Have you felt far from God? Do you find yourself wondering what in the world God is doing amidst all that is hard? I would argue that a dark night of the soul is a healthy response to pain, brokenness, or suffering. We need to create space for these seasons of wrestling with God—not try to shove them aside or stigmatize them.
In today’s episode, here’s what we cover:
1. What is a dark night of the soul?
2. How is it different from depression?
3. Why does God allow us to feel far from him at times?
4. How a dark night of the soul can bring us together
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Hey, everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. I'm glad you're here. I am loving this series on Faith Talks where we're looking at some theological concepts that primarily relate to our faith journeys through a psychological lens.
These things go hand in hand. As you know, everything we do on this podcast brings together faith and psychology, and in today's episode, I want to talk to you about a concept that is known as “the dark night of the soul”, and it's a concept I've thought about a lot and read about a lot over the years. It's one I've experienced. It's one I've learned to help others differentiate from an experience of depression.
In psychology, we are often quick to diagnose certain symptoms as depression, when sometimes in certain situations, you might be experiencing a cluster of symptoms, a cluster of things that are hard, that are more appropriately categorized as a spiritual dark night of the soul.
It's more spiritually rooted versus emotionally or psychologically rooted. It's a fine line. It's an important distinction. And I want to go into that. Today, I want to help you understand what some of those differences are.
Before we dive into today's topic, I would love to get your questions on two more topics that are coming up in the future. The first is the topic of forgiveness. I think this is a really hard topic for a lot of us. And I'd love to get your questions.
What questions do you have about forgiveness? The second is the topic of grace. What does it mean to receive grace? What does it mean to give grace? I'd love to find out from you, what are your questions on those two topics? There are a couple of ways that you can leave me your questions.
The easiest way is to go to The Best of You question doc link in the episode show notes. You can find that right here where you're listening to the podcast. You can find it on my website, dralisoncook.com/podcast.
You can leave questions in your comments on my website, on social media, anywhere that you find me. As we look ahead to talking about forgiveness and grace, I'd love to know what questions you have. And also, if you have questions after today's episode about the dark night of the soul, leave those questions there as well.
What is a dark night of the soul? Well, the term “Dark Night of the Soul”, originates from a book. It was actually a poem that was written by St. John of the Cross. St. John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic. He was a monk. He lived in the 16th century. He was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila. If you're familiar with her work, they would write letters to each other.
He was in a Carmelite monastery. She was in a nunnery. They were friends. They wrote letters. They were deep lovers of Jesus, deep thinkers, prolific writers. And St. John of the Cross wrote this whole book called The Dark Night of the Soul. It's a wonderful book, about this experience of not feeling close to God, essentially feeling distant from God, feeling desolate, empty, even as he wasn't questioning his faith.
St. John of the cross loved Jesus. He was a believer. He was a devout Christian, a devout believer in God. What's interesting about the dark night of the soul is that he wrote it while he was in prison. He had been part of some reform efforts that were not welcome in the society as a whole. He was put in prison and during that time suffered really pretty intense, I would say, psychological abuse and mistreatment.
He was by himself. This lasted for about nine months. And after he got out of prison is when he wrote about the dark night of the soul. Often a dark night of the soul correlates with an experience of suffering. You go through something hard. Something really terrible happens. Perhaps you're not imprisoned literally as St. John of the Cross was, but maybe you've gone through a prolonged season of suffering.
Maybe a health crisis or the loss of someone you love, or a season of prolonged loneliness of being alone and yearning and not seeing answered prayers, not seeing those things you've hoped for come to pass. Prolonged periods of suffering.
It doesn't matter how big your faith is. This happens. Really hard things happen in our lives. Often, this leads to what we call a dark night of the soul. Now, how is a dark night of the soul different from what we would talk about as depression?
And I really want to make this distinction today because I think it's important. It's really important to name depression accurately. It's really important if you're going through a bout with depression or if you struggle with depression to understand what it is to have it diagnosed properly and to get treated properly.
It's important to name a spiritual dark night of the soul accurately, because it's a different type of suffering and it requires a different type of intervention. How are they different?
Well, number one, a dark night of the soul is primarily a spiritual journey. It's primarily characterized by feeling far from God by feeling maybe even a little bit disillusioned with God, wondering where God is, wondering why God isn't showing up, wondering why some of the things you had hoped for and, and even planned on or put your faith in haven't come to fruition.
And there's a wandering, not necessarily a loss of. It's a questioning of where are you, God? We see it all throughout the Psalms–where are you, God? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me? We see it in the life of Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, when he asks God, where are you, God? Why have you forsaken me? We see these moments where it feels like there's the absence of God. This is a dark night of the soul.
Depression, on the other hand, is a primarily psychological condition. It might arise out of events, similarly to a dark night of the soul. It might come out of trauma, might come out of loss. It might come out of stress. It might come because you have a biological disposition, but instead of questioning God, you might feel lethargic all the time.
You might notice sleep disturbances. You might have trouble concentrating. You might have a hard time eating. You might not want to get out of bed. You might have lost interest in some of the things you normally love to do, in a sort of a dark mood that doesn't feel constructive in any way.
And there's a persistent sadness, sometimes an anxiety, a loss of interest in activities that you found pleasurable. Again, it's hard to sleep. You might notice that it's hard to eat. You have a hard time engaging in things that you normally like to do. You might have persistent negative self talk, a feeling of hopelessness.
And this goes on. A lot of these symptoms we all feel from time to time, but you feel a sort of persistent heaviness and a lot of these symptoms over the course of several weeks without any alleviation and without any sense of meaning or purpose.
If you're feeling really significantly sad, you can't stop crying, things that you normally like to do no longer bring you joy, you're struggling to get out of bed in the morning. maybe you are persistently racked with negative self talk, you feel hopeless, you might even be contemplating thoughts of death or suicide–this is really important to pay attention to, and you want to reach out for professional help.
You want to get help because when we move into seasons of depression, we need interventions. You might even have spiritual faith while you're experiencing depression but you can't get yourself out of a rut, out of negative thinking. You can't get yourself into your rhythms that you know would be healthy for you. They're not working. That's when you want to consider therapy.
You might consider medication to help you. You might see a psychiatrist. You want to get support. You don't want to be alone in that. You want to move through depression, lift your mood so that you can function in a normal way. You want to bring the floor up. You don't want to stay there.
There's nothing good that comes out of that. You want to get help. And it's nuanced, a spiritual dark night of the soul. You might not feel a lot of joy. You might not necessarily feel a lot of pleasure, but you are connected with a sort of spiritual seeking.
There's a sense of questioning. There's a sense of crying out to God. There's a sense of purpose, even if you don't understand what the purpose is. You're trying to arrive at a deeper truth, at a deeper awareness, at a deeper understanding of God and God feels distant and it's uncomfortable. It's often very disorienting, but it's very clearly a spiritual journey.
For example, if you're going through a dark night of the soul, you're probably going through your normal day to day rhythms. You're not struggling to get out of bed, you're not struggling to sleep, your appetite isn't gone, you're not experiencing some of those biological and physical symptoms of depression.
Instead, as you're going about your normal rhythms, as you're living your life, which you're not struggling to do, you're keenly aware of spiritual questioning. You might be aware that you don't feel that God is close to you. When you go to pray, you might not have that sense of connection or intimacy of, oh, this is what it feels like when God is near me.
That might be gone and it can be very disorienting. You might be going through the motions of prayer, but not really feeling connected with God. You might be asking hard questions of God. I don't understand, God. It doesn't feel like you're here. I don't understand this thing that happened. And the old ways that I used to make sense of things aren't really working anymore.
Maybe I'm even questioning that specific scripture that used to make sense to me. That particular passage of scripture isn't making sense to me anymore. Again, unlike depression, you are going about your day to day processes. Your biological functions are not interrupted.
In a dark night of the soul, but you're really questioning, you're really struggling, but you're struggling spiritually. You're asking questions of God. You might be wrestling with God. You might not be clear about God. You might be frustrated with God. You might be angry with God. You might be wondering, where are you, God? Why aren't you showing up?
I want to be clear. All of those things, wrestling with God, being frustrated with God, asking God why he's not showing up–all of those things are suggestive of a faith that is quite robust. When we're going to God with those questions, with those frustrations, when we're working out those feelings of where are you God, we are paradoxically turning toward God.
We're wrestling with God, but we don't feel the answers. We don't feel the relief that at other times and at other seasons of our life we felt. I'll tell you about my life. I've had moments of both.
I've had those moments where God was close. No matter what I was going through, I could connect to God. No matter how much I was struggling, I had a sense of Christ's presence with me, of God's presence with me. There was a deep feeling of hope, even amidst painful circumstances.
And it means the world when you have that, you're like, it's going to be okay. You feel it. And you know it. And God is right there with me. And it's amazing. There are also seasons that we go through where we're struggling, where we're suffering, where something happens that doesn't make sense. And we don't feel God's presence.
We don't feel God's closeness. In fact, we might feel abandoned. We might feel alone. We might feel like God's not there. We might feel like we don't get that emotional sense of “it's going to be okay, God is right here”. We don't get that emotional sense of “God's with me, even in my pain”. We might even feel quite abandoned.
This is a dark night of the soul and it's normal. This is what I want you to hear me say today. It's normal. If you're feeling like, man, I'm praying, I'm struggling, and I don't feel God's presence. I don't feel his assurance. I don't feel his nearness. I don't feel his comfort. I don't even feel his guidance. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. I'm praying. I'm trying, I'm going about doing the things I'm supposed to do. You may well be experiencing one of these dark nights of the soul.
A season of spiritual darkness. It doesn't mean you're losing your faith. It doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It doesn't mean you're not doing things right. These are well validated spiritual seasons that some of the greatest spiritual leaders of history talk about.
And to give you a few names of people who have written about this idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, Mother Theresa talks a lot about her Dark Night of the Soul. CS Lewis is another one. Martin Luther King, Jr. Talked about his dark nights of the soul, and many more great thinkers in the faith describe going through these seasons of feeling far from God.
In the Bible, we see it in the story of Job. We see a story of a man who feels it. God doesn't step in right away as Job is interacting with his friends and questioning his circumstances. God doesn't enter in right away with quick fix platitudes or assurances. Job works it out for a while.
We see it in Jesus. We see these moments with Jesus, where he wrestles with God for those moments, and he doesn't feel God's closeness. The question might be, why? Why does God do this? Why, sometimes, does God not?
I think about the scripture that says, if we draw near to God, God draws near to us. And I believe that that is true. I also believe that we don't always feel God's nearness. Things can happen where it's hard to experience God's nearness. So, why does God allow those seasons where we don't experience his nearness?
Well, a lot of really smart people have written on this topic. I'm going to try to summarize a few of those reasons based on my own research and my own work. The great mystics of the faith, including St. John of the Cross, talk about these dark nights of the soul as these seasons of cleansing the soul where we have to give up some of our attachments.
And if you think about your faith, we have faith in God. We love God. We believe in God, but if you're human, inevitably these attachments creep in where our faith is really in this idea of, well, if I love God, my life will work out okay. Or if I do the right thing, I'll get the right result. Or if I love God enough, my life will look a certain way. I'll be blessed. Everything will look good on the surface.
And gosh, it's not the way life works. It's not the way life works. And when we go through these dark nights of the soul, something happens that is hard and, and it forces us to reckon with some of those attachments.
But wait a minute, God, I thought you promised me good things. I thought if I put my trust in you, these bad things wouldn't happen. And God allows a little bit of that wrestling. Is that really what I promised you? I didn't promise you that you wouldn't go through hard times. That's not what God actually promised.
I promised I would be with you. I promised you wouldn't be alone. I promised you would grow. I promised you purpose and hope. I didn't promise you that these relationships wouldn't fall apart. I didn't promise you that other people won't ever hurt you. I didn't promise you that there wouldn't be sickness, that there wouldn't be suffering.
We live in a broken world. Hard things happen as a result of our own behaviors, as a result of other people's behaviors. God doesn't promise that those things won't happen. It's not a formula. This Christian life of if I do all the right things, I'll get all the right results. It's not always the way it works. It's not, but we can subtly begin to believe that.
And when we go through these dark nights of the soul, I believe sometimes it's a complicated nuanced thing, but a lot of it is yes, this hard thing happened. It's true. I can have compassion for what's hard. And as I am honoring and bearing witness to the truth of something hard that is happening in my life, it's forcing me to ask deeper questions of God.
Why God? Why would you allow this to happen? I don't understand. And I think somewhere In that intersection of facing what's hard really honestly, of really honestly taking a look at what's hard in our lives, of what's not going right, whether it's our own fault or whether someone else has hurt us, and taking what's hard and really going to God with it and saying, God, I don't like this. This doesn't feel fair. What's going on here? Did I bring this on myself? Why would you allow this? God allows a refining process.
He allows a process for us to grow deeper in our relationship with Him that demands we go through a season of darkness. It's not to hurt us. It's to help us grow stronger. It's to help us deepen. It's to help us understand God better.
Sometimes we have to shed old beliefs, old ways, old ruts of thinking we've gotten in. And it can feel like a death. It can feel like a loss. It can feel like we're losing everything we knew. I don't understand, God, why everything is upside down. This isn't how it was supposed to happen. How can you do this?
But in that wrestling, as we let go and we turn to God with those questions, and again, it can feel like you are free falling. This doesn't make sense and it feels like a dark night of the soul. I don't understand, but somewhere in that freefall, we are allowing God to take us more deeply into an understanding of who He really is.
It's in the absence of pat answers. It's in the absence of platitudes. A positive way of viewing something where we really let go. And we say, God, I don't understand. And yet here I am, that something profound happens in our spiritual lives.
We let go of any childlike attachments we've held. We let go of any faulty beliefs, maybe that have crept in and we step into radical faith. I don't get it, God, and yet here I am. And I believe God shows up in a profound way in those moments. And the word that I like to think of in these moments is this word surrender.
Surrender. And surrender isn't a one time event. It's an ongoing event of coming to the end of yourself and even of your own knowledge and even of your own ability to talk yourself through something really, really hard and saying, God, I've tried everything. I cannot figure this out. And yet here I am.
And in those moments, I believe God shows up in powerful, profound ways. Now, I'm not saying you will always feel it in that moment, but I am saying something happens in those moments where your soul gets formed in a deeper, truer, more beautiful way. And you come out the other side of a dark night of the soul, transformed with a deeper faith, a deeper sense of God, a deeper sense of transformation, of really understanding what it means to walk with God.
One of the best ways to distinguish a dark night of the soul from an experience with depression or hopelessness is that a dark night of the soul ultimately leads to transformation. It leads to growth. It leads to health. It leads to deeper layers of maturity, spiritually and emotionally.
It leads to more goodness, more kindness, more love, more gentleness, more compassion for others. It's more compassion for yourself. It leads to beautiful fruit. That's how you know you're going through a dark night of the soul. It's not to say it's not painful. It's not to say it's not challenging and hard, but it yields beautiful fruit.
There's a couple of metaphors that I think are helpful again in distinguishing a dark night of the soul from depression. A dark night of the soul: you're walking down the path in the forest and it's dark and you cannot see very far and there are trees, big tall trees on both sides. You have enough to see the next step ahead of you. You can keep walking. You're not lost in the fog. You're not spiraling down a cliff. That's depression.
You're on the path, you're on it, and you're inching your way forward. And you can see enough to get to that next step. But it's dark and it's not really fun. It's not pleasant, but you've got enough. But you're going through that dark passageway to get to a better place. You've got to go through that to get to that better place.
And I think of Jesus's words in John 12, where he talks about that kernel of wheat. That grain that has to be buried in the ground, dead to the world, because when it gets buried, it comes out and it sprouts new life, but it has to go under the surface, deep into the soil to do its work to lay down roots, that when it finally pops up again on the surface of the earth and shows its beauty, it's ready. Those roots are deeper. It's done its work in the dark night of the soul, and it comes out even more beautiful. That's the beauty of a dark night of the soul.
I want to end by talking about something that I've thought about for a while. I think there are seasons in which we go through cultural dark nights of the soul. And I think to be honest, we are in many ways in one of those right now in this country, in this world, and there's a lot of reasons that I think that, but I think that a lot of people are struggling with these types of feelings right now, feeling scared, feeling worried, feeling more anxiety, feeling like we believe we have faith, but God, what are you doing? This is hard. We don't get it.
People are wondering about meaning, about purpose. What is this all about? We have more access to information than we've ever had before. We can't stick our heads in the sand. We know what's going on in different parts of the world. We know the suffering that exists all throughout this country, all throughout this world. We can't hide from it, And there's sort of this collective dark night of the soul.
I'm wondering if some of you have felt that as you've talked with your friends, with your loved ones, with your family members. Like, yeah, we're all kind of struggling right now. Are we all depressed? Well, I don't know. Maybe, but in many ways, I think a more apt term is more of a dark night of the soul.
More of a spiritual questioning. What's happening, God? Yeah, we believe we trust you. We love you. We also are scared. This is hard. This is complicated. Hard things are happening. Life is hard. Our kids are struggling. Our family members are struggling. Our friends are struggling.
I hear often from many people, “I'm struggling, but I don't want to talk about it with my friends because my friends are struggling”. You know, we're all struggling. I want to name that today, if you've noticed that, name that with your friends. I think we're all struggling a little bit and let's name that because when we name that, it takes away the shame.
We're in this together. This is kind of a rough season. It's been hard coming out of the pandemic. It's been hard. A lot of this stuff going on in our country, in this world right now, and it doesn't feel like we can say, oh, it's going to get better. We don't see that ray of hope on the horizon collectively.
The problems feel really complicated. And there's a part of me that while that's hard, and while I don't rejoice in that, it makes me turn toward these ideas about the dark night of the soul and says, God, what are you doing? Are you refining us? Are you calling us to go deeper? Not into more pat answers and superficial band aids and quick fixes.
Are you calling us to go deeper, to have deeper conversations with one another, to be more honest with one another about what's hard to move closer toward one another? To move beneath the surface with one another?
I need to name this. I need to talk about this. I want to hear what's going on with you. What's really going on? How are you feeling about this? We don't have to have all the answers, but we do need to come together. I wonder if naming that in your small groups, in your friend groups, in your family, I don't have all the answers. I can't fix it for you. I can't fix it for myself, but together, this is a hard season. This might even be a collective dark night of the soul that we're in. And that's not a bad thing. That means it's a little dark. We're walking slowly.
We're walking a little more cautiously down the path. We're looking around to make sure our people are okay. We're looking around to make sure we're together. We're not alone. We're looking around and checking in on other people because we're aware that folks could get lost during this season because it's a little disorienting.
There's potential for despair more than normal, more than we're used to. We're checking in on each other. And I want to name that. That's okay. I think that's what we're supposed to do during these seasons. I think that's part of what God is doing.
It's not to help us dig deeper into our own selves. I think God wants us to move more toward each other. Not to fix each other, but to say, hey, are you okay? I'm here. I'm with you. Because here's the thing, a dark night of the soul, ultimately is a feeling of absence.
It's not sensing God's presence. Even when we believe, even when we have faith, we don't feel that sense of God's presence.
And I wonder if part of the work God is doing in this collective dark night of the soul that I think we're going through is an invitation for us to remember and reimagine what it's like to be God's presence for each other, to be God's embodied presence for each other.
I'm here with you in this dark night of the soul. And you're here with me. And together we begin to embody God's presence on this earth. And we embody hope for a world in desperate need of it. We don't have to conjure up those good feelings of hope.
I think sometimes we feel like we do. We've got to be salt and light. I've got to be happy. I've got to be joyful. I've got to make sure other people are aware that I've got the hope. I don't know if that's the way it is in this collective dark night of the soul.
I wonder if as we draw near to each other and we embody the presence of Christ to each other in our own questioning, in our own dark nights of the soul, even in some of our own spiritual desolation, if you're feeling that, we begin to embody hope. We embody hope for each other and collectively and we embody hope for a world in desperate need of it.
Do not be dismayed, my dear brothers and sisters. If you are sensing this dark night of the soul, you are not alone. I believe God is calling us inward, deeper, closer to him and to each other.
He's refining some of those faults. He's refining us. It's hard to let go of some of those false hopes and shiny objects, but he's replacing that with something much deeper and it starts with us showing up more honestly, more authentically, more genuinely to say, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. I'm with you. We are in this as God's people together.