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The Dark Night of the Soul
Written By Bobby Schuller
This morning, I want to talk to those of you who feel as though you are caught in a place of suffering. Last week, I talked about hope and the need for hope in the midst of darkness and trying times, and I want to continue that conversation with the idea of the dark night of the soul.
Many of you listening, either here or on television, are going through some things in your lives that you never thought you would go through. Many of us are experiencing loss and not just loss, but a long-term, taxing drag on life. Not a daily or monthly, but a yearly loss. This feeling is that maybe this will never end. Many of you feel alone. Some of you feel like you're losing your faith or doubting God.
I want to begin by, first, saying that I love you, my heart goes out to you, and that God loves you. In this time, you must hope and understand that tomorrow's day is brighter. Don't throw away tomorrow. Believe that God has something special for you, and that, if you give up, you'll never know what that special thing is.
I want to convince you, this morning, that sometimes suffering is a part of life. God, I don't believe, causes us to suffer, but He does come in the midst of our dark night, of our coldness, of our hurting and our woundedness, and builds us up if we have faith in Him. The scripture says, "What the devil meant for bad, God means for good." He will take the very worst, the most awful things, and He can build the best out of the individual who suffers. This time of suffering, doubting, or struggling, we call it the dark night of the soul.
I want to begin this morning by sharing with you a story. We were in Swaziland as a church, the Crystal Cathedral. More than 500 of us went to Swaziland to work with the hungry and those who were suffering with AIDS. We traveled around all Swaziland planting gardens and helping people rebuild their economy and with the hunger issue. It was quite difficult, honestly, because we saw a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. One out of every five people in that country had HIV or AIDS, so that means everybody knew someone or had lost someone from this deadly disease. There was this constant sense of suffering and struggle.
I remember, as we were winding up the trip, we attended a dinner and half of the people attending were Swazi citizens - all of them had suffered real loss from AIDS. Many missionaries, some dignitaries, and even a member of the royal family were there. And we were having a dinner together. As we finished the meal, they asked four people to pray. I was the last one to pray.
But right before I prayed, a young seminarian got up and prayed something like this: "Dear Lord, we know that You have sent AIDS to Swaziland and that it didn't catch You by surprise. We know that AIDS and hunger and starvation is all a part of Your big plan. We know that You are glorified in these AIDS and You are glorified in the hunger, and that gives us hope. Amen." And he sat down.
I was to go up after this young man, and I could see now a Swazi woman who was weeping. She was weeping probably because she had lost someone to AIDS or hunger. She was probably weeping even more because she thought that what he said was actually true.
And I stood up and I said, "Before I pray, I have to reject that prayer, which was really a statement of a philosophy that I don't adhere to. I don't think God sends AIDS, or hunger, or punishment. I think that the glory of God is not found in AIDS or loss or disease, but the glory of God is found when empty stomachs are filled! The glory of God is found when AIDS are healed. The glory of God is found when suffering ends! And the glory of God shines most brightly in the darkness. When people suffer and find themselves in places from which they think they cannot escape, God shines brighter than all of the darkness." I proclaimed to that gathering that the glory of God is found in the midst of suffering, not because God sends the suffering, but because He sends the Comforter to build up His church and His people to live joyous and hope-filled lives. And that Christians are audacious enough to suggest that even in the midst of suffering, we can grow and be happy and be filled with joy. We actually believe that God is bigger than AIDS, that He is bigger than hunger, and all of those things that cause suffering. We believe that, in the end, Jesus will save everything.
But how do we, as Christians, become the type of persons that can say with real honesty that we are happy or joy-filled even in the midst of suffering because we live in the kingdom of God. How could we be people like this? Well, I think that we have to understand that sometimes in the midst of our darkness, we learn and grow a great deal. And that we must not make either of these two mistakes.
The FIRST mistake we must not make is to GET MAD AT GOD or think, well, God put this suffering on me, or God is punishing me to get back at me, or something similar to that.
The SECOND mistake that we must not make is to say, in the midst of suffering, I must PRETEND THAT EVERYTHING IS FINE. I must stay busy, do things, wear masks, and pretend as if everything is happy. Because, even in that mistake, we deny the fact that Christ, Himself, is suffering and we miss out on the solidarity. Too often in the church, we think that joy is an instant, over-the-counter, microwave thing that is given, rather than something that is gained through the perseverance of suffering and the hope that comes.
Let me explain:
Did you know that in the book of Psalms there are a hundred and fifty psalms? Collectively, they were used as a hymnal for Jewish people. And, today, we sing psalms all the time, incorporating them into our hymns and praise music.
The psalms we most always sing are the positive ones, about how everything is going great and everything is wonderful. Nevertheless, three quarters of the psalms are those of lament, saying such things as: "Oh God, where are You?" "Oh God, why have You forgotten me?" "Why have You made me sick?" "Why have You caused our enemies to triumph?" "Oh God, why is everything falling down on me?"
Also, almost every Psalm is like a roller coaster ride. There's this tension in what the Psalmist saying, that everything is horrible, everyone is suffering, but still there's hope: "I put my hope in You, God, but no, You don't like me and You've forgotten about me and my enemies mock me, but still I'll put my hope in You."
Let me explain more. To become a person who can be happy in all things, we must become people who can get through trials. Janet Hagberg says that all believers go through the same growth stages, where they come to faith and then grow in the same spiritual way. Many people when they come to faith, at first experience total abandon to God. Then there's a stage of learning, of discipleship: "Tell me what I'm supposed to do. Tell me how to pray, how to kneel at church. Tell me which Bible verses I ought to read, and how I should act." Then the person becomes very productive and things start to succeed.
Maybe you've felt this way. You start to volunteer with joy and you share your story with people, and all these great things start to happen. You feel like: "Wow, my faith is really doing something impressive. This is amazing. I can really see that I'm a productive person in my faith."
But then something always happens after that, if you continue to grow. You begin to look inwardly. You begin to go to some of the dark and wounded places of your own heart. And if you continue to walk into that abyss, the darkness, the woundedness, the loneliness, the failures of your own life, and begin to look at them in your heart, you will ultimately hit this thing we call "The wall." The wall is what the Psalmist is singing about when he asks, "Where are You God?" The wall can be a flood of doubts, a sense of loneliness, a feeling of irrelevance, a sense of nihilism, that nothing matters and that nothing has value. Then the wall hits hard. And it always hits you when you least expect it.
I remember when I was at a stage in my life where I wasn't in the midst of tragedy, but I just started doubting a lot of the things about my faith, and a lot of tough things started happening in my life. I was going through all sorts of changes, I was wondering about it all, and then I had a dream in the midst of the struggle:
I was walking down a road and then I started running. And all of a sudden, I came upon this massive wooden wall. It was knotty and big, and it was one solid piece from one side to the other. It seemed like it went on for eternity. As I looked up, it was just this massive wall. I wanted to break through the wall, but I realized I couldn't climb the wall, I couldn't go around the wall, I couldn't dig under it. I wondered what I was going to do with this big wall. I started to weep. And, as I did, I started to hit the wall with my fist over and over until my knuckles started to bleed. Screaming at the wall, I asked it to fall down, to let me go, to allow me to continue moving. Finally, the weeping ceased and I stopped hitting the wall. Then I stepped back and could see that I wasn't hitting a wall; I was hitting a giant tree. I looked up as this massive tree that reached up into the sky and into the clouds. With a sense of calm and rest, I sat there under the shade of the tree and it brought me peace.
I remember what it felt like going into this dark time. It was very much connected to my faith. It was something very simple. I read somewhere that the book of Mark was written down 30 years after Jesus' ministry. That really bothered me. Many things about how I viewed the Bible started to frustrate me and I really didn't know what to do with this frustration. I hadn't yet learned about how people memorized things. I hadn't learned that Mark, for example, had probably already memorized the whole Tenach, the Hebrew Bible. So, without this knowledge and understanding, I started to wonder if the Bible was real. If God was real. And, what was I to do with this doubt?
I remember playing piano. I was playing Beethoven's "Pathetique." It was a song I learned when I was 15 and I hadn't played it in years. I remember playing this song and I played it perfectly from beginning to end, even though I hadn't played it for many years. Then I began to weep because I realized that, in the same way, the gospel of Mark in the Bible could be written many years after the events happened.
But, that really wasn't the point. The point was that, in that moment, I had to sit in the darkness, in the doubt, and in the struggle. I had to wait there on the Lord and I couldn't force any of it to end. Then, organically and naturally, God brought me out of that dark time and prepared me to be a new person. That had to happen for me to go to seminary because, when you go to seminary, much of what you believe is challenged as you're prepared to be a pastor.
So, we don't realize sometimes when we go through life, through this dark night of the soul where we feel like God has abandoned us, that for whatever reason, He is probably a lot closer than you think. Sometimes in the dark of the soul, when you wonder if God even exists, if He hears your prayers, or if He's even around, He may be closer to you than He has ever been. We become thirsty so that we recognize what we truly thirst for. We thirst for God.
Sometimes when we are completely alone, it teaches us that we are not alone at all, but that God is always with us. Something about the dark night of the soul teaches us that we serve and worship a wounded God; a God who has children that reject Him and don't believe in Him and don't want Him. A God who wants to rescue a world that continues to destroy itself. A God who hates evil and watches how evil destroys His kids. And we serve a scarred Jesus. You know Jesus still has His scars today. We serve a scarred and wounded healer in Jesus Christ who walks alongside us and says, "I am suffering, too. I'm wounded, too, and I'm with you."
Someday, when we emerge from the darkness, from the dark night of the soul, we become much stronger persons. We no longer rely so much on circumstance and on the thorns of this world, but we rely on an inner voice, a deep voice of love that says, "I'm with you, I love you, I care for you, and I will never leave you." Our souls are purged of many of the things that don't matter, and we start to focus on the things that really do matter.
It's so wonderful when the sun finally dawns on a cold night. How wonderful it is to be reborn into something different, a new walk, a new stage in your faith. You come out of suffering sometimes scarred but you come out, anyway, a stronger person. You now become, yourself, a wounded healer.
I was walking this morning, as I do every Sunday. I leave my house very early in the morning, and I go to this place called Peter's Canyon. I go before the sun even rises. I walk around to pray and to prepare my soul so that I will preach and do ministry from a centered place. And, as I began to walk around this morning, I was amazed at how cold it was. I was wearing a shirt, a sweater, and long pants, and I still felt cold as I walked through the ravine by the water. A marine layer was coming in. I had read how it was going to be almost a hundred degrees today, and could hardly believe in that cold morning that eventually in that same day it would become so warm.
That's how it is in the midst of the dark night. You never believe, when you're in the midst of your cold suffering or you're hurt, that this is actually going to be a hundred-degree day, that it's going to be sunny and hot and wonderful. When you're in the midst of a dark time, when you're walking in the marine layer, when you're alone, it just feels like this is the reality. Remember: The night is always coldest and darkest at the very end. Then soon, over the horizon, you will see a purple glow with a little bit of orange, and the sun will begin to rise and warm your heart. Remember and keep hope that in the dark night, for God is developing something in you and preparing you for a new reality, a new purpose, maybe a huge calling. But if you give up and you quit and you throw away tomorrow, you will never know what that calling is.
I'm ashamed to say that when I was a teenager I had little love for this ministry. Not that I hated it, but I just didn't really care about it, honestly. Maybe it's because, when you're a teenager, there's always this bit of contempt for anything about what your parents do. I remember thinking it was a silly thing. I didn't think much about it. Then, I remember the first day that I realized how important the Hour of Power was.
I was in Israel and I met a man who was a descendent of King David. He was a Jewish, and because of his lineage to King David, he'd been given a special plot of land by the Israeli government. He was a member of the Israeli Mossad, the intelligence arm of the Israeli government. He shared with me the details of his near-death experience, where he said Jesus came to him and revealed Himself to him. And this Jewish man became a Christian, which now created a tension in his life. When I met him, he invited me to his land. Once there, he told me stories about his life, and we prayed together on this mountainside. It was really a wonderful thing. Then he said, "I want you to talk to my wife." So, by satellite phone I connected with his wife, a Canadian.
As we were talking on the phone, she said, "Are you a Schuller?" When I said yes, she continued, saying, "It is one of my life dreams to talk to a Schuller to tell you this story. Twenty years ago, I was married to a pastor who would beat me over and over. He was legalistic, angry, and mean, and then he would go in front of everybody else and he would be really nice and kind. I felt like I was his slave, trapped, and this happened for years. Then I started to watch the Hour of Power, and it gave me hope that maybe God could change my situation, or lift me up out of this, or do something. So, one day I decided to send some money to the Hour of Power and I got this little gold necklace." You might remember it, it says, "God Loves You and So Do I." And she says, "It came in the mail and my husband found it. When he realized that I had sent money to your ministry, he beat me so bad that it sent me to the hospital. But I held onto that cross, and it gave me hope, and I believed that there could be a new tomorrow and there was."
Then she told me the story about how she left her husband, and created this new life because of Hour of Power. She shared how she held onto that cross, and now has a ministry to battered women. Do I think that God sent a pastor to beat her so that she would have a ministry to battered women? Absolutely not. But in the midst of an evil world, God can take anything and bring hope and healing, and that's what this ministry does. We bring hope and healing to the world.
My prayer is that you would not lose that vision in the midst of your darkness and suffering. That, as you struggle, you would know that God is a breath away, that He's right next to you, and within you, guiding you and believing in you, and hoping that you will trust that your suffering will end and that a new day is dawning. In Jesus' name, amen.