M. Scott Peck will be remembered for his very helpful book The Road Less Travelled. It was a huge success and best-seller. He wrote about what he called the ‘dark night of the soul’.
He said, “In a real dark night of the soul it is always 3 o’clock in the morning, day after day”. You’ll probably know what he meant. Not being able to sleep and staying awake at three o’clock in the morning is an awful experience. But for it to occur every day must be terrible. That’s how it is for many who go through dark times of the soul—when all hope seems to have disappeared.
Many people in history have had a ‘dark night of the soul’ experience. One outstanding example is Abraham Lincoln. With his early life surrounded by death and loneliness and his adult life weighed down by a war in which thousands of young men died, he was a seriously melancholic man who, in spite of or through his dark night, became an icon of wisdom and leadership. One theory is that he escaped his melancholy in his efforts for his country, but another possibility is that it was the very darkness of his life—he once said, “If there’s a worse place than hell, I’m in it.”
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years under harsh conditions, yet he never lost his vision and sense of destiny. One of his younger fellow prisoners said of him:
The point about Nelson, of course, is that he has a tremendous presence, apart from his bearing, his deportment and so on. He’s a person who’s got real control over his behavior. He is also quite conscious of the kind of seriousness he radiates.
This is dark-night talk—presence and seriousness, the key gifts of Satan—as a long tradition holds. Mandela’s dark night was an actual imprisonment, not a mood. Still, he teaches how to deal with a dark night.
But there is something more significant here. It’s a spiritual darkness when we sense God has left us and we are in the midst of a terrible loneliness and sense of despair. Mother Teresa knew all about it. In 1957 she very candidly wrote: “I am told God lives in me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Does that mean that Mother Teresa was a fake religious person? No, not at all. It means that she honestly went through a phase in her life of spiritual desolation, something that many good and godly people have done. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. It means facing up to loneliness, confusion, inner pain, and desolation that God is no longer with me.
Some of us use the phrase ‘dark night of the soul’ to describe a time following a great loss, or a time leading up to a difficult decision. It is always a time when the soul is severely tested often to the point of breaking or even losing our faith. No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends. And when it does, the reality that troubles the soul the most can be the apparent absence of God—where is God when I need him?
In February 1862, President Abraham Lincoln endured one of many ‘dark nights of the soul’ when the circumstances of his life brought unbearable pain, despair and disillusionment. His son Willie died, and his son Tad became seriously ill.
A Christian nurse attending the sick child recalled that the president watched by his bedside and often paced, in anguish, saying , over and over again, “This is the hardest trial of my life, Why is it? Why is it?”
God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways
Sooner or later we all find ourselves in the midst of circumstances that bring unbearable pain, despair and disillusionment. Such is the inevitable consequence of life in this sin-marred world. The death of a loved one, divorce, terminal illness, financial crisis, serious family problems or other circumstances bring about ‘dark nights of the soul’. In the midst of the pain, confusion and uncertainty of such times we, too, sometimes cry out to God, lamenting over and over again, Why is it? Why is it? “Where are you God? Don’t you care?
There are no easy answers—but it is true that God’s ways are often difficult to understand. We don’t know what he is doing in our lives. It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions and blame God. But he knows what he is doing, and we can trust him for everything—the good and not so good.
We can easily make the mistake of the man who was shipwrecked. Clinging to a broken piece of the ship he was washed ashore to a small island. With nothing more than a knapsack of possessions he built a little hut and using his small supply of matches he was able to cook and keep warm. Everyday he prayed to the Lord for deliverance. One day while out foraging for food he returned only to find his hut in flames—it had burned to the ground.
He lashed out at God, wondering, why God had forgotten him and ignored his prayers for deliverance. Angry at God and totally dejected he sat down by the seashore contemplating his next desperate move. Off in the distance he saw a small ship headed his way. When it was near the shore, the captain called out to him, We saw your smoke signal.
As the infinite Creator, God often works in mysterious and strange ways. But here is a simple promise from Hebrews 13:5: He will never fail you or abandon you. The Bible is very clear on this teaching that, no matter what, God will be your friend and companion, regardless of what is happening to you. Jesus said to his upset disciples one day, “No, I will not abandon you as orphans – I will come to you” (John 14:18 – NLT).