Times of spiritual darkness: Twelve ways out

Proactive ways that help us rise from deep spiritual depressions

Victor M. Parachin writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Every minister experiences times of spiritual dryness. It is a subjective feeling that God is distant, aloof, even absent. During a time of spiritual dryness, prayers feel empty, hymns are sung without energy, sermons are lifeless, and Scripture appears to have no power over daily life. Often called the "dark night of the soul," it is a time when our sense of God's absence is painfully felt.

Even the heroes of Scripture experienced moments when clouds of darkness descended on the spirit, or God seemed hidden and uncaring. On one occasion Moses shouted at God: "If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now" (Num. 11:15, NIV).

Similarly, Elijah found himself so discouraged and frustrated he prayed: "I have had enough, Lord . .. Take my life" (1 Kings 19:4). And the psalmist lamented: "Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?" (Ps. 74:1). Although dark, dry times do come, the good news is that by taking some simple, significant steps you can bring a time of spiritual dryness to a speedier end.

Here are a dozen ways for us to find our way out of a time of deep personal spiritual darkness.

1. Shed an old skin. "We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come," observed Joseph Campbell. A time of darkness may be God's signal that you have reached the end of one stage in your life. Be flexible enough to turn over a new page and start the next chapter.

2. See the good, expect the best. Your mind is a powerful tool. Don't waste it brooding over what you don't have, aren't experiencing, or didn't receive. That kind of negative thinking will only leave you more discouraged, depressed, and dissatisfied.

A healthier approach is to see the good, and expect the best. Apply to your experience the promise of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer. 29:11).

3. Always choose faith over understanding. Sometimes the darkness descends when an urgent prayer does not seem to be heard. If that is the case, always choose faith over understanding.

Catherine Marshall tells of a time when she emerged from six months of spiritual darkness following the death of her second grand daughter in 1971, for whom she had prayed, pleading that God would bring her healing. In spite of such prayers, the baby girl died, plunging Marshall into a spiritual black hole.

After great depression and soul searching, she told of this insight: "When life hands up situations we cannot understand, we have one of two choices. We can wallow in misery, separated from God. Or we can tell Him, 'I need You and Your presence in my life more than I need understanding. I choose You, Lord. I trust You to give me understanding and an answer to all my Whys only if and when You choose.'"

4. Name it and claim it. In spite of how you feel, balance negative feelings and thoughts with the reality that God is love. Remind yourself that you are loved deeply, permanently, and lavishly by the God who created you.

Claim for yourself the many statements of Scripture which declare that particular truth, such as 1 John 3:1, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Isaiah 43:4, "You are precious and honored in my sight... I love you."

5. Let your gifts and talents lead you. Duringa dark time it is difficult to know what to do, and in which direction to move. Let your God-given gifts and talents provide a clue. John Catoir opens this up by saying, "If you have a beautiful voice, then use it in some way for God's glory, and for your happiness. If you are a good teacher, then presume that God wants you to teach. Put your gifts at the service of others."

6. Look for the lesson in the darkness. The saints and mystics of past ages were profoundly aware that some of the most powerful spiritual lessons are gleaned during times of darkness and dryness. Observe, study, and analyze your condition; glean new insights.

The anonymous author of the great mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing, observed his own dark night of the soul and learned this lesson: "Whenever the feeling of grace is withdrawn, pride is the cause. Not necessarily because one has actually yielded to pride, but because if this grace were not withdrawn from time to time pride would surely take root. God in His mercy protects the contemplative in this way, though some foolish neophytes will think He has turned enemy to them."

7. Use the three healing words. "I for give you" are three of the most powerful words a person can speak. Ask yourself if your current spiritual situation is connected to feelings of anger, resentment, or hostility over someone who has hurt you. If that is the case, consider extending forgiveness.

One good way to do that is by writing a letter to the person who hurt you. Spell out the truth of what happened as you experienced it, but do so without blame, judgment, hostility, or anger. Say "I forgive you." Mail it only if you feel there's a reasonable chance that good will come from the recipient reading your words. If the person who caused your pain is deceased or incapable of hearing you, burn the letter. As you watch it consumed by flames, let your anger symbolically, if not palpably, go up with the smoke.

8. Be an angel. "Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve?" queries the writer of Hebrews (1:14). Nothing expands the capacities of the soul as does reaching out and helping another person.

Be the individual who stands up for justice when an unjust action or work is committed. When others are cowardly, be the one who responds with courage and conviction. Where there is cruelty and unfairness, be sure to soften those blows with kindness and understanding.

Paul urged: "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). By being God's angel you not only help others but will feel better about your life.

9. Do the right thing. If possible, don't take a job "just for the money." Many people including those in highly paid positions and careers are bored, frustrated, and unfulfilled by their work. Whether you are employed or not, take time for a spiritual career assessment, asking yourself, What do I love to do? What am I good at? What activities bring me the greatest spiritual and emotional pleasure? How can I use what I like to do to make a living and a contribution to the world?

10. Utter blessings. Even though you may be experiencing darkness, pray that all those with whom you have contact will experience God's blessings of peace, power, wisdom, love, joy, prosperity, and health. Privately utter these kinds of prayers of blessing for your spouse, children, friends, neighbors, employer, employees, and even strangers.

"Blessings keep our awareness of life's holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives . . .with each blessing uttered, we extend the boundaries of the sacred and actualize our love of life." So says Lawrence Kushner, author of The Rook of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk.

11. Have a listening ear. When you pray, remain still and silent in God's presence. Maintain a listening ear. God is a friend of silence. It is in solitude and silence that God's will is most clearly determined.

Be guided by this prayer, offered by African-American minister Howard Thurman, "Give me the listening ear. I seek this day the ear that will not shrink from the word that corrects and admonishes the word that holds up before me the image of myself that causes me to pause and reconsider the word that challenges me to deeper consecration and higher resolve."

12. Trust God even if you feel lost. No matter how you feel, continue trusting God for guidance and direction, perseverance and strength.

Be encouraged by Thomas Merton's prayer: "O my God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me ... Therefore, I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost I will not fear, for You are always with me, O my dear God."

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Victor M. Parachin writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

November 2003

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