Frank Viola has a beautiful meditation on the experience of the Dark Night of the Soul, when God removes our sense of His Presence from our soul in order to infuse His Grace, so we can know Him as He is, rather than as we imagine Him to be.
When God Walks Off the StageViola points out that we are all aware, on some level, of God's presence in our soul-- “the background consciousness of God’s presence.” I believe it is true of non-believers as well. The truth is that Christians and non-Christians experience this awareness of Him-- He is closer to us that we are to ourselves-- but we often don't understand what His Presence is, or even that it is His Presence.
A Christian in the sixteenth century coined the term the dark night of the soul. This phrase refers to an experience when God removes the “sense” of His presence from a believer’s life.
Some Christians believe that the “dark night” is an exotically rare experience that few people have. Others believe it’s much more common.
I tend to be in the camp that believes it’s rare.
The dark night is when God tosses out the moral compass from a believer’s life. The Christian feels as though God doesn’t exist.
This is neither a dry spell nor a punishment. Instead, it feels as though God has left. The inner consciousness of the Lord’s presence is swept away without warning, and only a blind reliance on past faith saves the Christian from becoming an atheist.
This is not the consequence of sin or rebellion. In fact, it has nothing to do with a believer’s conduct at all.
Here are the words of a person who is experiencing the dark night:
“I feel like a non-Christian. He’s just not there anymore. I never noticed His presence until it left me. Now I long for it again. I feel like the ground under me has been ripped away. My joy is gone. I feel out of control. My spiritual feelings are dull. I’ve lost interest in and affection for God. When I try to speak to Him, it feels like I’m talking to myself or to the ceiling. Prayer once came easy; I talked to the Lord all the time. Now it’s forced. It feels like there’s a big wall between me and God. My love for the Lord has been replaced by a blank. I never knew what God’s presence felt like until it was removed from me. I cry a lot now. I want Him to return to me again.”
Some have called the dark night “a game of love” where God plays hide-and-seek. Others view it as a sign of spiritual maturity and development where God is removing the training wheels.
In such cases, the Lord is teaching His children how to know Him apart from feelings. He’s seeking to show them a new way of relating to Him—one that is more mature and doesn’t rely on anything but faith.
If, perchance, you’re going through this mysterious experience right now, the one piece of advice I can give you is this: Keep in mind that the dark night is simply a crisis and pathway to greater spiritual maturity. God is still with you. In fact, He’s behind this experience. The overarching purpose is redemptive and constructive.
I will not expound on the dark night beyond the above except to illustrate one point.
Let’s return to our nose analogy. During the course of the day, you are virtually unconscious of the presence of your nose. The exception is when you have a sniffle, a nose itch, a nosebleed, or when you look in the mirror.
But if you were to have surgery and your nose was removed, you would certainly be conscious that something essential was missing. And that consciousness would remain for quite a long time.
As I said in the opening of this chapter, there is something called “the background consciousness of God’s presence.” If God were to remove this background consciousness, you would know it immediately. The background consciousness of God’s presence is largely undetected and unnoticed by us Christians.
We don’t recognize it for one simple reason: It’s always present. It’s not dissimilar to why you don’t notice the ring on your finger or the watch on your wrist at every moment. You don’t notice it because it’s always there.
However, if the consciousness of God’s ever-abiding presence were removed, it would register heavily upon you. (This is what happens when someone experiences the dark night of the soul.) So in one regard, we are always conscious of the divine presence in that we are used to it. The light of God is always on. But it looms in the background.
Yet at another level, we can be deliberately conscious of His presence. We can be focused on His presence in the foreground. We can be attentive to it.
“Be still and know that I am God” . . . “He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” . . . “He whose mind is set on me will have perfect peace” . . . “But the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Open the Scriptures and set your mind on the Lord.
If our sense of His Presence were removed, we would feel it immediately, as agony and hopelessness. Yet there are times when He must remove our sense of it-- even though His Presence always abides in this life-- because our sense of His Presence interferes with our actual experience of Him. He must clear away the accoutrements so that we may know Him as He is, just as He knows us.
Is the Dark Night of the Soul, even mild and brief, a common occurrence for Christians, or a purgatory in this life reserved only for the most devout of saints? I don't know. I'm afraid to experience a loss of my sense of His Presence. Yet this is, I think, something we all must go through, in one way or another, in order to see Him face to Face.
Perhaps that is why we fear death, not merely because we fear non-existence in itself (we non-existed prior to conception), but because at death we fear that we will be forsaken, either to non-existence or to damnation-- we imagine that we will lose Him.