What exactly is a “dark night of the soul?” The phrase comes from a poem written by the 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet, St. John of the Cross, but it is described in a 2021 article by R. C. Sproul this way:
This phenomenon describes a malady that the greatest of Christians have suffered from time to time. It was the malady that provoked David to soak his pillow with tears. It was the malady that earned for Jeremiah the sobriquet, “The Weeping Prophet.” It was the malady that so afflicted Martin Luther that his melancholy threatened to destroy him. This is no ordinary fit of depression, but it is a depression that is linked to a crisis of faith, a crisis that comes when one senses the absence of God or gives rise to a feeling of abandonment by Him.
Only a handful of people know that I have been struggling through a “dark night of the soul” over the past couple of years. Only my ever-by-my-side husband knows just how deeply dark this struggle has been at times. It has been truly agonizing. I eventually pulled inside myself as I asked questions I haven’t asked since I was twenty-one and my brother was killed. That long-ago period of running away and questioning eventually led to a new, much deeper and richer relationship with God and, after years, resulted in a life of service to him as Scott and I found so much joy in following God into our adoption journeys and became a weird and beautiful family of twenty-five people.
But over the past few years, as life gradually got harder and harder — much harder than anyone outside of our four walls knows — the joy began to fade and then become so blurry that, at times, I wasn’t sure it had ever been real. I began to dissect everything I’ve ever believed since that season in my life as a lost twenty-one-year-old child. The fear that maybe none of it was true was suffocating at times. The panic it induced as my cries for help were met with years of silence, was at times more than I thought I could survive. Maybe some of you who follow me on Facebook noticed that, quite a while back, I stopped posting some of my favorite quotes. I felt strongly that I could not post things that I was no longer sure I believed. This was a time for introspection and pleas for understanding to a Father I hoped was real and, somewhere out there, seeing my tears and hearing my pained cries for help.
Finally, as the world entered this year of 2022, I pulled an old book off of our bookshelves. I hadn’t read this book in many, many years. I decided to start again, and read it very slowly, but this time, as a little child who knew nothing of this God I was trying to figure out. I sometimes only read a few sentences, trying to digest the words, chew on them, suck out any possible guidance they might hold for me. I highlighted and underlined and made notes in the margins of the book as I poured myself honestly into this journey. Some of these were angry notes, punctuated by exclamation marks, question marks, and accusations hurled at this God who might be out there. Tears fell on the pages as I tried to be open to insight and leading, but recognized my inability to believe.
As I read, life got harder. God became even more silent, which didn’t even seem possible.
I finished the book the first time in the late spring. I decided to go back and read it again. As I started through it this second time, I noticed that I was seeing it . . . hmmmm . . . maybe not through a different lens, but certainly at a slightly different angle. I wasn’t so angry, although I was still asking many of the same questions. My heart was softer and more open to understanding as I searched, even though life still kept getting harder. Then, by the time I reached page seventy-two during this second reading, our family entered a crisis that I never, ever dreamed we would have to face. A nightmare that I surely would never have believed I could survive. I won’t share those details here, but will say that it was directly connected to the brokenness our children have been forced to walk with every day of their lives because of trauma inflicted on them in their early lives by people who were charged with caring for these babies. People who lied when they said they would accept this responsibility and be faithful.
I know for sure that, had I not already been through this book once, I would not have been able to face all that followed once this crisis entered our lives. It truly undid many of us as our world rocked and every fragment of stability in our lives, whether real or imagined, crumbled into dust. I tried to hold onto the God that I was beginning to feel and sense in new ways, tried to trust him to hold me during the many, many times I wasn’t strong enough to hold on, and I kept reading.
I have finished the book a second time, and we are still in the midst of this crisis, although we are adjusting to a new norm and even seeing beauty beginning to emerge from what was before only a pile of ashes. And I have decided to read through the book one more time.
I don’t yet know exactly where this will lead. I sense a shifting inside myself, I think even on a deeper level than I’ve ever been aware of before. But it is very, very slow; as if I’m being rebuilt from the foundation up. I also still find myself sometimes unable to trust again, circling back to the same questions. Although, I can say that those times are less frequent, and the periods of intense darkness and fear are shorter-lived each time. I think this could be defined as progress, and it is happening in spite of the fact that life is still getting harder each day. Just last night, I had a sobbing-from-the-depths-of-my-soul session, as I ache to better understand the unmet needs and the silence that answers our petitions.
I’m not talking about the disappointment of not being able to take family vacations to the beach, or buy nice things. But neither am I talking about watching my children starve or go without shelter or medical care.
I am, though, talking about having to borrow money from our kids to keep our water and lights turned on — kids who are working hard to save their paychecks so they can take steps to get out into the world and begin their lives.
About knowing the heartbreak of not being able to celebrate the most recent four kids’ birthdays at all because there is no money to buy presents. And the fear that Christmas is coming, and once again, we have no way to provide gifts for the kids.
About the exhausting daily struggle of truly never-ending appointments (usually at least twenty a week now), and the tremendous extra stress connected to the crisis I mentioned above, as well as desperately-needed clothes and shoes that we have no way to buy for the kids. Cars that need to be repaired, but can’t be. The sadness of seeing such young children trying to manage this kind of stress, day after day, as Scott and I try to model the faith we aren’t sure we still possess.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not asking for pity or help or even anything at all in response to this honest sharing, and I won’t go on, but the pain and fear and challenges are real. They have been for years, and we have slowly, slowly been being worn down. We can see all the many ways in the past that God did provide, eventually, and even ways in which he continues to provide. But the weariness of waiting and praying year after year, and also seeing many large prayers still not answered, has left us tired.
How does the truth of who and what God is fit into this picture? I may not ever really know the answer to this question in this life here on earth. I feel certain that I won’t. But I do continue to pray that I will reach places where I will understand better, and places where it won’t matter so much that I don’t understand. I may begin to post excerpts from the book going forward now. We’ll see. I just want to be held and whispered to by this God I long to trust more as I continue this journey. This search for meaning and understanding. A true knowing of God on a deeper level as I unwrap myself and acknowledge and expose all the broken, and sometimes ugly, pieces to a Father who already knows about every one of them and loves me anyway. I think.
I want to share this excerpt here, from Chapter Two, as I begin my third time through this book:
[Not] many of us ever naturally say that, in the light of the knowledge of God which we have come to enjoy, past disappointments and present heartbreaks, as the world counts heartbreaks, don’t matter. For the plain fact is that to most of us, they do matter. We live with them as our “crosses” (so we call them). Constantly we find ourselves slipping into bitterness and apathy and gloom as we reflect on them, which we frequently do. The attitude we show to the world is a sort of dried-up stoicism, miles removed from the “joy unspeakable and full of glory” which Peter took for granted that his readers were displaying (1 Peter 1:8). “Poor souls,” our friends say of us, “how they’ve suffered.” And that is just what we feel about ourselves! But these private mock heroics have no place at all in the minds of those who really know God. They never brood on might-have-beens; they never think of the things they have missed, only of what they have gained. “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ,” wrote Paul. “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . I want to know Christ” (Philippians 3:7-10). When Paul says he counts the things he lost rubbish, he means not merely that he does not think of them as having any value, but also that he does not live with them constantly in his mind. . . Yet this, in effect, is what many of us do. It shows how little we have in the way of true knowledge of God. We need frankly to face ourselves at this point.
That’s really all I have to say. I’m searching. I’m seeking light and truth and growth and the ability to say with joy and conviction and assurance, Yes, I have known this God. He is worthy of my trust, and all these things I put in the category of “loss” are but rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.