Growing in the Dark
After nearly 30 years as a ministry leader and pastor's wife, I went through an experience that some would describe as a dark night of the soul.
In the past when I heard someone complaining of enduring a dark night, I was less than compassionate. What a drama queen, I'd think. Everyone goes through spiritual slumps. What's the big deal?
But then I experienced one that I couldn't escape. I was humbled.
My dark night was sparked by a series of unanswered prayers. Actually, my prayers were answered—but definitely not in the way I had hoped. To understand my disillusionment, you need to know a bit about my personality. I'm a life-long activist, a habitual doer. I can take anything but standing still.
So when God blocked my "doings," which I was sure I was supposed to do, I became frustrated. One "no" from God was followed by another, and another. Then an extended stretch of divine silence shook my faith, triggering a dark night that lasted three years.
I had never experienced such silence from God. Sure, I had been distant from him, but the distance had always been my fault, born of my rebellion or indifference. This was different. I was reaching out to God, but couldn't feel his presence. Prayers stuck in my throat, or bounced back at me off the ceiling.
Comedian Susan Isaacs tells of a similar experience: "All my life I had felt God's presence … even when I pushed him away he remained the still, small squatter I could not evict. Now I could hear nothing, feel nothing, know nothing. The squatter had vacated."
Mother Teresa describes the pain: "I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul …. What tortures of loneliness. I wonder how long will my heart suffer like this?"
The problem was amplified by the fact that I had to continue to lead ministries. I have leadership roles in our church and community. I'm a pastor's wife. In the midst of my "not hearing from God" time, it was difficult to know how to minister, or even if I should.
I cut back on some of my ministry responsibilities. For years my husband and I co-led a small group Bible study. As the dark night continued, I didn't have much to offer. I realized that while I could handle the administrative duties associated with the study, I needed Mark to shoulder the spiritual leading.
Other times, however, when I could accept a leading ministry role, my dry spiritual state occasionally seemed to help me. One summer I facilitated a study of Philippians for a group of 20-something women. Their un-churchy vulnerability was refreshing and meant I didn't have to be "on" all the time.
I also agreed to speak at a neighboring church's women's retreat. The church was struggling with unity. Rumors of a split were floating around. In that environment it seemed trite to talk about mentoring, which was my assigned topic.
By the second talk of the morning as I looked out at the women's faces, their pain was obvious. I knew I had to at least try to minister to them. I scrapped my notes and launched into a story about an older woman who mentored me when our church went through a terrible split. It was like watching Sleeping Beauty awaken. Heads lifted and began to nod. Women made eye contact with me for the first time. And the lunch discussion differed completely from the one we'd had at breakfast.
Two women made a beeline to sit with me and through sobs asked if there was hope after the split. I didn't know what was going on in my own spiritual life right then, and yet I could look back on God's provision for that rough time—and relay hope to encourage others.
But ministry was mostly a struggle. I led 11 women from my church on a trip to Nicaragua to work with a ministry that helps women and girls escape sex trafficking. A dark-night side effect became apparent on the first day. Though I had led dozens of mission trips, being unsure of my relationship with God made me uncomfortable dispensing the old tried and true team leader messages from the Bible. So I asked various members to lead morning devotions, and that was the extent of our Bible study.
On our trip evaluation, some women expressed that though they knew God had been at work in the things we did, they had wished for more prayer and spiritual emphasis as a team. It humiliated me, and made me wonder if I should be leading at all.
To Share or not to Share
On occasion I worked up the courage to offer an honest reply to the "How you doing?" question. "Actually not so good," I would say. "God seems really silent lately."
Choosing to share did not always go well, however. I was often taken aback by the lack of empathy from seasoned Christians. "Just remember that Moses had to wander for forty years in the desert."
I would offer a weak smile but inside I wanted to shout, "Do you really think that is helpful?" From an even darker place I whispered, "If God is silent for that long, I will probably try Buddhism."
Yet other times fellow dark-night strugglers came out of the woodwork when I came clean. At a women's retreat for my church, I was asked to share about my experience of facing a series of closed doors. I gripped the microphone with sweaty, shaky hands and spilled my story. After the talk a support group of sorts formed spontaneously. We exchanged wordless hugs and tears. Some of the women were dry-eyed but passed me notes with sobering messages: "It has been five years for me … you are not alone."
I had coffee with two college students whom I knew shared some of my struggles. When they asked how I was, I responded candidly. "Well lately God is silent." Immediately one replied, "That sucks." The other said, "I am there right now." That led to a long, no-easy-answers conversation.
A year into my dark night I had a startling realization. While working so hard for God, my faith had become all about me. Even my restlessness to go out on mission trips was more about my accomplishments than anything else. To hear God speak over my ego, I needed to create space for solitude. It was humbling for a "doer," but I took a break from most of my ministry commitments.
I also didn't attend church every Sunday. I love the community of Christians whom God has given my husband and me. But having to be "on" at church exhausted me. I knew I needed to be with Christians, and God provided people who were "church" for me during that stretch. I became very close with four women who invited me to start meeting with them. With most people I refrained from sharing my struggles because doing so made people uncomfortable. But these women were different. They never flinched when I poured out the things that were breaking my heart. J.R.R. Tolkien warns, "Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens." When the road darkened for me, their unconditional love helped me remain faithful.
But community, though important, wasn't enough to pull me through. I needed to explore some new spiritual practices, and in some cases, return to old ones that had been absent from my life for too long.
By the second year I decided I needed outside help. I had been to marriage counseling and also have seen a therapist for the usual childhood hang-ups, but the dark night issue was different. This hang up was with God. I didn't need a psychologist—I needed spiritual support. The problem was a soul matter. In a book club I attended, we read Susan Isaac's Angry Conversations with God. She writes that when she hit spiritual rock bottom, she took God to couple's counseling. I figured maybe this was what I needed.
I learned about a local spiritual director. I was leery but desperate to hear from God. During the dark days, time spent with Dr. Gotts was one of the most life-giving experiences. She shared about her own dark night, read prayers and Scripture to me, listened without judgment to my raging, and prayed over me. During our sessions Dr. Gotts helped me see God's love for me even in the silence and even in God's refusals to grant my requests.
As Annie Dillard wrote: "You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is neccessary."
During my struggle I became uncomfortable reading the Bible. I grew up memorizing tons of verses, and while I loathed the process, I loved how the Bible's poetic cadences rolled off my tongue like Wordsworth or Shakespeare.
During the dark night experience, I continued to read my Bible most days, but often the words, rather than being beautiful, seemed dagger-like. The apostle Paul felt unbearably accusing, and I could not stomach God's seeming harshness in the Old Testament. King David's psalms were safe. One whole summer I camped out in the Psalms of Ascent with the companionship of Eugene Peterson and his grace-filled classic A Long Obedience in the Same direction.
My spiritual director advised me to stay awhile when I found a Scripture passage that resonated. At some point I quit questioning what helped or what hurt. Still, I can say that what did help were expressions of honest, raw disappointment with God. I found a home in Lamentations: "You have made me to walk in darkness. Even when I call out for help, he shuts out my prayers. You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through" (Lam. 3:8).
But I was also reassured by words from the same beleaguered prophet: "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail" (Lam. 3:2).
Even though I found a way to handle Scripture without sobbing every time I read, prayer as conversation was nonexistent. When a friend asked what I meant by "God is silent," I replied, "What if right now as close friends you kept talking, sharing from your heart and even asking me questions, and I in turn said nothing?" She said, "Wow, that would be hard."
In attempts to continue praying, my orderly prayer time in the morning before work seemed contrived. Not knowing what else to do, I returned to childlike kneeling beside my bed every night. My prayers varied from short and sweet "Here I am Lord" to "How long, Lord?" to simply reciting familiar passages like Psalm 23. Thomas Merton's vulnerable Prayer of Abandonment was for weeks a calming recitation.
My friend Justin relayed that when he was in seminary, he experienced a time when he could not hear from God or create prayers on his own. So he prayed from the Book of Common Prayer. He said knowing such prayers were prayed by others gave him the words to say when he had none.
Up until this time in my spiritual growth, I had mainly stuck with evangelical writers. During the dark night, I started and stopped at least 20 books before it hit me that I was going to have to broaden my pool of authors. I began asking people of other Christian traditions what they were reading and particularly why.
I quickly discovered several new author companions. Classic writers like Evelyn Underhill came alive to me. The honesty of old saints like St. John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Mother Teresa, and Thomas Merton comforted me.
Reading stories of struggle also brought comfort. I couldn't put down books like Half The Sky by journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. It's a harsh account of the global oppression of women. Yet reading of these women's triumphs emboldened me.
During the dark times I tried something that I had never done. I went on a silent retreat. If God was silent, I reasoned, maybe silence was what he wanted from me. Some friends and I were reading Ruth Haley Barton's Sacred Rhythms in which Barton invited readers to "unplug" by attending a silent retreat. I found one at a Jesuit Center nearby.
The silent retreat was one of the most significant healing practices for me. I passed the hours curled up on the bed in my tiny room and stretched out on a lawn chair in the sun by the edge of the lake. I did not hear God specifically, but I could feel his love in the consistent lapping of the waves, the gracefulness of the seagull, the deep purple and brilliant yellow of the wild flowers.
The rule of silence was something I had never experienced, and it was freeing. I didn't have to be "on" or respond with the appropriate words—I could just be.
During my dark night, I couldn't help wondering: Did I bring this on myself? Maybe I had moved away, not God. And after a few years, unhealthy desires to find relief elsewhere grew stronger.
One afternoon at a session with Dr. Gotts, I plopped down and said, "How does sin play into the dark night?" Dr. Gotts never flinched. "Temptation is one of the parts of the dark night."
When Claudia, a pastor friend, described this part of her dark night experience, she said it was "a desire to take the next flight out of town anywhere. I was disappointed with people, children, marriage, church, God, parents, siblings—about everything and everyone."
Claudia recorded a prayer in her journal: "Father, I know my heart sometimes feels bitter. I don't want these thoughts or desires anywhere within me and I definitely don't want them escaping my lips."
While the temptations during the dark night were terrifying, praying for deliverance from them proved to be the part that brought me closest to God. After so much time in the darkness, I felt as though I was in a spiritual coma, and strangely enough wrestling with sin made me realize that at least I was awake and alive!
My prayers became SOS signals, cries from someone beaten down but still breathing. Everywhere I taped up three-by-five note cards scribbled with deliverance verses. One remains over my desk today: "Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us" (2 Cor. 1:9-10, emphasis mine).
Eugene Peterson's words reassured that God would not abandon me: "All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. Neither our feelings of depression nor the facts of suffering nor the possibilities of defection are evidence that God has abandoned us."
Today I walk with a spiritual limp. Though I couldn't see it at the time, yet as I look back, I can see God's presence in the midst of the pain and isolation, and it increases my faith. Somewhere along the way I had bought into what Ruth Haley Barton describes as a dark side of leadership: "Poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort."
Conservationist Wendell Berry makes a fitting analogy from nature about struggles in our spiritual life: "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The impeded stream is the one that sings."
During the dark night I learned that God's "no" to my prayers was more actually a gracious "yes" to what my soul desperately needed. And his silence was an invitation to "be still" in a more intimate relationship with him.
Lesa Engelthaler is a journalist and member of Woodcreek Church in Dallas, Texas.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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