Dealing with the Dark Night of the Soul

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We can all relate to Moses’ interaction with God in today’s OT lesson, can’t we? As we saw last week, God’s people Israel have been acting badly and now God has told Moses that God will no longer lead his people to the promised land. One of God’s angels will do this instead. As we stop and remember that Moses and his people are in the desert, this would have come as a terrible blow to them, and especially to Moses because he was the Israelites’ leader, charged by God to care for God’s people. When he heard God pronounce those terrible words of judgment on God’s people, that God would no longer lead them to the promised land because they were a stubborn and rebellious people who refused to submit to God and obey him so that God might destroy them along the way, Moses must have felt terribly alone and abandoned. In other words we are reading another biblical account of one of God’s people experiencing what St. John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul” where we feel keenly God’s absence or withdrawal from our lives and the loneliness and fear that ensue.

This is why we all can relate so well to Moses because every one of us in this room has experienced the dark night of the soul where we have the terrible feeling of being abandoned by God. The dark night might come with the death of a loved one or catastrophic illness. It might come in the midst of broken relationships with friends or loved ones. It might come when we realize just how shallow and petty we can be as human beings, the way I was convicted this past week. It might come when our fervent prayers for ourselves or loved ones apparently go unanswered. Or it just might come inexplicably and for no apparent reason.

If we are not mature enough to understand that sometimes God’s occasional absence helps us to better recognize his presence, the dark night of the soul can be faith-destroying and so we should pay attention to how Moses dealt with his own fears of being abandoned by God. Specifically, I want us to look at ways we can appeal to God to make himself known to us when we are feeling alone, abandoned, and afraid, and desperately need to be reminded of God’s reassuring presence and promises to us. In doing so, we must remember that there are no guarantees that God will respond to our prayers on our schedule (or even at all). As we saw last week, God is sovereign and God will do what God will do (or not do) in God’s good time, not ours. Still, there are some things we can do that will appeal to the very heart of God and we would be foolish not to use biblical examples such as Moses in today’s story to help us learn how to better pray to God because God is infinitely kind, merciful, and faithful.

The first thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he acknowledges his own fears. When Moses asks God whom he will send to lead God’s people to their new home, Moses is effectively saying, “God, it feels like you’ve abandoned us all here in the desert and reneged on your promise to lead us, and that makes me very afraid because if you have abandoned us, we are toast (no pun intended) and I am discredited as your chosen leader of your people.”

To address these fears, Moses then appeals to his relationship with God. He reminds God that he knows Moses intimately and is pleased with him. This immediately alerts us to the fact that Moses must have spent a good deal of time and effort in developing his relationship with God. Moses likely had a vigorous prayer life and paid close attention to God’s commands to him and God’s people. He surely would have been on the constant lookout for ways in which God manifested God’s presence in Moses’ life and the life of God’s people. In other words, Moses must have made God the primary focus in the events of his daily living.

Based on this relationship, Moses then appeals to God to teach him God’s ways so that Moses will be better able to see and experience God’s presence in his life. Notice carefully that Moses is not appealing to God for some kind of mystical, other-worldly, or navel-gazing activity. In other words, Moses is not appealing to God to make himself known through feelings, emotions, and subjective ways because these things can easily get distorted and mislead us. We can genuinely feel that we are right and be genuinely mistaken. Instead, Moses is appealing to God to teach Moses in objective ways so that his mind can apprehend and understand.

This is where we need to pay attention because this principle applies to us as well. If we are serious about recognizing God in our lives so that we do not feel abandoned, we must understand that we come to know God, not by feelings and emotions, but mainly by learning his ways—his revealed standards, his revealed methods, and his revealed benefits. And where has God revealed all this? Primarily in and through Scripture and in the consistent pattern of behavior in the lives of his saints. We see this latter principle illustrated quite nicely in our epistle lesson this morning. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their demonstrated faith, hope, and love, which, in turn, demonstrates that the Spirit is at work in and among them. For Paul, this makes the Thessalonians a powerful example to the world around them, a world that has often been hostile to them, persecuted them, and made them suffer.

When Moses appeals to God to teach his ways to him, Moses is also demonstrating real humility and a genuine desire to know God so that he can be obedient to God and thereby be transformed by God and better recognize God’s presence in his life and the life of his people. And this is the critical point in the lesson today because after Moses appeals to God to teach him God’s ways, God relents and promises Moses that God himself will lead his people Israel into the promised land, despite God’s people’s continued unfaithfulness and rebellion.

The second thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he appeals to God’s faithfulness by telling God to remember God’s people. It was God who called out his people Israel from Egypt and Moses is reminding God of that. Of course, God does not need to be reminded of what he promised, but that is not why Moses brings this up. He is appealing to God’s essential character, i.e., to God’s Name. Among other things, Moses is reminding God that God is faithful and good to his word.

Think of this this way. Imagine your kids coming to you to remind you that you promised them ice cream. They tell you they are counting on your promise because they know you to be good to your word. In other words, they are appealing to your character based on their past experiences with you. How much more so with God and his promises to us! When we are feeling alone and abandoned by God, we would be wise to remember examples of God’s faithfulness in our lives and the lives of others, both past and present, to help alleviate those feelings.

The third thing we notice in Moses’ prayer is that he reminds God that God’s glory is at stake. Moses’ desire for God’s glory to be seen is not based on some petty or vain motive. Rather, it is based on the desire for the nations of the world to come to know God and have real life. That is why in Scripture God is always so jealous that God’s glory be maintained and made known. Without a relationship with the one true and living God through Jesus, we cannot hope to possibly have and know real life. In Moses’ day and age, pagan nations would only pay attention to a God who was powerful enough to deliver on his promises and defeat his people’s enemies. What we see here is essentially Moses making another appeal to God to reveal his character by asking God to reveal his very love for the world in ways Moses’ contemporaries would understand and which would ultimately be made known in Jesus

In case you missed it, we have just seen Moses bargaining with God. This may shock us as most of us have probably bargained with God at one time or another in our lives, only to go away disappointed. But did we bargain or negotiate like Moses did? Did we start with a sincere desire to learn of God and his ways so that we could recognize how God works in his world? Were our prayers based on a desire to better learn and obey God’s commands so that we could be transformed into fully human beings by obeying them? There is no magic formula here, precisely because God is sovereign. But when in our fear we appeal to God to make himself known to us again, we would be wise to examine our motives before we make our appeals. Of course, that we can examine ourselves in this manner is itself indicative of the fact that God really is with us because all real self-examination before God is the product of God’s grace.

Last, we notice that even after God grants Moses’ request to accompany his people, Moses apparently still needed more reassurance and so he asks God to show him personally God’s glory. What we see here is Moses essentially reminding God and himself that God’s glory is further empirical evidence that God has not abandoned Moses or his people. In other words, God is also made known through his glory

If someone like Moses needed added reassurance of God’s presence in his life, how much more so do we all need that kind of assurance? Here again, we find more encouragement from the text because God grants Moses this request as well. But God does this only on a limited basis and I do not have time (nor you the patience) to explore this dynamic further today. Suffice it to say here that theophanies, or appearances by God to humans, are the exception rather than the rule of life. But we as Christians have something much better than needing to rely on theophanies for assurance that God has not abandoned us. As Paul reminds us in today’s epistle we have the power of the Holy Spirit living in us and demonstrated by the fact that we manifest the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love in our lives. That is objective evidence all of us need to be reminded that God indeed lives in and among his people.

So what can we learn from this to help us navigate through our dark nights of the soul? The lesson should be very clear. If we sense God’s absence, we must understand that our feelings are not always good guides. We can be mistaken. Instead, if we want to deepen our relationship with God and be better able to recognize his presence, we should be appealing to God to teach us his ways so that we might better recognize how God works in our lives. This means we use our minds to learn his revealed ways and standards to us so that we can more readily comprehend his presence. We must reject the romantic notion that life is all about feelings.

Likewise, we can also appeal that God would show us his glory to further reassure us. Here too we have an objective standard and measure to which we can look. It is the cross of Jesus Christ. When we are feeling abandoned by God, a good place to start in prayer is to look at the cross of Jesus and meditate on Philippians 2.5-11. Doing so are powerful reminders that a God who loves us enough to become human and die for us so that we could live in his direct Presence for all eternity will hardly abandon us in our moments of greatest need. Faith, hope, and love anyone?

Of course, all this assumes we are doing our part to develop our relationship with God.  We cannot possibly have the kind of relationship with God that Moses had or learn God’s ways if we do not drink deeply from Scripture and study it with other faithful souls. As I have urged before, a good place to start is with the Daily Office or a good Bible reading plan like BibleGateway’s. If you are not doing this, you are showing evidence that you are not all that serious about having a real relationship with God and should not be surprised when you experience dark nights of the soul with increasing frequency. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Rather I am encouraging you to look at the evidence (or lack thereof) that you really do desire for God to teach you his ways so that you can know his presence in your life and to act accordingly.

The dark night of the soul can be a terrible and frightening experience. After all, who would not be frightened to sense that he or she has become separated from the very Source of life? But take heart and hope. As we have seen, God created us for relationship, not destruction, and when we appeal to him to teach us his ways and act according to his character, we have the consistent witness of Scripture and countless Christians that God will answer these prayers.

In doing so, we are also reminded that having a relationship with God is not based primarily on emotion or about becoming some kind of mystical navel-gazer. It involves using our minds and acting according to God’s standards as we do business in God’s world. When that happens, we can have confidence that God will not only ease our fears that come with the dark night of the soul, but also use us to make a difference for God by bringing Christ’s love to bear on others who desperately need to experience it. We do that primarily by how we live so that everyone can see and experience God’s presence in our lives (and theirs). And when, by God’s grace, we get this, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.