Friday, January 20, 2006

The Dark Night of the Evangelical Soul

Jake at theofragen blogs on The Dark Night of the Evangelical Soul
John of the Cross once wrote:
But those that are on the right path will set their eyes on God and not on these outward things nor on their inner experiences. They will enter the dark night of the soul and find all of these things removed. They will have all the pleasure taken away so that the soul may be purified. For a soul will never grow until it is able to let go of the tight grasp it has on God.

As I read these words, I wonder how John's reflection on the soul's journey towards God is manifested in 21st century American evangelicalism. I am assuming prima facie that John's words are an accurate description of this spiritual phenomenon, which he calls "the dark night of the soul."

Many evangelicals have experienced what I would call a hyper-spiritual, emotionally charged conversion to Christianity. For many of us, this experience occurred in a church or youth retreat led by a charismatic, "firery" preacher/evangelist. Hence many evangelicals have a hard time understanding the conversion language uttered by our Catholic, Orthodox and Presbyterian sisters and brothers. We struggle to get our minds around how God could call anyone to be God's son or daughter over a period of time. This phenomenon is a marked departure from our radical, specific-point-in-time conversion experience. But I am digressing.

For many evangelicals, we follow this conversion by a radical departure from our "old ways of life." We destroy or sell our "secular" CDs or tapes. We stop hanging out with our "non-Christian" friends because, let's face it, "if you lie with dogs you're gunna get fleas." Or so we are told. We are "on fire" for Christ. We become "Jesus Freaks" committed to the task of "saving" our "heathen" neighbors and classmates from the very pits of Hell. We begin to consume the Bible and other supporting Christian literature. We may even open an account at the local LifeWay or Family Christian Book Store. We become spiritual gluttons. We pray. Some of us fast. For many of us our faith become intertwined with ardent biblical literalism and its twin-cousin, fundamentalism. Our new-found faith is palpable and our spiritual exercises are reified in our lives.

I then believe that something akin to John of the Cross' dark night of the soul takes hold. Our prayer life dwindles. That evangelistic flame that was once a roaring bonfire becomes cooling embers. All of a sudden, so it seems, our "quiet time" becomes a perfunctory task, lacking the joy and mystical adrenaline it once produced. We find ourselves at the midnight hour of this dark night with no hope of once again seeing the light of day.

This leads the evangelical soul in one of several directions, as I see it. One route leads to a kind of petulant fundamentalism that begins to fill the void left by spiritual fervor with rancor and discord. Such individuals seem to be somewhat like the character, Angela, from The Office, where all the joy of being a Christ-follower is hidden or gone.

Another route leads one to doubt the experience altogether. This person may speak of that time in his life when he went to church or youth group a lot. However, the waning 'rush' of Christian spirituality has yielded a commensurate abatement in participation in things Christian. Christianity becomes, for such a person, that thing I used to do one time.

Yet another direction leads to Christian intellectualism. Such a person may even chose to major in religious studies in college and go to seminary in pursuit of greater Christian acumen. She will progress further and further intellectually in hopes of enervating the pain felt from the emotionless spiritual void. This path can lead to an abandonment of the faith, as the intellectually "enlightened" has moved beyond such "simple" notions of faith.

A fourth route follows what John of the Cross advocates: pushing through the void. Such people realize that their faith is more than the "warm fuzzies" they experience. They perceive that their commitment to follow Christ carries with it certain crosses to bear. Again John of the Cross writes:

The problem is this: when they have received no pleasure for their devotions, they think they have not accomplished anything. This is a grave error, and it judges God unfairly. For the truth is that the feelings we receive from our devotional life are the least of its benefits. The invisible and unfelt grace of God is much greater, and it is beyond our comprehension.

What do you think? Has he summarized the main responses?


j mills said...


Mike, you've written down some pretty provocative thoughts.

It's funny how we evangelicals tend to say we believe that we're 'saved by faith alone' but really we question our relationship with God when we don't manifest the typical spirituality of emotional hype, fervent prayer and deep Bible study.

It's also funny that we think Christian spirituality is being 'tight'with God; even though St. John said a 'tight grasp on God' is a hinderance. Is it possible that the western, evangelical church's Christian discipleship is retarded by a warped idea of spirituality?

P.S. If you're going to respond, let me know where you're from so I can weigh your answer accordingly. If you're not from 'intelligent' Waterloo, it may be found wanting!

Scott said...

First off the formalities - I'm from Waterloo, but just to show my ignorance rather than my intelligence, who's John of the Cross? And Jason what did St. John mean when he said a tight grasp on God is a hindrance - what exactly does having a tight grip mean.

Anyway this was an interesting read, albeit a bit of a struggle for a numbers guy.

I did get out of it that we need to be careful not to turn our faith into either a set of legalistic rules or conversely into an emotionally based experience. And to that aspect I do agree.

Having been engrained in me since my youth that emotions need to be kept in check, I've never found the experience side of my relationship with God to ever be a hindrance. Infact I realize and feel challenged now that I need to change to show (and feel) more emotion and passion for my Lord and Saviour than I do for the Mighty Maple Leafs or even my Wonderful wife.

I likely have been more guilty of grasping to the legalistic side. I confess - I did throw out my secular tapes, although I must admit decisions like this were more a gradual process one by one over the years that I came to a decision on as I grew. I don't regret the decision too much except for maybe a few albums!

I'm just hoping my faith will continue to grow and I'll have a greater knowledge of who God really is. And the more I understand who he is, the more I will feel and show emotion and excitement for my faith.

pastor mike said...
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pastor mike said...

John of the Cross lived from 1542-1591, in Spain. He is known as one of the mystics, he was founder of the "discalced" [barefoot] Carmelites.

I think having "a tight grasp on God" means, at least in part, all those things that we think are God, but aren't really; all those things that we replace God with [in the name of spirituality, of evangelicalism]. When we define spirituality by specific culturally accepted expressions, be think we have a "tight grasp... on God", when we are only clinging to expressions of God. This tight of "tight grasp" is one of our ways of trying to tell God what he can and cannot do - we try to squeeze him into a box (of our making).