From the Shepherd’s Nook: Dark Night of the Soul

By John Frye:

Dark Night

Two types of “being lost” can be very spiritually dangerous. We have all lost something—car keys, money, perhaps a child in a busy mall. I remember the deep bewilderment I felt in the Frankfurt, Germany huge airport when I got separated from my travel companions and missed a connecting flight. The languages over the intercom were not English and hundreds of people were rushing here and there to make their flights. In the midst of all that airport hurry, I felt lost. Lost is separation. We, until conversion to Jesus Christ, are separate from God in terms of an intimate covenant relationship.

Do you have an experience with the dark night of the soul? What have you learned?

John Newton wrote about this lostness in his famous hymn “Amazing Grace”— “…I once was lost, but now am found…” Jesus told a story of two lost sons (Luke 15)—one was lost geographically, the other relationally. The youngest son went to another country. The eldest son stayed in the father’s house, but was deeply separated from his father’s heart: two kinds of being lost.

In his riveting book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, Jon Krakauer writes, “For the next two hours, Beidleman, Groom, the two Sherpas, and the seven clients staggered blindly around in the storm, growing more exhausted and hypothermic, hoping to blunder across the camp. … ‘It was total chaos,’ said Beidleman. ‘People are wandering all over the place; I’m yelling at everyone, trying to get them to follow a single leader…’. ‘We tried to keep warm by pummeling each other,’ Weathers remembers. ‘Someone yelled at us to keep moving our arms and our legs. Sandy was hysterical; she kept yelling over and over, ‘I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!’” Krakauer reports that some climbers simply walked off in panic and were never found. Lost.

The other type of being lost is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” John was a Spanish Carmelite monk (1542-1591), a student of philosophy and theology. Teresa of Avila and St. John were contemporaries. St. John defines the ‘dark night.’ “The ‘dark night’ is when persons lose all the pleasure they once experienced in their devotional life.” The experience feels like God does not exist. St. John suggests that God wants to wean us from depending even on our own consciousness and experience of God. This is pastorally challenging territory. Some folk just cannot fathom the dark night of the soul and end up jettisoning their faith. Had they the will to persevere, the God on the other side of the dark night would be closer, bigger, much more loving. We’ve produced an American infantile spirituality that requires God to be our security blanket. What if God “disappears”?

St. John of the Cross describes new believers as eagerly devoted to Christ and rigidly disciplined in spiritual practices. In their following Jesus they develop a “secret pride.” They become “too spiritual,” condemning others who are not as spiritual as they are. They stay disciplined in order to be esteemed by others. They begin to avoid confession because confession may ruin their image. They become more spiritual for their own sake, not for God’s. Enter the dark night. The dark night is a purging work of the Spirit. John writes, “For the truth is that the feelings we receive from the devotional life are the least of its benefits. The invisible and unfelt grace of God is much greater, and it is beyond our comprehension (emphasis added). …For true spirituality consists in perseverance, patience, and humility. …No soul will ever grow deep in the spiritual life unless God works passively in that soul by means of the dark night.” The dark night is called dark for a reason; it is an inner darkness that makes one feel like he or she is wandering toward the inky abyss. Pastors must know this hard terrain in order to offer spiritual direction so that all is not lost.

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  • Good thoughts. Here’s a lecture series by John Coe me and many of my clients have found helpful on the meaning of The Dark Night:

  • John W Frye

    Scot, I didn’t tell my story, but after being pastor for 24 years of the church where you performed John Raymond’s wedding, my tenure there ended turbulently. (That is another story). In that strained season, I got very sick at every level of being and entered into a tremendously dark time. I remember reading only lament Psalms and hanging on to the faith by my fingernails. I felt exponential loss for I had known God in very wonderful, intimate ways. That all seemed a myth in the dark night. All I can conclude, in St. John’s words, is that “unfelt grace” got me through. Here’s the irony: I look back now and I wouldn’t want to change a thing about that whole season (except punch a few people out…just kidding).

  • scotmcknight

    John, thanks for that story (and the punchline). My own times were less dark night of the soul but mental aridity and disconnect.

  • John, if you wouldn’t mind sharing a bit more, why do you say you wouldn’t want to change a thing about that whole season?

  • I much appreciate this post, John. I think I know something of this experience. Hard to know what to make of it, sometimes. At any rate, John of the Cross’ words are helpful on this, as well as you own words and testimony here, too. Thanks much.

  • Dianne P

    I sometimes participate in a deep reading group where we spend a month or so in a book that otherwise sits (impressively) on my book shelf… sometimes for years, even decades:)

    St. John’s dark night was one of those books – a truly deepening experience. We read this some time after St. Teresa’s Interior Castle. IMHO, “some time” is truly needed, as a transitional/transformative space from one to the other. At least for me.

    One thing I wanted to share was this haunting music that I came across in the process. Loreena McKennitt is a musician and songstress who is a true co-creator with God of hauntingly beautiful Celtic work with her harp and voice and musicians. Her dark night was when her fiance and his brother drowned in a fishing accident. Hoping this youtube link works. If not, y’all know how to do that google thing. Worth the effort, I promise. If you are as enamored as I am, her DVD live at the Alhambra will take your breath away. I first saw it as a PBS special.

  • mjk

    This concept has been brought powerfully home to me in a book by the late Robert Guelich and Janet Hagberg called, The Critical Journey. In it, they frame the discipleship journey in six stages, the fourth of which is, essentially, the dark night of the soul. What was so powerful to me is that, in their model, it is actually impossible to advance in discipleship beyond a certain point without precisely that experience, the very experience that we spend so much energy trying to avoid.

    I’m not big on “models” per se, but this was a very helpful way to think through the journey of discipleship and the indispensability of the dark night on that journey. If you haven’t read it, you may want to find a copy.

  • TJJ

    I have walked that road.a.time or two through the years. Very hard and dificult when you are going through it. But an surprising blessing after the fact. I have trust for leaders who have had some experience with this. I have less trust in those who have not.

  • TJJ

    This experience brings a depth to spirit, heart, mind, soul, that few, maybe none, other experiences can bring.

  • DMH

    How does “the dark night of the soul” differ from depression? …or even a more melancholy nature?

  • Dianne P

    Good question DMH @10. Well, at least it’s the same question I asked. After all my study, I had hoped that I could provide a brilliantly lucid comment that would bestow on all of us a grand epiphany. Instead, I lifted this from a comment on Loreena’s youtube performance. How pathetic is that? But I think it’s a good one.
    “His poem narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of God.”

    I think of it as a birth journey… going from the comfort of the womb, through the darkness, to the light of a new life. Detached from one, yet not connected to the other. Having experienced the total darkness, we then experience the new light which is entirely from God.

    I’m not sure how many of us experience this darkness this side of eternity… maybe all of us at death? For sure, John of the Cross was no evangelical, but rather a mystic who was much abused by the church of the time. I think we need not look for any tidy or analytical answers from him. He is a mystic. I embrace that, but I’m rather weary of tidy little answers.

  • EricG

    DMH – I’ve experienced a dark night of the soul as I face a terminal illness, and it seemed very different from depression to me (which I have also experienced). Although they can be related. In the dark night we feel entirely cut off from God – as if He weren’t really there. This doesn’t necessarily lead to full depression, although it can. It did not with me.

  • Louise Knight

    Thanks, Dianne P for the introduction to LM. I, too, have found this image helpful as I have journeyed:

    ‘I think of it as a birth journey… going from the comfort of the womb, through the darkness, to the light of a new life. Detached from one, yet not connected to the other. Having experienced the total darkness, we then experience the new light which is entirely from God.’

    This may seem a little simplistic to those commenting here, but I was overwhelmed by God speaking to me through the animated story of Joseph, King of Dreams, and the depiction, in particular, of his time in the dungeon. The soundtrack plays:

    You know better than I
    You know the way
    I’ve let go the need to know why
    ‘cos You know better than I

    And that’s all there is to it, at the end of the day. For me this is that ‘invisible and unfelt grace of God’.

    Isaiah 45:3 ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.’

    Thanks to all for mentioning books that have helped. I look forward to reading these.

  • yes, the expression “dark night of the soul” is used by people in different ways. some use it to refer to a difficult period they went through with God that is probably of a fairly short duration, a difficult trial. the one john of the cross talks about commonly lasts for many years and it is the removal of God’s tangible presence. i’ve been in that one for just about 14 years now and i would not wish this on my worst enemy. even when i read scripture it is basically words on the page and provides very little comfort or guidance whereas in the past it would jump off the page and speak to me. i don’t hear from God in prayer anymore for the most part. i rarely get the holy spirit goose bumps anymore that people talk about. i do get dreams from God and i think it is rather ironic that God does speaks to me in the dark of night while i’m in the dark night. i am thankful i am not experiencing complete silence as i don’t think i’d make it through this if it were. it doesn’t seem to be a very common experience and having also read janet hagberg’s book i think it can be a part of one of the stages of faith she describes but it isn’t necessary to that stage. God works in each believer’s life differently as only he knows what each of us need to mature.

    mother teresa experienced the dark night for 50 years and her post-humous book <a href=""<come be my light is all about her experience of it. it’s a fascinating and excellent read.

  • oops, sorry for the screwy link. it is come be my light by mother teresa. that link still does works.

  • John, how did you hold it together during this time? Did it help that you were not in a church? I find it exhausting to hold it in for the sake of my congregation.

  • DMH

    I was wondering about its duration, so glad some of you mentioned time frames. The people who have used that phrase around me have measured their experience in “months”. My own experience has been years- too many. Of course, in those years there have been events worth getting depressed over and I do tend to be introverted and melancholy.

    Thanks for bringing Mother Teresa to light for me.

    Mark 16 I have been both a leader and one who has just sat in the pew. As a leader I found I could not have an authentic relationship if I did not bring a (high) level of openness and honesty about where I was at with God. As someone in the recieving position I have deeply appeciated a pastors openness about his/her struggles.

  • John, thank you for this reflection. I was reading Luke 16 & Michael Cassidy’s words this morning, and they resonate with your words. The darkness we bring upon our selves because of our misplaced spiritual pride in times of trial worsens the darkness of the trial itself. We could have wondered where God is in the midst of of trial while we exercised the patience, perseverance and endurance that Paul and James write of, but instead, we can compound the problem with our own wandering into the dark. We posture and pretend before others, justifying ourselves instead of openly admitting our pain, confusion and despair in the present. Do we feel anxious, perhaps, that our present trial was caused by our own sin? Or, might we feel anxious that, even when we know this trial comes from without us, that others will believe that the trial itself proves we sinned?

    “To choose Jesus and His Way is to become a disciple and be identified with Him before a watching world. Nor will we be secret about this, because either our discipleship destroys our secrecy, or our secrecy destroys our discipleship.”
    ~Rev. Michael Cassidy, African Enterprise

    Luke 16:14- 15 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

  • Michael

    In *short*, reading some of the comments, I would encourage those interested in this topic to read anything by Thomas H. Green; especially When the Well Runs Dry! All trials are not dark nights, yet all dark nights are trials. And depression is markedly different from a dark night.
    Also, many of the mystics differentiate between a dark night of the senses (where God begins to detach beginners from sensory experience. The only barometer most people have: bible reading, worship, sermons, books get really “dry, boring, etc”) The second night is a dark night of the soul, lasting the rest of our lives, where God actually begins to wean us off dependency on our own character development, Bible knowledge, autonomy, etc. Dr. John Coe from Talbot calls this process,”The love of God for Pleasures sake, to the Love of God for Loves sake, to the Love of God for Gods sake.” This begins the LONG process deep in the soul where purgation, illumination and union take place (wills unite), and we learn “apart from Me you can do nothing.”
    Of course, there is SO much more that could be said, and many who are being led by the Spirit here should find a good spiritual director to help navigate our blind spots. But a good start epistemologicaly is Thomas H. Green.
    God bless 🙂

  • John W Frye

    Rebecca #4
    I’ll try to compress a lot into this brief answer to your excellent question. I wouldn’t change anything about the dark night experience because of what I learned about God in His absence, what I learned about myself and my own spiritual idolatry, what I learned about “raw” faith as evidence of things not seen (experienced). We create comfortable scaffolding around our lives in the USAmerican Christian community calling it “the blessing of God” when, in fact, it all may be our own hand-made environment that we deceptively call the “will of God.” Dark nights blow everything to smithereens in order to set us free!

    DMH #10
    You raise a perceptive question. I like what a wise friend told me, “Depression is God’s way of slamming us into reality.” So, I am not so sure how to distinguish a dark night experience from a depressive state; they can readily co-mingle, yet the two are distinguishable as some have pointed out here. I was physically ill, emotionally depressed and spiritually in the dark night. It was God-awful.

    Mark Stevens #16
    It was hard to hang on. I told the congregation frankly about the state I was in. I stayed faithful to the call to minister God’s Word but without any of the supporting benefits I had before the “dark night.” Many people who I thought were friends betrayed me in the whole local church turmoil. My wife, Julie, loved me unconditionally; my daughters were so present and caring, and I had a few, I stress “few” friends who were present and silent. No need to “fix me” on their part. Just there. Because of the toxic state the church got into, I resigned for my own wellness sake.

  • RJS


    Thanks for this post – and the comments and reflections it prompted.

  • Angela

    In my experience wih the Dark a night of the Soul, it forced me to contemplate whether I was actually going to choose God, or walk away-knowing full well what I’d be walking away from. If it wasn’t for the preceding experience, where God gave peace beyond understanding, I think I would have chosen self instead of God. Instead, the p

  • Angela

    Power of his faithfulness won. But the dark night lasted about 2 years.

  • KB

    I’m really surprised by everything I’m reading here. I don’t find any biblical support for the claim that the “dark night of the soul” is something that a Christian must pass through in order to reach spiritual maturity. I understand that everyone has been having these “experiences,” but who’s to say that it’s not some form of spiritual attack that God mercifully brought you through? Didn’t Jesus say that whoever drinks of Him will never thirst again? And what about John 8:12 when Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” I don’t believe it’s wise to promote this “dark night of the soul” business unless it’s clearly taught in scripture as an actual process or “fruit of the Spirit” (for lack of a better term). Of course the Psalms are full of despair, and Christians regularly experience suffering and we don’t always “experience” God in the way that we want to…but isn’t that where faith comes in? I’ve heard of people seeking after the “dark night of the soul” because they think it will make them a better Christian, but I just don’t see where scripture supports this view. Please correct me if I’m mistaken.

  • michael

    KB #24
    I understand, and welcome your skepticism. I was there once! Bc I dont think anyone is explaining The Dark Night (DN), except their personal experiences, let me try (& this is woefully unjust for such a Huge & historical topic).
    The DN in *short* is what Protestants try to explain in detail under sanctification (which, many times, turns out to be more heady theology cut & pasted from other systematic topics). Most of the ancient writers differ between a DN of the Senses & a DN of the spirit/soul.
    DN of Senses: Is what happens after young believers have almost exhausted all the euphoric, exciting times of Bible Study “aha moments”, Worship “goose bumps”, “wonderful” books, “great” seminar, etc etc. Ancients called this “consolation” bc it appeared it was Gods primary way of encouraging young believers & reinforcing behavior (quiet time, Bible, etc). But young believers associate God w pleasure (“felt presence”) which becomes the primary object of discernment; “God really showed up in worship!” Consolation also gets confused w actual Trans-formation. Hence, DN of the senses where the Spirit begins to “darken” or wean younger immature believers from/off that type of sensual spirituality (think dating versus marriage: are you in it for the person or the pleasure?)
    Once you are in the DN (of senses) it is now Gods way of exposing behaviors! “Where your treasure is…”
    Few Signs: cannot stay w spiritual disciplines–mind wanders, feel guilty, boring, lonely, frustrated, confusion, no zest!, all feels more psychological than spiritual, etc.
    People at this place, struggling in prayer/disciplines, who know there Bible/theology, it does the Pastor no good to humbly scripture “lash” them. They know! So, “Why am I still struggling pastor?”
    This is Gods invitation (DN/Sanctification) to go on a Deeper journey revealing deeper brokenness & a deeper need of the Cross than ever thought possible. That is a VERY short explanation!! There are Many temptations at this juncture & a good spiritual director/pastor familiar is needed. I’ve run out of room so if interested I can briefly sketch out the DN of the spirit/soul.
    Later 🙂

  • Jennifer E.

    Michael, I’m interested in a sketch of the DN of the soul. Please elaborate!

  • Michael

    Hey Jennifer! I just saw this. I will briefly sketch out the DN of the spirit/soul tomorrow. God bless 🙂

  • michael

    Jennifer #26
    Again, in SHORT, if the Dark Night (DN) of the senses is the move from loving God for pleasures sake to loving God for loves sake (God turns out the light on our sensual spirituality), then the DN of the spirit/soul is the move from the love of God for loves sake to the love of GOd for *Gods* sake (to paint w/ a Broadbrush!).

    Ironically, “consolation,” Gods “felt presence,” is for the less mature/younger believers to *encourage us & reinforce behaviors; “desolation,” Gods “felt absence” is for the more mature believers to *expose behavior (Spirit takes us deeper into the “putting off” process–detachment). We cannot get rid of the self unless we through the self!!!
    In the DN of the spirit/soul (love of God for loves sake to love of God for *Gods* sake alone) the Spirit begins to purge us not only of our vices, but now also our virtues we developed as non-christians & young believers. Most 15, 20, 40+ year old believers in the faith, if they are honest (or after the 3rd or 4th beer) will tell you that deep down when trials come we instinctively, & autonomously, tend to appeal more to our own intellect, character formation, will, etc we have accumulated over the years than opening to the Spirit from beginning to end. “Apart from me you can do…”

    This does Not mean we get rid of all the *wonderful* important, foundational attributes we have gained over the years! On the contrary, God Himself begins to “darken” these deep parts of the soul in order to bring Deeper dependence on the Spirit’s wisdom in the moment (& ultimately bring more profound insight as they are subordinated to God). Sanctification nurtures the same psychological soil as justification, “I can’t do it!” only in much deeper places. God also moves us from trusting in our own character to deeply abiding in the Vine. During this process, a DN indeed, anxiety, fear, worry, guilt, shame, etc are *God’s* invitations (idiot lights on the dashboard of our soul) to journey deeper With Him leading the dance & not appealing to our own autonomous “gifts.”

    Its been said that feelings are lousy leaders. Absolutely! But they *are* Excellent windows into the soul as well. The louder they scream will constitute how deep our (disordered) attachments reside, and *that* is when we need to lay down our defensive (often unconscious) shield of acquired wisdom, character, willpower, etc & go with God as He Lovingly invites us to the spiritual discipline of listening to our hearts (where the Triune God resides!) & to the call of God that echoes*deep* in the heart of every emotion. God Himself will do this in the DN of the spirit/soul.

    I’ve run out of room again. This was Very brief but hopefully helps a little. There are many signs & temptations that accompany believers here and a good spiritual director/pastor familiar with this terrain is needed.

    michael 🙂

  • KB

    I’m still not seeing any scriptural support for this