The Dark Night of the Soul

Psalm 88 is one of the darkest of psalms in the face of human struggle and suffering. Often we look for words of hope and contrast in such psalms. Something to lighten the load of darkness. But we find little if any light in psalm 88.  The psalm begins with prolonged and agonised prayer – day and night – crying out to God for mercy. And ends with darkness as the closest friend.  The psalmist is brought low and afflicted by troubles that are too much to bear. He is “distraught” and feels “engulfed”.  He is brought low and feels like one “adrift among the dead”.  Every brush stroke seems black with the darkness of a mind submerged in a miry pit.

For those who struggle with prolonged or recurring depression, darkness is a strange and seemingly unwelcome companion. Can there be any blessing or encouragement from such a long-term acquaintance?

If this is your experience today then know that you are not alone. The Bible is not just a book for happy clappy smiley Christians. The stark realities of both joy and suffering are honestly presented in God’s inspired word. And Jesus himself knew what it was to experience the shrouded covering of darkness on his soul.

St John of the Cross describes in his writings what he calls “the dark night of the soul”.  It’s a place not to be experienced outside of the will of God but firmly part of the normal experience of someone seeking to walk deeper with God.  Every room in your spiritual house is plunged into darkness and the God who once spoke to you so clearly has now gone completely silent.  For many this sudden loss of the felt presence of God leads to confusion, questions and turmoil.

Having denied Christ three times and then seen the Hope of Israel crucified, Peter knew what it was to face the dark night.  But that was not how his story ended.  Later he went on to preach the gospel in the power of the Spirit, lead the early church in Jerusalem and write two letters now included in the New Testament.

God has a different perspective on darkness than we often have. When all is cloaked in deep darkness he sees you and will never forget you nor forsake you.  When we say – “surely that’s me finished”, God has other ideas. In the darkness he often does the deepest of works within us.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalms 139:11-12 NIVUK

Also, there is a truth that may be too hard to grasp for you today. But it is still true nevertheless. Maybe today you can only give this possibility a fleeting glance. Put this one at the foot of the cross, that God would bring it to fulfilment in your experience one day.

“I will give you the treasures of darkness.  And hidden riches of secret places, That you may know that I, the LORD, Who call you by your name, Am the God of Israel.” Isaiah 45:3 NKJV

Darkness and mindfulness are a bit of a double-edged sword.  Why would anyone want to befriend darkness? But if we only ever resist darkness (and I am not here referring to spiritual powers of darkness, which we should always resist) then we are likely to be involved in a very exhausting and relentless struggle.  Depression is a chronic ongoing condition for many.  A stubborn and difficult friend that will not leave in a hurry.  So there becomes a difficult balancing act to be maintained in the face of day by day living – hope for future freedom v. accepting and even befriending feelings moment by moment.  The psalmist in Psalm 88 says that darkness had become his closest friend.  He was well acquainted with the reality of it.  But thankfully the story of darkness does not end with Psalm 88.  Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) and he has come into our world. And in Psalm 18 we have a promise that one day God will turn all of our darkness into light.

"You light a lamp for me. The Lord, my God, lights up my darkness." (Psalm 18:28).

Richard H H Johnston

Director, Christian Mindfulness & Christian Contemplation

© Richard H H Johnston

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