As a pastor and therapist, I often encounter people whose lives have been invaded by despair. Usually they approach me, not quite sure what's going on. What's the difference between depression and the dark night? Is there a difference? And what practical steps can we take to move through it and grow spiritually and emotionally?
The Mind/Spirit divide
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila envisioned the dark night as a time of spiritual purging and illumination, but they weren't strict dualists. They understood that psychological dynamics are often at play in a dark night experience. Though they lacked modern categories and definitions, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day. St. John taught that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night. For him, it wasn't an either/or, but more often a both/and. The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.
Unfortunately we've failed to learn this valuable lesson. Often psychologists see depression merely as a neurochemical problem that needs to be fixed. And too often Christians spiritualize psychological maladies that may require further expertise. I read recently that a pastor was counseling sex addicts to avoid therapy and to choose a "Gospel Cure." According to this pastor, conquering sex addiction was simply a matter of getting honest about our spiritual condition and embracing God's love. On the other side, I find that many therapists, (Christian therapists, too), have little insight into employing spiritual disciplines, or challenging clients to avail themselves of the spiritual benefits of worship, the liturgy, and the sacraments. This divide would have been completely foreign to St. Teresa or St. John.
One lesson we learn from the ancient mystics is that dark nights are not problems, but opportunities. Grasping this reality moves us beyond the question "How do we fix this?" to the question "What might I learn in this?"
Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues. What we call difficulty or failure or even a "psychological issue" can occasion moments of spiritual awakening. The purpose of the dark night is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken us to a much simpler desire for intimacy with God. I find in my work that this is exactly what people want—they'd just like to know God, more purely, more simply, more deeply.
Consider this moment to be an opportunity to see what Jesus may be up to in your life, or in the lives of those you counsel. What you might find is that you're being invited into the glorious purging of the dark night, where the old self and its old loves are shed and replaced by a new and deeper love for Jesus, for others, and even for you—a beloved son or daughter of a heavenly Father who longs to see you whole.
Chuck DeGroat is vice president of Newbigin House of Studies, a therapist, and a pastor at City Church San Francisco.
Adapted from "Spiritual or Psychological," by Chuck DeGroat, Leadership Journal. Click here to read the original article in its entirety and for reprint information.