by John Mark Comer
About the Dark Night
What it is:
A season in our apprenticeship to Jesus where he intentionally takes away the felt sense of his presence in order to do a deep work of purgation and preparation in our soul for a greater freedom, love, and intimacy with God.
An experience of God that feels more like absence than presence.
It’s unlearning, as much as it’s learning.
Less of an experience, more of a non-experience.
A place where our faith is given an opportunity for testing and refining.
“An ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely.” – Dr. Gerald May
A transformation of desire. From love of things/sensuality, to love of God/spirituality. This process involves self-denial, detachment, prayer, growth in virtue, and the adjustment of our loves and longings for a greater experience of God.
Feelings you may experience in a dark night:
Regression. Like I’m going backward emotionally and spiritually.
I’ve done something wrong.
I’m more sinful than ever.
Things that were once life-giving (spiritual or otherwise) are now dull and uninteresting.
The spiritual disciplines feel boring and dry.
Weariness and lack of motivation.
Like I’m not bearing fruit. Like a rose bush pruned.
God has abandoned me.
God isn’t real.
This is forever.
Yet still: desire for God runs deep.
What’s actually happening:
Progression: God is freeing me from attachments and anxieties.
God is graciously allowing me to experience my own emptiness apart from him.
God is “mellowing” me. Gently forcing me to slow down, find joy in the simple pleasures, trust, sit quietly, stop striving, rest, etc.
God is freeing me from misplaced confidence in ideas about God, feelings of God, and formulas for how to become like God, and instead gracing me with trust in himself.
God is preparing me for the next stage in my life with him and in the world.
God is leading to a place of greater love, joy, and peace in union with him.
My desires for sin are going down, but desire for God is going up.
Biblical metaphors for this experience
Psalm 77: “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted.”
Dark – can’t see. Reality is hidden.
Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”
Desert – dry, arid, featureless, little life.
Nahum 1: “The clouds are the dust of his feet.”
Fog/cloud – unclear, uncertain of direction.
John 15: “Every branch in me that bears fruit he prunes.”
Pruning – stripped down, cut back, no sense of life or growth.
Psalm 130: “I wait for the Lord, more than watchman wait for the morning.”
Waiting – feels like a waste of time, purposeless, no clear timeline.
Song of Songs 2: “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.”
Winter – cold, barren, dark, little sign of life.
Isaiah 45: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”
Hiding – can’t see. Feel rejected.
Scriptures to Meditate on
For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
“I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.”
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.”
Quotes to meditate on
“On this faith journey there are times when the Father will withdraw his presence, but his silence is not disapproval, but confidence: ‘My son, go and get it.’” – Chris Wienand
“Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that is it growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. The prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best… We cannot ‘temp’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
“The passive night of the senses involves God’s own action upon the soul in question. As the person begins to strip away his inordinate sensual attraction to the things of this world, thus getting rid of the old-self, especially through prayer, mediation and self-denial, God then allows a profound period of spiritual aridity to best the believer, the ultimate purpose of which is to effectuate an even more powerful purification of our inordinate passion and desires, especially as these vices begin to manifest themselves on a spiritual level (as in a craving for spiritual delights and pleasures). As the believer perseveres through this ‘dark night,’ where no consolation of God is experienced, but not wanting to turn back to the futility of his old ways, a breakthrough ultimately occurs whereby, through sheer grace, the believer begins to experience the interior presence of God and makes the transition from meditative prayer to contemplative prayer.” – St. John of The Cross
“This is not the time to speak with God, but the time to put one’s mouth in the dust… (We) must suffer through this purgation with patience… (and) learn to be still.” – St. John of The Cross
“They should allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude even though it may seem obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time… Through patience and perseverance in prayer, they will be doing a great deal without activity on their part… They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel him. All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful, quiet, and sweet idleness of the contemplation that is being communicated to it.” – St. John of The Cross
“This process is obscure; one does not recognize what is going on. It usually feels as if there is something wrong: laziness, lassitude, depression, or some other spiritual or psychological problem. The truth is seldom even considered: that the feelings of aridity and emptiness are the birth pains of a freer life and deeper prayer.” – Gerald May
“Regardless of how a compulsion appears externally, underneath it is always robbing us of our freedom. We act not because we have chosen to, but because we have to. We cling to things, people, beliefs, and behaviors not because we love them, but because we are terrified of losing them. The classic spiritual term for this compulsive condition is attachment… Each of us has countless attachments. We are attached to our daily routines, our environments, our relationships, and of course our possessions. We are also attached to our religious beliefs and to our images of ourselves, others, and God… In a spiritual sense, the objects of our attachments and addictions become idols. We give them our time, energy, and attention whether we want to or not, even – and often especially – when we are struggling to rid ourselves of them. We want to be free, compassionate, and happy, but in the face of our attachments we are clinging, grasping, and fearfully self-absorbed. This is the root of our trouble.” – Gerald May
“As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but that is not what we are here for. But when we look at the questions, we look for the opening of transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer… it should be the work of Christians who believe in the paschal mystery to help people when they are being led into the darkness and the void. The believer has to tell those in pain that this is not forever; there is a light and you will see it. This isn’t all there is. Trust. Don’t try to rush through it; we can’t leap over our grief work. Nor can she skip over our despair work. We have to feel it. This means that in our life we will have some blue days or dark days. Historic cultures saw grief as a time of incubation, transformation, and necessary hibernation. Yet this sacred space is the very space we avoid. When we avoid darkness, we avoid tension, spiritual creativity, and finally transition. We avoid God, who works in the darkness—where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret: relinquishing control.” – Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM
“We think we are seeking spiritual consolation in all these things, and we are seeking in them a helpful witness to our own righteousness. We want always to be in condition to tell ourselves whatever good we are doing. When this inner witness goes, we are desolate, troubled, dismayed. We think that all is lost. This witness by sensation is the support of beginners. It is the milk of tender new-born souls. They have to suck a long time. It would be dangerous to wean them. It is for God alone to withdraw this enjoyment little by little, and to substitute for it the bread of the strong. But when a soul, long instructed and trained in the gift of faith, begins to feel no longer this sweet and consoling witness, it should remain serene in the trial, and not torment itself by dwelling on what God is taking away from it. Then it must harden itself against itself, and it must be content, like the publican, to show its wretchedness to God, hardly daring to raise its eyes toward him It is in this state that God purifies the soul all the more because he hides from it the sight of its purity.” – François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon
Poetry to come back to
Desire satisfaction in nothing.
To come to possess all,
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all,
Desire to be nothing.
To come to enjoy what you have not,
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the possession you have not,
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to what you are not,
you must go by a way in which you are not.
—St. John of The Cross
Let nothing make you afraid;
All things pass;
But God is unchanging,
is enough for everything.
You have God
God alone is sufficient.
—St. Teresa of Ávila
Lies we believe in the dark night (from Psalm 77)
God has rejected me
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?”
This season will never end
Will he never show his favor again?
God doesn’t love me anymore
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
God’s promises to me are null and void
Has his promise failed for all time?
God’s forgotten me
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
God is angry with me
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?
Common denominator in all six lies: they are about God’s character. The only way to defeat them is to trust in the truth of God’s name, goodness, and love.
The dark night isn’t something we do, but that God does in us.
It’s “passive spirituality.” Our job is just to welcome God’s work with trust and love, not resist it with doubt and anger.
“God is wrong with you!” – Thomas Kelly, to a directee in the dark night who asked what was wrong with his prayer life
It’s a season, not forever.
A means, the end of which is “union.”
Feelings of God’s presence are not the same thing as God’s presence.
God is not absent; your feeling of his joyful presence is gone. But don’t mistake the messenger for the person. Don’t worship the feelings God evokes, but God himself.
Emotions are not always an accurate barometer of reality.
God is never absent. He’s with me now, even if/when I don’t feel a thing.
Ideas about God are not the same thing as God.
God is not an idea, he’s a person.
In the dark night, God is refining my ideas about who God is, and what life is all about.
But the end result isn’t just orthodoxy (you can get that from reading theology books), but radical trust in God’s goodness.
Feels like you’re losing your faith; actually, God is refining your faith.
Connected at the hip with doubt.
At its heart, faith is a matter of trust. Trust in a person. Not in your ideas or ideologies about that person.
In a dark night, the person of Jesus is still there, even if a lot of our ideas of God are under question.
Before the dark night, we’re prone to pat answers, dogmatism, and pride. We confuse God with our ideas about God, or worse, our ideologies.
The dark night is a time of refining. After it, our trust is deeper, even as we have more empathy with those who doubt.
In this cultural moment, we can’t minister to people unless we’ve been down the road of doubt. Doubt is just a part of our modern world. In the same way, you can’t live in the modern world without dealing with a temptation to sex, greed, cynicism, hurry, digital distraction, etc. So too, you can’t live in a post-Christian world, and not at least have some seasons of doubt. This is incarnation for the 21st century. The pain we bear in love for the world.
Part of the journey.
This is a key stage in our spiritual journey.
Jesus went through it. He started in the desert with the devil, and ended on the cross praying, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.”
This is our identification with our Savior.
Here’s there with you, and you’re there with him, even if you don’t feel it.
God is stripping us of our attachments and anxieties to set us free for love.
Attachments = the things we think we need to live a happy life. Our “emotional programs for happiness” (Thomas Kelly) or “idols of the heart.”
In the dark night, we journey from the compulsive life to the contemplative life.
We will emerge deeply happy and at peace.
God will greatly use this experience to shape you into a conduit of blessing.
You will come out having learned to abide more deeply, and rely on his grace, without striving, increasing both your anointing and capacity for love, along with your joy and peace.
This can actually be a good season if we can posture our heart in trust.
The word St. John of The Cross used for dark was obscura in Spanish, where we get the word “obscure.” It’s not dark as in ominous or scary, but as in hidden from our sight.
This can be a season of rest, slowing down, practicing gratitude for the simple pleasures, and letting God mature us in trust.
Jesus is “the good shepherd,” not me. I’m the sheep.
He’s in “charge” of our life and spiritual formation.
His job is to pastor/lead, ours is simply to follow in trust that on the other side of the “valley of the shadow of death” are the “green pastures” and “quiet waters.” (Ps. 23)
A few practices for the season
Don’t try harder.
The spiritual disciplines are wonderful, but the solution is not to overmedicate with more spiritual disciplines. The source of the dark night isn’t your laziness or lack of initiative; it’s God’s work in your soul.
You don’t fight your way through a dark night; you rest your way through.
In fact, this season can be like an emotional and spiritual sabbath.
Keep doing the spiritual disciplines, but you don’t overdo them. Focus on practices of rest, like Sabbath, stillness, even sleep.
It’s a season. It will not last forever. It feels like it will, because there’s no end date on the calendar.
But St. John’s hypothesis is this: if you ask for it to end, you go backward, not forward in your spiritual journey to transforming union.
Let your prayer change from, God, take me out of this, to, God, take me through.
Trust in Jesus. Not in your ideas or feelings of Jesus. But in Jesus himself.
Ideas and feelings about God are wonderful, but they aren’t God. And in the dark night, our ideas of who God is are stripped down, but we are then free to embrace the mystery that is God. “The cloud of unknowing.” With trust.
Refuse to let your heart be troubled.
Slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
Think of the desert. If you’ve ever been to a desert resort, you know the desert is actually very beautiful, but it’s an acquired taste. You have to slow down to notice the small things—the succulent flower, the rocks, the variations in the sand, the sunrise or sunset.
In the dark night, slow down. Savor the little things. Practice gratitude.
This can actually be a joyful season.
Don’t doubt in the desert what God said in the river.
Right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, and God spoke over him, This is my son in whom I am well pleased… he went into the desert where the enemy spoke doubt into his mind: “If you are the son of God…”
This the fundamental lie of the enemy from Eve in the Garden of Eden to Jesus in the desert to you and me today, to question the word of God; I believe the primary stratagem of the enemy in times of spiritual dryness is to sow seeds of doubt to sabotage God’s work. Many people lose their faith in a dark night.
Jesus was wise to live by what God said in the river, not by what the enemy said in the desert. We would be wise to follow his example. If you’re in a dark night, live on past words from God, prophecies, and dreams. Go back and read journal entries, think about answered prayers. Live on that.
Live in community.
The enemy will do to you what he did to Eve in the Garden: attempt to isolate you. Either get you away from church in general, or just get you to go inward and not open up to your community. Either way, you are playing right into his hand by retreating. Then he can lie to you, and there’s nobody around to call foul.
When our faith is weak, we need to be around those whose faith is strong, and let their faith carry ours for a season.
Don’t let the enemy isolate you. A podcast is not a church. And a book is not a community.
We need community more than ever in the dark night.
Release the illusion of control.
Release your relationship with God, to God. This is on him, not you. Just accept his invitations in this season. And let him do his deep work in you.
St. John of The Cross’s advice for how to move through the dark night…
“Allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything. The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer without making any effort… but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him. For all these yearnings disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quiet and sweet ease of contemplation which is here granted to it.”
The end of St. John of The Cross’s book…
“By means of the acts of substantial touches of divine union, the soul obtains habitually and perfectly (insofar as the condition of this life allows) the rest and quietude of her spiritual house. In concealment and hiding from the disturbance of both the devil and the sense and passions, she receives these touches from the divinity. By their means the soul is purified, quieted, strengthened, and made stable so she may receive permanently this divine union, which is the divine espousal between the soul and the Son of God… One cannot reach this union without remarkable purity, and this purity is unattainable without vigorous mortification and nakedness regarding all creatures… Persons who refuse to go out at night in search for the Beloved and to divest and mortify their will, but rather seek the Beloved in their own bed and comfort, as did the bride (Sg. 3v1), will not succeed in finding him. As this soul declares, she found him when she departed in darkness and with longings of love.”
The Dark Night of the Soul by Dr. Gerald May
When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas Green
The Shattered Lantern by Ronald Rolheiser