tested. Now they knew at first hand that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38, 39). Until this has taken place the estate of rapture is still young and [immature] and in a way is not yet theirs. Only as they work through it, incorporate it, lose it, and by faithfulness regain it again do the deeper stages of contemplation come to them.” (Steere, Douglas. Work & Contemplation. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, p. 133-34).

It seems absurd or at least self-congratulating to say that this resonates. So much of my recent journey for so long, probably mostly because of my own weakness and dullness, has felt dark to me. More recently, perhaps as a fruit of the level of personal and relational honesty that has come from the counseling process I’ve been in since April 2008, I have felt an occasional lightness, freedom, peacefulness, hopefulness and energy that most definitely does not feel sourced in myself. It feels like something rising up from deeper places within me where God has come to be more at home through Christ and by the Spirit. (I said this sounds a little arrogant, but it’s how I feel and what it seems like to me).

I feel like God had to prove, by experience, that nothing could separate me from His love by allowing them all to try to do just that. It hasn’t been much fun (which puts it in the mildest possible language). This sense of my experience of God being so easily lost has been a cause of humble longing for greater and simpler dependence on Him. There is a subtle shift from focusing on my experience of God towards my experience of God. The words are exactly the same but the emphasis is completely different.

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A Fast From Felt Grace


An edited journal excerpt from June 1991

In seasons when my seeking of God feels dry or dark, I feel like I’m on a kind of soul fast. I do not have a sense of felt grace that has meant so much to me at other points along the way. Of course grace is always there, but I don’t “feel” graced.

When I have been on an extended food fast in the past, my digestive system went into a kind of hibernation. Because I wasn’t giving it anything to do, it took a break and basically shut down major operations. I wonder if this soul fast is similar in any way. God doesn’t seem to be feeding my mind with inspiring thoughts, or my emotions with comforting, encouraging feelings or my will with stirring directions. Part of me seems to be in a kind of hibernation.

And the early stages of an extended fast are painful and difficult. Toxins that have built up break lose and make their way out of the body. I don’t feel well. This soul fast seems similar. Soul impurities rise to the surface of my thinking and feelings and it feels awful. Maybe God is bringing about a purification.

“Father, this dry place is a hard place for me. Help me to wait as You bring genuine satisfaction to the depths of my inner being. You are the only one I need. The false food I’ve eaten in the past has poisoned my system. Thank You for this process that is refining me. You alone can satisfy me deeply. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you…. But as for me, it is good to be near God (Psalm 73:25, 28).”

Father, You alone are my soul’s desire. It’s true…and I forget it’s true. It is truly good to be near You, even if that isn’t what I’m feeling now. You don’t feel near at all. I believe that You are faithful and true, even when I feel faithless. May Your Spirit bear the fruit of faithfulness within me. Holy Spirit, make me aware of the life of Jesus within me. Help me to glorify the Father in my every choice, thought and action.”

Reflection: How do you respond when your seeking of God does not feel as “graced” as it once did? How might God be near, even if we don’t sense Him?

The Fruit of a Dark, Dark Night


An edited journal excerpt from June 1991

Job 14:14-17 NIV, “If someone dies, will they live again? 
All the days of my hard service 
I will wait for my renewalt to come. You will call and I will answer you; 
you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps 
but not keep track of my sin. My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
 you will cover over my sin.”

In the dark night places, as John of the Cross calls them, and in what I’ve been describing as dry or waiting places, I am looking to God to take initiative. “You will call and I will answer You.” So much of my prayer is my calling, expecting His answer. This, of course, has its place in my life. But sometimes my calling isn’t done in a listening posture. I’m only listening for God’s answer to my request, and not listening more broadly for whatever it is He may wish to say.

God calls to us from a place of deep desire. He longs for the one He has made. He longs for me. Do I believe this, especially when this dry season makes God feel far away? John of the Cross says that the dark night is a place where God’s purifying, fiery love does its work in me.

This place of “hard service” is a time of waiting on God’s own renewing work in me. I don’t renew myself. I trust God to do His renewing work.

One thing that encourages me as I think of the bigger story of Job is that his season of deep testing results in an increased level of influence and leadership. “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.” (Job 42:10-12 NIV)

Can I find hope in this for myself? Might this trying, dry season actually be the means by which You drive my roots deeper for future seasons of greater fruitfulness? Father, I look forward to You blessing me beyond anything You have done on my behalf in the past. Thank You, Father.

God, in this season of dryness and waiting is gathering together all of my desires, my thoughts, my motivations and my energies so that He might unite them in obedience to the greatest command, “to love Him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul and all my strength.” 

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Making Room For Peace


An edited journal excerpt from June 1991

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).”

I’ve been reading more in The Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross. The page I started with was so rich that I never turned it.

Simply put, he suggested that when God seeks to put within us a deep peace that is truly beyond our comprehension, He has to remove all traces of the peace that we can sense. When my circumstances are anything but peaceful, when conflict enters my life, when my heart is tempted to worry and concern, this is the very place where I can receive a peace that transcends all understanding.

Paul is not talking theoretically. He speaks with credibility from his prison cell. He isn’t talking about peace from a seat on the beach. He is talking about peace from a no-peace environment.

It seems God will not give us a peace beyond understanding until he removes the peace that we have come to understand. It may well be when I feel the least peace that I have opportunity to learn the deepest sort of peace in God.

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When the Well Runs Dry


I’ve taken the title of this blogpost from a book by the same name written by Thomas H. Green. It is well worth the read.

On this theme, Laura Swan describes an experience that many of us who have been Christians very long can recognize:

“Often the early years of our spiritual journey are filled with wonderful experiences of God. Great strides are made in prayer and personal transformation, the very near presence of God seems to be with us daily, and the miraculous is seen. Then the journey seems to get harder. Growth and transformation come to frustrating dead ends; prayer seems dry and pointless. Friends, at best, fail to understand us and too often abandon us—family can too. Sometimes it seems that God has abandoned us.” (Laura Swan. The Forgotten Desert Mothers. New York: Paulist Press, 2001, p. 50.)

God blessed my earliest years of Christian life with an emotionally rich, encouraging, affirming sense of His presence. I remember wondering why every Christian didn’t feel God’s presence like I did. I was tempted to compare myself with them and find myself a few notches up the spirituality ladder. It was typical spiritual immaturity.

With this in mind, why in the world would we take new Christians with some special gift or experience of God and move them so quickly into positions of influence? We assume that dramatic experiences with God are marks of maturity. Might they actually be marks of spiritual youth? Are we trying to vicariously extend our own dramatic experience of God? Why not, instead, focus our attention on God Himself, felt or unfelt, and celebrate the gifts of young faith without envying or coveting?

What Swan is saying here speaks to the very place I find myself in this season. I miss emotionally charged experiences of God. I miss the ease of prayer when God’s presence feels very near every day. I miss witnessing the obviously miraculous acts of God. My journey has become harder. I often feel at dead ends…or at least dry ones. I don’t “get as much” out of praying as I once did.

Father, I offer this simple journal entry to You as prayer. Perhaps I have been trying to pray as I can’t anymore. Perhaps I’m using methods that aren’t as fitting as they were in earlier places of my journey. I tend to remain stuck in old methods for fear of the unknown of a more receptive approach to prayer.

But it is the contemplative that I believe is most fitting for me now. I need to be careful that I don’t find myself seeking a new place of felt presence by changing my methods. I recognize, from my reading and experience, that contemplative prayer tends to be very simple and not very dramatic. Lately, sitting in silence is mostly trying to be present and still before God in the midst of the onslaught of distracting thoughts, emotions and even physical sensations. This is what I need though. This is the invitation I sense from God.

(Repost from December 2009)

Stamina in the Desert Places


How does God go about increasing our spiritual stamina, extending our persevering faithfulness and enriching our grace-orientation in relation to Himself and others? He does so by pressing us past what we thought were our limits, by making faithfulness more challenging than it used to be, and by opening our eyes to the shortcomings of others and our own. And one of the landscapes in which it often occurs is the spiritual desert. Listen to what Laura Swan says in her book on The Forgotten Desert Mothers:

“The desert journey is one inch long and many miles deep. Inward is the only direction of travel.

The spiritual journey requires perseverance, steadfastness, remaining with commitments, and working through difficulties. Relationships can grow stale and boring; our overcommitments can seem hard to untangle. ‘Moving on’ might seem easier than working through misunderstandings; ‘staying on’ is an invitation to deepen valued relationships and commitments. Stability and perseverance provide the strength for the hard interior work of transformation; inner wrestling deepens our interior life. In the midst of this hard work we encounter our real selves.” (Laura Swan. The Forgotten Desert Mothers. New York: Paulist Press, 2001, p. 47.)

The very language of this paragraph is countercultural for quick-fix USAmericans. We tend to feel that there isn’t anything that can’t be solved by just stepping harder on the gas pedal of our lives and increasing our efforts at work. The desert is the place where all our speed and hurry are exposed as empty. There are few markers to measure our outward progress in the desert. We are driven to pay better attention to what is happening within us. Rather than running from the obviously broken in search of the apparently unbroken people or situations, we awaken to the reality that brokenness is a universal human condition, and the only sane choice is to stay where God puts us and welcome His healing, restoring grace to be present to us.

What is it about your circumstances right now that you don’t like and you can’t change? How might this be the very place God is desiring to use to deepen your roots, lengthen your patience and enrich your inner life with Him? Are you open?

(A repost from December 2008)