A Guide to Spiritual Formation - Lesson 5

Drawing Near to God When God Seems Far Away (pt 1)

When we choose to become committed followers of Christ, we are one spirit with Him, but we still experience times when God seems distant. Sometimes this is a result of going through a developmental stage in our spiritual growth. God gives us the "bottle" of consolation. At first, we seek God in order to get pleasure. God's goal is to make our heart His home. The next stage is the love of God for love's sake.

John Coe
A Guide to Spiritual Formation
Lesson 5
Watching Now
Drawing Near to God When God Seems Far Away (pt 1)

A. Spiritual writers' observation about "dry times"

1. Spiritual consolation often comes to individuals when they are less mature and spiritual desolation comes to more mature believers

2. Consolation and desolation must be based more on what God is doing than on what we are doing

B. Developmental spirituality: Biblical data (I John 2:12-14)

1. Beginner: Love of God for pleasure's sake

a. This stage corresponds to children how sins are forgiven, having a "relationship with God"

b. Characterized by spiritual pleasure

c. The, the soul is moved to spiritual things due to the consolation of pleasure that we get from them.

2. Sins of the beginner

3. Dark night of the senses

Class Resources
  • We become moralists when we try to do good things in order to please God and relieve our guilt.
  • Parenting by guilt and shame encourages a child to do good to avoid consequences and cover their bad, rather than pursuing a relationship with God in order to let Him change their motives by transforming them from the inside.

  • What is in our heart determines how we act. There is more going on in our heart than what shows on the surface. In our hidden heart, we often have negative beliefs and desires that affect our actions.

  • When we sin, it's often the result of sin in our heart that has deep relational and historical roots. God wants us to pursue Him so he can transform us from the inside.

  • When we choose to become committed followers of Christ, we are one spirit with Him, but we still experience times when God seems distant. Sometimes this is a result of going through a developmental stage in our spiritual growth. God gives us the "bottle" of consolation. At first, we seek God in order to get pleasure. God's goal is to make our heart His home. The next stage is the love of God for love's sake.

  • The point of the dark night is to cure us of wanting God on our terms. It is an intensified movement of the indwelling spirit to fill us, rather than to just give us consoling love. When we experience dry times, God is showing us where our treasure really is and is calling us to a journey of the soul. It will often feel more psychological than spiritual.

  • God wants us to move from the love of God for love's sake to the love of God for God's sake. Our training in virtue and character helps us lead a life that is beneficial to ourselves and others. God wants us to rely on the Spirit, not just patterns of behavior we have learned. God sometimes uses the experience of dark nights to help purge us of our virtues as well as our vices.

  • In a dark night experience, we realize that even though we have good character, we are more filled with ourselves than we are with God. God may be more present to us when he seems absent than when he seems present. It is often helpful to have a mentor to walk with us through dark nights.

  • It is important to do spiritual disciplines from the heart in the Spirit. The Christian life is what you do when you realize you can do nothing. In discussing spiritual disciplines, it is helpful to emphasize the importance of how we hear the commands of God.  It is not in our power to change ourselves, but we can choose to practice spiritual regimens and rhythms that help us open up to what God wants to do. Spiritual intentions are how we respond to the Word of God.

  • How do I listen to God's voice? What do I do when I walk away from reading the Word or hearing a sermon? The prayer of recollection is to remind me of who I am in Christ so when I hear the Word, I am open to Him. It's also to help focus my thoughts by detaching from false identities and attaching to my true identity. Lectio divina brings together the commands to "be filled with the Spirit" and "let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly."

The Christian life is not fundamentally about being a moral person, obeying a set of principles, or doing spiritual disciplines. The Christian life is about opening our heart to a relationship with the living God. As we depend on the indwelling Spirit and experience abiding in Christ, we will learn an obedience that comes without the burden of guilt and shame.


This is a topic that is – it’s very near and dear to my heart. Although my students find it strange that I would like to talk about dark nights, but this is, in some way, this topic is the – my entrance place I think into this real issue of spiritual formation. And I’ll share a little more personally about that.

What I want to continue to do is I want to talk about what we started last time and that was putting off the old man. This will continue this subject and then next week I’ll probably turn to what it is to put on Jesus Christ. But here if you recall we had talked about the text in Ephesians 4 where Paul says that we are a new creation in Christ and yet there is this old flesh, this old man residue. He calls it the former manner of life. It’s this stuff that’s whether it’s from childhood or pre-converted days, it’s the stuff that Paul says is still being corrupted by the desires of deceit within the heart. And the point that we had made then was that no amount of putting on Jesus Christ is going to hinder this ongoing corruption that’s taking place in the heart. And so, we talked the whole time about what it is now with the Spirit on the basis of what Christ has done to enter into that place of our heart, to not be afraid to open up to what really is going on inside. Like we had said, the crap inside.

Now, as I think of that, I really like what Pastor Dale said this last week in his sermon. Remember him talking about the disciples? He said we are often clueless and lacking understanding. And you know when he said how many of you are like that? Man my hand just shot up. And it’s in this putting off stuff it’s when we begin to enter to the heart and see what God is doing and what He wants to show us about ourselves. This is where things can get really messy. This is where we can become very clueless about, “God, what are you doing? What’s going on?”

And so last time we talked about how God invites us through all kinds of things. One was through the Word of God. One was trials, thorns in the flesh. How He uses all circumstances. How He can use other people. How He can use prayer life as a place to invite us into opening the heart.

Well, I want to talk tonight about a very unusual way that He invites us. In all of our lives, we experience external trials and we know those external trials really open the heart. Well, tonight I want to talk about an unusual kind of trial. It’s an internal, spiritual trial. And it’s something that as I went through Bible institute, and Bible college and seminary, I didn’t even have this in my mind of what God might be doing. And the ancient spiritual writers they called these dark nights or dark nights of the soul.

Have you ever wondered in your deep, “God, where are you? God, are you there? Lord, what is wrong with me? God, why do You feel so distant? What is wrong with You, God? Why do I feel so dry inside? Lord, why is it that I don’t seem to care about reading the Scriptures like I used to? Lord, why is it that sometimes I’m bored when I pray? Lord, why is that sometimes when I pray my mind just starts wandering? Have I done something wrong? Why is it that sometimes I hear sermons and I’m bored and wondering when will he quit? What has happened, Lord? I used to be more excited. Lord, I don’t understand what is going on.” 

Or perhaps you’ve had times in your life, seasons where you’re asking God for His will, and you’re trying to seek God, “What are You desiring me to do in this area” and as you’re praying it’s just silent. You asked the question, “God, what should I do?”

Or perhaps even worse there’s just a bunch of noise in your head. And you’re wondering, “God, where are You in this?” Well, you know, what I have found. I’ve been at Biola for 17, 18 years and you know what I find my seminary students do? I find that when this starts happening in their life, they begin to pray less. And they turn from prayer and they now spend most of their time in the Word. Now going to the Word is a fine thing, but going to the Word as a way to avoid prayer, that is not a good thing. I understand why they do it, because that’s exactly, in part, what I began to do when I was in seminary. 

It’s a time where in prayer, you know, it’s not clear what God is doing, but at least I can go to the Word. I can get clarity. There’s something there. That makes sense. And then when I turn inward to my own prayer life and talk to God, it’s a little darker. And then, for some of you who are leaders and teachers and pastors, there’s nothing so difficult than have to get up every week to teach and preach, when you are going through these dry times, when you’re preparing lessons and you’re going, “God, what is going on, Lord? Where are you? Why don’t You feel close?” And then you come and prepare and you’re ready to speak. That’s a difficult thing. It’s a difficult thing to get up.

And you know what’s also difficult is to then look at your congregation when you’re in that state, and there, for whatever reason, whether it’s dark nights or you’re just tired, they’re falling asleep on you. It’s really encouraging when you’re preaching in dryness and someone’s snoring. But the one that I always like is the whiplash one. You know, when I see those out in the audiences, you know I used to preach for about - you know, that’s when I would see the head nodding back and I would want to raise my voice. How dare you fall asleep on me!

Now, what’s really difficult is when you’re teaching and you even start to get bored with what you say. There is nothing harder – every teacher who has been doing this a long time – you’re speaking words and you know they are dry as dust. The words just drop on the podium. This is a very hard place to be. I’m interested in these times.

You know, the truth is this. This is the theological truth. This is the reality. God is always here. God is always present. God is always working within my soul. That is a constant. In 1 Peter 1:4, I’m told that I have become a partaker of the divine nature. That’s incredible. That God, His divine nature, I have become a partaker of that by the Spirit. I’m told in 1 Corinthians 6:17 that anyone who has joined himself to the Lord is now one spirit with Him. His spirit and my spirit are joined so the truth is the Spirit is always here. Colossians 1:27 we talk about Christ in us, the hope of glory.

Then this is the question. Why does God sometimes feel absent? What would possibly be the explanation? How could this be? Do you know the question I ask is, “God, You can do all things logically possible. Why don’t You make Yourself known all the time to me? If my children ask me a question, if I was silent that would be rather strange. “Dad, what’s wrong?” Silence. It would be kind of like going to a therapist – I have these analogies in my head because I’ve worked around psychologists – it would be like going to a therapist and you walk into a room and there on the chalkboard the therapist says, “Lay down on the couch, start talking, and believe I’m here.”

And yet, sometimes in prayer, that’s what it feels like. Every moment of the day, God could give us, if He wanted to, He could give us a theophany. You know what a theophany is? It’s the manifestation of the presence of God in some physical form. He could give us, right now, if He wanted to, He could give us the burning podium experience. Wouldn’t that be cool? We would all love it. Every time you have a quiet time, He could give you the burning quiet time experience. And the question that the spiritual writers asked is, “Why doesn’t He? Why are there times of this felt absence of God?”

This became very acute in my life. I had converted at 19 and for the next seven or eight years, the Lord – I mean, there were ups and downs, but in general, I had such a sense of God being with me. I had such a sense of his presence in prayer, reading the Word, going to church. Just couldn’t get enough of that. I loved it. And then, during the seminary period, this began to plateau for me. I began to experience more dryness in my spiritual life. And it starts peaking out as I go to graduate school and then down even more when I’m teaching at Biola, when I’m teaching theology. It got to a point where I was so dry inside. I would teach theology and sometimes I would come in and I would throw down my books and say, “Lord I cannot do this for 25 more years. God, what is going on? You seemed so close to me 15 years ago when I came to the Lord. What is going on?” And I would share this with my students. And my students were going through dry times and they thought that was very profound, “Ooh. Dr. Coe’s sharing his dryness. Ooh. That’s neat.” You know, it sounds profound for a while but after awhile, it’s not profound. After a while it’s a real question, “God, what are You doing? What is going on?”

To me it hit bottom about 1994. And in 1994, that is now 12 years ago, I was just asking the question every day, “God, where are the rivers of living water? Why is it that You don’t come? What is going on in my relationship with You?” At that point I went on a retreat and some things happened that opened up a whole new way in my own life and thinking. And I just want to say this now. There are some things that are so obvious to me now in hindsight. There are some things that are so crystal clear, but like most things in life when we’re in the middle of them, we don’t know what’s going on.

That’s exactly what Pastor Dale said. I loved that. We are clueless. And we often don’t get what’s going on, but later in looking back it becomes crystal clear. And there’s a story about this. This is Holmes and Watson. They were on a camping trip. And after they come back at the end of the day, they’re climbing in their sleeping bag and Holmes says to Watson, “Watson, look up. What do you see?” And Watson says, “I see an incredible sky. Beautiful sky. Night sky with all these lights.” Holmes says, “What does that tell you?” “Well, astronomically it tells me there are billions of galaxies and meteorologically it tells me we’re going to have a great day tomorrow. Holmes, what does it tell you?” Holmes says, “Somebody’s stolen our tent.” Now that’s the obvious. 

You know, the person in counseling after divorce – It is crystal clear why their spouse left them. It all makes sense. You know, I didn’t spend time with them. I was giving myself to other things. Everything’s clear but while we’re right in the middle of it, things don’t make sense because we’re looking at other things.

Before I actually dive into this material, let me just give you, in general, so that we can get to the point what the spiritual writers thought about this. Because they gave themselves to really thinking, “What is this?” And so let me just give you a general point. This isn’t in your notes. But they said, this is what they noticed. From Augustine, Jerome, right, all the way to St. John of the Cross. That’s the person I’m going to talk about today, a 16th-century monk who wrote on this. But all these individuals who began thinking about the spiritual life as they were discipling hundreds of people. Here’s what they noticed. They noticed that at some point in this process that a person becomes what they’re going to call a beginner. At some point they become this beginner where - And what they meant by a beginner was when spirituality took, when all of a sudden you said, “Yes, this is my faith. This isn’t my parents. This is mine.” And what they noticed as they discipled hundreds and hundreds of people and they began to write books on it and talk to one another and see this pattern, they noticed that often times there was a great period where there was a sense of the presence of God in that person’s life. And they came to give this a name. They came to call it consolation.

Consolation is this felt presence of God. And then they noticed. They saw it in their own life and they saw it in disciple after disciple. They noticed a period of plateauing. Where they noticed people engaged in prayer, spiritual disciplines, reading the Word, hearing a sermon. It wasn’t as exciting. And then as this went on, they noticed actually there was a downturn where it actually is the felt absence of God. The person at some point in their spiritual life becomes more and more aware, “I don’t feel His presence. What’s going on?” And often they start looking back to earlier times, “God, you just seem so present then.” And they came to call this desolation. That’s a nice word. Desolation: the felt absence of God.

And then what really intrigued them was this. They said, “Isn’t it fascinating that this person – whoever it is – we’ll just call it at some time 20 – whenever that is – isn’t in interesting that they were less mature than they were down here. This might be four years later. We’ll call this you know times 60, a much later time. And they say, “Isn’t that fascinating that the person who is less mature got consolation and the person who is more mature is experiencing the absence of God?” How can this be?

I mean, wouldn’t we normally think, kind of like this, if this is another graph. If this vertical line represents the experience of God and this horizontal line represents kind of character maturity, wouldn’t you think that the more mature we get also the greater the experience of God would be? The greater the experience of God the more mature we’d be. And so, it would just be up, up, up, up, up. Wouldn’t it be cool? Would anybody want that? But they noticed this pattern. And what was so fascinating - People, you know, all around the Christian world at this time, from Rome to Israel to Egypt, they’re writing about this stuff. And here’s what they begin to say about this. I’ll just give you some theses.

The first one is this. They saw that spiritual consolation often comes to individuals when they’re less mature. And the second thing they noticed is that often spiritual desolation often comes to more mature believers. Now, we’re talking about individuals who are not what they called lukewarm. And what they meant about lukewarm was someone who was just turning their back from the faith and walking away. We’re talking about people like ourselves, the dedicated neurotic, who are given to this. We are not running away. And they said, “That’s fascinating that the less mature often get consolation and individuals who are more mature often experience this desolation. And so then they realize or this is what they reasoned at least, that the felt presence of God is not based upon your maturity per se. It can’t be, because this person is quite a bit more mature characterologically and they’re not feeling the felt presence of God. So they say, “Well, then, it can’t be based on that.”

Well, and so the fourth thesis was this. Then consolation and desolation must be less based on what we’re doing and more based on what God is doing. Consolation and desolation are gifts of God. Now, like I said before, there are gifts and there are gifts. How many want this gift? That’s quite a gift. This caused them to think deeply. What’s the purpose of these? And so they began to reason this way. Consolation. God must be giving this felt presence of Himself for the purpose to encourage, to encourage individuals, to reinforce their pursuit in prayer. I mean, wouldn’t it be terrible if all of your life, every time you pick up the Bible it was dead. No insight. Boring. That would be terrible. But then they queried, “What is the point of desolation?” And I’ll just tip the hand here. Desolation must be to mirror what is going on in the heart. Desolation, per se, is not to encourage and reinforce behaviors. Desolation rather is to expose behaviors.

A. Developmental Spirituality

And so in all of this they began to contemplate what came to be known as a developmental spirituality. Now this is something when I went to seminary I had no idea about. I had never read these spiritual writers on this stuff. The way I was trained is there is a universal set of principles that governs how the Spirit of God is at work at anybody’s soul at any time. And my interest was to discover those universal principles from the Scripture. And what these individuals began to reason was, “You know, just like there’s developmental psychology that children they go to toddlers, right, into young adolescents – There’s different psychological developmental processes and hurdles they go through? They thought, maybe it’s the same with spirituality. Maybe there’s something that’s going on in a developmental sense that the Spirit of God is doing differently. Cause then they noticed also this continued. There are different kinds of seasons about this.

And so, Augustine is one of the first, he and Jerome, who began to write developmental spiritualities. They begin to think, “This is interesting. We come into the world and there’s a kind of development.” At some point conversion takes place. Many of them thought that was baptism. And there’s a whole new developmental process. And so they began to write this. And they began to write these different schemes and they began to look into the Scripture. Is there anything in the Scriptures that gives us some indication of this developmental process that maybe the Spirit of God is working in different ways at different times? And so now we’re in the notes, finally. So that was the introduction.  

And they came to 1 John 2. Now there’s other places, but this was one that they all landed on. They all commented on this. Because something so clear going on, but even in the clarity that something is going on, not clear what it’s trying to say. John the Apostle is the writer. He had been a pastor, an elder at this church. This is probably written to the church at Ephesus. And John is now writing. He’s been away for some time, and so he writes to them on the basis of familiarity. And he says this: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have forgiven you for His name’s sake. And I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. [Now he repeats himself.] I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. And I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” [1 John 2:12-14, NASB]

What they all recognize here is there seem to be three kinds of stages. And we don’t – I mean, here we would love another paragraph or a page of John to give us a commentary. Now tell us more about this. This is all he says. We get some sense of the book ends, right? On one hand is the spiritual children. And if you look at the text, what are they characterized by? They’re characterized by a sense of forgiveness of sin and they’re characterized by a sense of they know the Father. This is kind of the awakening. 

Now I converted at 19 and what did I say when I converted at 19? I immediately, “I know God. I’m forgiven.” And in fact, what I would tell all my friends – I alienated every single one of them, but my message then was, “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a what? A relationship. Boy, that just comes right out of our head. Course some of us 15 years later kind of wonder, “God, where is the relationship?” But that’s how this felt. 

And so the writers who said there is something about the spiritual child. There is an awakening of the forgiveness of sin. There is an awakening of I know God. And then the other end, spiritual maturity, right? This is very cryptic. But in some sense you know God who is from the beginning. Most of the writers when they talked about this or even present commentators say this is about the old seasoned believer who knows God is the sovereign one. They’ve lived long enough. They’ve seen their spouse die. They’ve seen wars. They’ve seen their children die. All kinds of things. And now God is the big one. They know God who is over all things. God who is from the beginning.

What the spiritual writers were mostly interested in was the middle stage, because they were mostly interested in this stage here: desolation. They wanted to understand what is God doing here? Why doesn’t God just make it like this? Why isn’t it all consolation? If I draw near to God, why doesn’t God draw near to me? And so what fascinated them was this middle stage that John talks about. It’s characterized by a sense of struggling and wrestling with evil. Right, the Word of God abides in you. You’ve wrestled with the evil one. You’ve struggled. You’ve overcome.

And so what all the spiritual writers recognized, what the Apostle John recognized is that there is some kind of movement of growth. There’s something that takes place as we move, but they were especially interested in this middle stage. And what I want to talk to you about is that middle stage because as they continued to write over 15 centuries, they began to coalesce this into a theory. And I’m not going to give you this whole theory tonight, but I am going to present to you the first three stages. Now, as I go through this, you will just have to with your own lights decide: Is this true? How does this square with the text? Should we understand this linearly? Is it chronologically? Or is it maybe just seasons in your life? And so you think as we go through this.

1. Beginner: Love of God for Pleasure’s Sake

I want to start – and this is on your notes – with the beginner. Now I’m going to take, in part, this schema from a writer named St. John of the Cross. And he wrote a book called The Dark Night of the Soul. And here he’s going to talk about all that he is doing in the 16th century when he’s writing. It’s right during the time, the Reformation is just starting. He is trying to coalesce many years, centuries of people writing about this.

And so let’s start with the beginner. And what they said about this first stage: the beginner. They call it the love of God for pleasure’s sake. They’re going to see the movement of growth as a movement of different kinds of loves in our life. The first love, the baby love, is loving God for pleasure’s sake. And we’re going to see that we’re going to move on to a different kind of love as we grow.

Now when we talk about the beginner, what these spiritual writers had in mind was not someone who is necessarily when you converted. Like, my daughters converted at five. But I wouldn’t put them in the category of being a beginner. What beginner meant for them was when finally Christianity took. When it finally was, “Yes, this is my faith. Yeah, I am excited. I’m forgiven. I know God. This is cool.” Now, that happens usually to later converts right at their conversion. I’ve given this talk of some kind probably hundreds of times now to students, to churches, retreats – all kinds of environments. And I’ve find that those who had later conversions often times there was an explosion right then, “I’m forgiven. God is alive. This is great.”

Now for those who were raised in the church, I find it usually didn’t happen until a little later on. Like, maybe junior high, high school. Let me just kind of get a sense from this audience here, how many of you would say that you had this time where your faith took. It was yours. Where you felt you were forgiven. How many of you would say this happened from six grade or earlier? How many did that happen? Yeah. So just a handful. How many of you say this happened in junior high? How many? How many did it happen in high school? Yeah. College? How many of you it was after college? Okay. There you are. Yeah, oldies. How many of you were raised in the church? Yeah. Well, that is the beginner. The beginner is when this thing takes. And I’m just going to read this and then kind of talk about it and explain it.

They said that in A, this stage corresponds in children – spiritual children whose sins are forgiven. They have a relationship with God. It’s when it finally took. And it’s characterized, they said, by spiritual pleasure. Number one. As a mother gives milk to an infant, so God feeds us as spiritual babies right where we are at in our love of pleasure. Now let me read A, B, C, and then we’ll talk about this.

According to 2 Corinthians 5:17 we’re a new creature. And as a new creature we have an affection at the core of our heart. Right where the Spirit of God is. And B, for the sake of growth, there is this affection at the core. But the character hasn’t been developed yet. There is just a young believer. And so B, for the sake of growth, God gives the believer the bottle of spiritual pleasure. Now, he actually says the breast of spiritual pleasure, but I kind of cleaned this up a little, primarily because I write it on the chalkboard and then it gets really weird so I can’t do that. So I write a bottle. The bottle of spiritual pleasure. And what’s key here is without any labor on our part, God is doing this.

Now C, God gives spiritual pleasure by means – you’ve got to ponder this now – by means of the same psychological structures as in one’s childhood or non-Christian days. The only difference is there are new objects of pleasure. Now, wow, what’s going on here?

Well, you know, if you want to, you can take out the article I wrote, because I’ll talk about those charts in the article. And this is on page 297. This is the scheme that John of the Cross is working with . By this time John of the Cross had been a student at the University of Salamanca and so he was trained in the theology of the day, which is Thomistic theology of the person of St. Thomas the Aquinas. And here’s the psychology he has in mind of what’s going on. This is his view. This is at this time in the church this is how they understood what was going on in the pre-convert experience.

In the pre-convert experience we are born in original sin. And part of being born in original sin means this. I should have been born with the Holy Spirit had there been no sin, but I’m not born that way. I’m born rather with a relational hole at the center of my person. I was born to know another person inside, but I don’t have that. And the result – there are two fundamental sins that drive the non-Christian according to this theology. Augustine had started this. Calvin and Luther are going to pick it up.

This first sin is what they called pride. And what pride just means is this. It means that we are full of ourselves. It doesn’t mean arrogance. Theological pride does not necessarily mean you’re arrogant. It just means that you’re living life in the power of your self. You are full of yourself. Well, who else could you be full of? And so, if these are our psychological capacities for joy, for hope, for desire, for love, for anger, and these are the objects we can pursue – we can pursue food, sex, parenting, friends, education - whatever it is. One of the most fundamental sins of the self - and this happened to me for the first 19 years of my life - is I’m full of myself. It’s my anger. It’s not the Spirit’s, right? The new covenant is going to be the Spirit is going to come and He’s going to begin to want to join His desires, His hopes, His loves right into mine. But I’m born full of myself.

And the second thing that I’m born is I’m born with a heart that is to some degree habituated by pleasure, so that even if I sacrifice for my children, to some degree I want some feedback back to it because why? Because the human heart has a need to be filled. And Augustine was the first one who reasoned that what the human heart is trying to be filled with ultimately is this deep pleasure to feel full. Now this had an old name. If you’re interested in church history, this was called concupiscence. It was the lust of the flesh. The pursuit of pleasure. So for the nonbeliever – they might be nice people, partially virtuous, Hell’s Angels, whatever – what they do all share in common is they are full of themselves and they’re pursuing pleasure at some level to fill this hole.

Well, what happens at conversion then? At conversion – this is the way John of the Cross and these spiritual writers began to reason – the Holy Spirit comes in. We’re a new creature and the Holy Spirit begins to fill us. But the filling of the Spirit – the ongoing, characterological filling – that’s for the long haul. That’s where His joys slowly become our joys as we have more and more union with the Spirit. His desires begin to merge. But here for the young believer – I’ll think of myself at 19 – well, some of you at junior high, high school, whenever the beginner stage was – we’re still quite full of our self. These are still my joys, my hopes. I’m habituated that way. Characterologically, that’s just the truth. And the heart is still habituated by certain pleasures. There hasn’t been time yet for a real transformation of character in the Spirit.

But here is what God wants to do. God wants to begin to move us into new objects of pursuit. He wants to now move us into places where we – where we desire to read the Word. We desire to pray. We desire to fellowship, etc., etc. And yet, we don’t have the character for it yet. And so what does God do? He gives us the bottle of spiritual pleasure. He gives us what we might call spiritual infant grace. So He takes little Johnny Coe. Johnny Coe loved football. He loved girls. He loved making out with Greta before we were married. He loved pizza. He loved a lot of things. And so the Lord takes little Johnny and goes, “Here, little baby. Oh, Johnny, you are so cute. Here’s a Bible.” And you know what he does? He puts in that bottle the same stuff that motivated me earlier. And it’s going to be a bottle of consolation. He’s gonna look at the same psychological structures that drove John, that reinforced John to pursue girls, football, education, and he says, “I’m going to pack it with the same stuff, because you know, John? I want you to begin to pursue this. I want you to fall in love with this. And right now, John, you do not have the character of love to just, within yourself – You haven’t learned how to depend on Me so that My love can fill you so that you can love like that, out of yourself.” And I would go to hear the Scriptures taught, “Oh my gosh. This is so cool.”

Now, what I do find is this. Converts usually get a bigger bottle. And they look more mature, because they have a bigger bottle. You know, I think of when I came to the Lord in the 70s – 1974 – this was at the tail end of kind of the Jesus movement, the 60s and 70s. Think of that generation. Some of you came to the Lord then. What was that generation doing? It was drinking from the hose of pleasure. You know, I think of my parents. You know, my parents, you know, they’re in their 90s. They were raised during the Depression. I mean, it’s just incredible when I think about their life. My dad ate baloney sandwiches every day of his life for lunch. “So, Dad, why don’t you have a little variety?” “No. Baloney is good enough.” That’s impossible for me. That’s impossible. That could not happen. They thought in the 1950s when they had us – they – and then the 40s, my older brothers – they thought for sure, “You know, if we give everything to our children they will rise up and call us blessed. And they will become virtuous people.” That’s not what happened. We drank from the hose of pleasure and we rose up and what did we say? “More. Give me more, Dad.” That explains in part why the Jesus movement was such an explosion in people’s lives for consolation, because they were drinking from this bottle, this hose. And now God is taking these individuals. He’s giving them like a hose of consolation.

And you know what was different? It was different for some of those raised in the church. I see this with my daughters. When I came to the Lord at 19 it was, “Whoa!  I am alive. You’re going to hell.” You know, my daughters experienced what I would call the great days of the Spirit. You know why that is? I used to have friends when I came to the Lord when - Again I started going to a church. Huge, very conservative church. I had friends there who said, “John, I wished I had your conversion experience. Gosh. You’re so alive.” They didn’t know what they were talking about. You see, you know what the truth was? Those people and my children, they do not need as big a bottle, because as we’re going to see, God is ultimately is not interested in keeping you on the bottle. Because – You know what’s a funny thing about this bottle? This bottle won’t do the transformation work that we’ve been talking about of putting off.

The truth is as long as there’s a bottle in your mouth you won’t give a rip about looking at yourself. Because why? “It’s feeling good. God’s good. This is cool. We’re moving. We’re good.” My daughters are already,I noticed, Greta and I talk about this all the way. Greta and I were the first converts in our family. Our daughters are already more healthy at their core than Greta and I. I know that. This is the great thing about parenting. Even though Greta and I are all messed up, we really can – you can really parent. This is the hope for you all. You can parent beyond yourself, because something is beginning to happen good. And I already see in my daughters. There is a healthier structure. 

Sometimes I predict how they will experience something and I am totally wrong. There is already more sturdiness and structure. They don’t need this bottle. I know they’re going to get it, though. Because at some point in their spiritual life, God’s going to have to encourage them. At some point – and it’s probably going to be junior high or high school – they’re going to get hooked up to some, you know, high school leader or whatever, high school group and all of a sudden God’s going to say, “Ana, now it’s your time. Because you know what I’ve got to do? I need to give you just a little reinforcement here, because I really want to hook you into the Bible. I really want to hook you into prayer. I really want to hook you into fellowship.” He can do that right now, but He’s chosen not to because for Ana - Ana is already, and Crista are already dealing with deep questions about, “You know, Daddy, when I pray why doesn’t God come? You know, Daddy, we’ve been praying for this to happen that he wouldn’t die, and he died. Why does this happen?” Those are already great questions for their soul to begin to deal with that you can’t have God in your own terms.

Well, there’s a lot more to say about this, but this is an incredible time when it does happen. You feel alive, and notice how good God is. He responds like a good mother to her child. God meets the child right where their at characterologically, because characterologically at 19 when I came to the Lord, I didn’t have the stuff yet to love God from the heart. I’m just beginning. The Spirit is just beginning to start moving into the deep. And so He gives me this bottle.

I actually for my daughters, you know, when they got onto the bottle we called it the “Bah.” Do you remember when your daughters, you know, during breast time then going to the “Bah.” The “Bah” was incredible. You know, my daughters would come and go, “Bah. Bah. Bah.” And I’d give them this “Bah” and you know what they’d do? They’d stick it in their mouths. Well, you know, we have the bottles where they have those little sacks in it. So they didn’t have to use gravity. They can just walk around all day like this. And when they would get the “Bah” I would watch, especially Ana. She would get the “Bah” and she would tumble back into the bed. And her eyes would roll up. She was in nirvana. She was having a trip. She loved it.

This is the time where the spiritual disciplines are felt as good. This is where the time that it’s no labor on your part, and “Oh, God’s here. This prayer is great.” By the way, this is for you who disciple and train, when you have your disciples, your directees, whatever. in this state of life. This is the time where you immerse them in the spiritual disciplines. This is the time when you immerse them in meditating on Scripture, memorizing Scripture, Bible studies, fellowship time. Because God, He’s reinforcing it all. It’s feeling so good. It’s so wonderful. And it’s going to be great fodder for later on.

The church I came to the Lord in - again this very conservative, Bible teaching church – it was an incredible place for the Word of God being taught. And during that time my discipler - he just immersed me in the Scripture. I memorized probably within the first three years of my Christian life about seven to nine, you know, books in the New Testament. I loved it. It was an incredible time for the Lord and He was going to use it so much later on.

And so D, thus during this beginner’s state the soul is moved to spiritual things but much due to the consolation of pleasure that we get from them. It’s great but we’re moved to it because of the consolation that’s there. And so, I thank God that He condescends to our level, lest we wouldn’t even be moved at all. Lest, I wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t love the text. I wouldn’t love reading the Scriptures. But again, at this place, the way that these spiritual writers were thinking, we’re seeking these new spiritual objects because of the pleasure that we get from it and not just for the sake of God’s glory because we’re not characterologically, you know, structured yet for that. And this pursuing God and the disciplines for pleasure is exactly what is going to be addressed in the dark nights that are going to come, because what is going to start developing here is this. We are going to unconsciously – it’s not something, you know, we’re wanting to do, but we’re going to begin slowly – and think about this – we’re going to begin slowly to measure the presence of God by how it feels. We’re going to slowly measure the presence of God by the consolation. And if consolation’s there, God’s here. Things are well. If I’m not feeling God’s presence, something’s wrong. I’m really going to miss something here.

Going on in the outline. So during this time of the beginner – Number two – some spiritual strength begins. God, as I converted at 19, there were trials. There were thorns. There were all kinds of stuff. I’m hearing the Word. I’m being encouraged. There is strength.

But number three. The pre-converted vices or the childhood vices take on a religious dimension. You see, wouldn’t it have been cool at conversion if my whole character had been transformed? Well, then, there would be no putting off. It’s not that way. I dragged – you know it’s like a little child dragging a teddy bear? –  I dragged the old man right into conversion. It’s not the core of me, but it’s a residue, and sometimes it a huge residue. And so this led to the second stage called the sins of the beginner.

2. Sins of the Beginner

Again, this is where our former sins come right into the spiritual life. They actually enter right into the way and manner which I do the disciplines. For those of us who teach, they come right into my teaching. And so for me, I was a football player. Fortitude. A little bit of arrogance, but not too much. When you’re a lineman you can’t have too much of that, but definitely pride and wanting to be observed and seen. And as I became a teacher, oh, I loved it. I loved being seen. I loved being noticed. I loved people coming up and saying, “John, that’s very insightful.” “No. Not really.” “Kind of.” And so whatever your sins were, they come right into the faith. And the spiritual change, A, deludes us to think that the self had made the changes. The bottle of consolation can delude us to think well, I was making those changes in the first place. No. It was God’s gift of consolation.

You know what also happens to the beginner? They mistaken consolation for character change. Those of you who disciple, just remember that, that converts or people who are at this beginner’s phase, they mistaken this consolation for true character change. I remember my mom and I had this ongoing discussion. I’d say, “Mom, I’m a new member in Christ. I’ve changed. I’m together and you’re going to hell.” And you know what my mom would always say back to me? “You know, John, you’re the same arrogant, little kid.” Oh, that bugged me. I get defensive. She was right and I was right. What she could not see – she is converted now, you know, about 15 years later – but at that point she could not see that there was a new affection at the core. There was a new affective love of God at the core of me, and I was getting consolation in this. But she was also right that character change wasn’t that fast. A lot of my same character was there. 

And so our spiritual change deludes us even to think that we were making the change and secondly, our appetite for pleasure still has as its goal to feel good in our spirituality. And so John of the Cross and these other writers – they developed a list of – it was from the Medieval period. It was called the seven deadly sins. Pride – you don’t need to get these here. You can read the article. Pride. Gluttony. Envy. Wrath. Sloth. Laziness. Greed. And they said, and you know what these do? They come right into the spiritual life. They come into spirituality.

Now I’m just going to give you a taste of three, but before I do I just have to ask you a question. Has there ever been at a time in your spiritual life – As you looked back. Some of you have been with the Lord quite a while – but was there ever a period of time or even now, seasons, where you noticed a shift. That is, you noticed earlier on, you know, I was loving the Lord. I was reading the Scriptures. I couldn’t get enough of it. You know I love hearing, you know, the preaching. I just – so excited I loved to be around fellowship and prayer. 

And then, you don’t know when the change took place but you just noticed, you know, “I’m not quite as excited as I used to be. I’m not terribly excited about having my quiet time. It’s feeling a little bit more like duty.” Or, you know, prayer I mean have you ever been in prayer and your mind is wandering, right? That ever happened to you? All over the universe sometimes. How many of you would say there’s been a time in your life or you’ve had a season where you notice something different? Raise your hand. Yeah.  Now. Let me give you a couple of these spiritual sins and a test for it.

The first one is spiritual gluttony. Spiritual gluttony is when our drive to do spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Word, hearing sermons, fellowship is more for spiritual pleasure than for purity. Here’s a test for that. It’s a very simple test. Think back to that time I just talked to you about when there was – you noticed, “You know, I used to really enjoy this and now I’m – I don’t know why. I’m just kind of bored with my quiet time. Whatever.” And if your response to that time was to do the discipline less or to do it with less intensity, maybe not even to get up, then you know you are a spiritual glutton. How shocking, you spiritual glutton. No. You couldn’t be another way, because you were born in original sin governed by pleasure at some place at the core. And the Father in heaven, in His kind and gracious way, when you were a beginner had to give you the bottle and now the bottle is withdrawn. And now, I’m doing it less maybe. Well, it’s very simple. That’s because I wasn’t doing it just to get truth and purity. I was going at these things, in great part, because I was hooked on the “Bah.” I wanted the bottle. It couldn’t be any other way. It was a kind gift and now we have to grow up.

Another sin. It’s called spiritual pride. This is the deep belief that in some way we are making our spiritual life work. Now most of us wouldn’t say that. Most of us wouldn’t say, “Well, I think I’m doing pretty good in this thing. I’m kind of making it work.” Now here’s a simple test, very simple. Go back to that time, that transition time where you’re not as excited. Something’s changed and you noticed this and this is for the person who has done nothing different in their life. I’m not talking about a lukewarm person who says, “You know, I’m out of the faith.” I’m talking about you know, the dedicated. We’re just sinning the same way we normally do and trying to do the good in the same way we’re normally doing. You haven’t changed. And now the disciplines don’t seem to work. It’s not the same. And if your response is to feel guilty, that it’s your fault. If your response is this, “You know, God, there’s something wrong with me. I mean, I remember when I used to pray I, you know, I just really felt your closeness. Something must be wrong because I - This is so dry. I’m not – I’m just not going at the Word hard enough. I’m not reading.” And so you work harder. Or you just feel guilty, “I’m to blame.” Then, you know you suffer from spiritual pride, because you think that your actions were responsible for the consolation. 

It’s very simple. That is, you thought, “Oh look. When I do A, B, and C, read the Bible, fellowship and pray, God came.” And God continued to reinforce that. Reinforce that. Reinforce that. Well, now we’re like, you know, B.F. Skinner’s pigeons. We’re looking for the reinforcer. We’re doing the discipline. The reinforcer is not there. Our first response is this: I’m not doing it right, because we thought we were doing it in the first place. Now again, Oh, how shocking! Of course, you and I are full of our self. That’s it.

When the spiritual writers talk about this they say that during the beginner stage we develop two fundamental deep beliefs about spirituality that God is going to have to correct. And the first one is what we call a spirituality of causality, and secondly, it’s a spirituality of, and there are many names to this, Luther called it a spirituality of glory. It’s also called a spirituality of ascent.

Here’s what the spirituality of causality is. It’s the deep belief that says, “If I do A, B and C, then God will respond X, Y and Z.” That’s what a spirituality of causality is. If I do A, B and C, then God’s going to respond. Something’s going to happen. That wasn’t it at all. It was not a spirituality of causality. It was a spirituality. You see – that was what we thought was going on. It’s actually a spirituality of relationality. I did A, B and C, really filled with myself, just I was a young believer just filled with myself. Just reading the Bible. Trying to make life work. And God responded by giving consolation. Not causally because I did it, but because He knew that’s what I needed. It wasn’t me causing this to happen at all, but I cannot help as a beginner to think of a spirituality of causality. And that’s why when it doesn’t seem that God is responding, what is my first thought going to be, “I’m doing something wrong. I must not be doing A, B, and C, right. Because if I was, God would be responding X, Y or Z.”

The other one is called the spirituality of glory by Luther. The earlier writers called it the spirituality of ascent. And this is the view, if I do spiritual disciplines A, B, C, you know, I pray, I read the Word. I’m going to feel closer and closer to God. It’s going to be an upward feeling. It’s going to be up – up – up. Anybody want the up, up, up? I do. And, of course, that’s only because God gave consolation. Luther says, “No. What we hold in this life is a spirituality of the cross.” Spirituality begins, even at conversion, in a descent. It’s a descent into humility. It’s a descent to brokenness. It’s a descent into the truth of the self. And then there is going to be growth, right? There is going to be a general upward, but all kinds of stuff in the middle, because why? God has so much to teach us. He has so much that He needs to put off in this process, but we can’t help it, because the bottle gave us that sense of it. And so God now wants to cure us of this.

Here’s a third one. Again there’s seven of them and I’ve written stuff on this much longer about these vices and how they work in our life. But this is spiritual greed or spiritual avarice. This is the deep belief of discontent with the spirituality that God has given us. We become bugged and often disquieted in our soul that we no longer have the consolation we once did when we prayed or when we’re in the Word. And we’re bugged with this. And here’s the spiritual greed and so we try to squeeze something out of it.

You know what I think about? Remember, my brothers use to listen to the Righteous Brothers. Remember that guy with that deep voice? They had a song called Bring Back That Lovin’ Feelin. That’s what we want. Bring back that lovin’ feelin, and then, now it’s gone, gone, gone. Whoa. And I want, as I’m praying, “God, bring back that lovin’ feelin.” And I might work harder. This went on for years for me. Years. Where I was reading all kinds of books trying to squeeze out some good. “Ah, come.” You know what I had? I was a spiritual glutton, spiritual avarice. I had on my shelf where I sleep – I had a row of books. I had Calvin, Augustine, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen. There were like eight of them you know and I would go in at night and just pick out one. And you know what I’m looking for? Now I look back on it. I’m looking for a spiritual high.

You know, I used to in high school – although Greta told me, “John, you better not ever be high in front of my presence.” But I used to smoke marijuana. Well, you know, I think that’s what I was doing. One night. Take out Calvin. “God, give me something. Ooo. Raspy. Calvin can be raspy. Let’s try Merton. Oh, not tonight. Not tonight, Thomas. No, no. Let’s try Augustine tonight. Oh, yeah. Okay.” I would literally be mid-sentence in Calvin and I’d put it down, because it was dry as dust. And I’d pick up another one in the same place.

God is so gracious. I didn’t know then that I was so deeply measuring the presence of God by the feeling of consolation. And desolation – I did not know then that it would be my greatest friend. It was going to be my greatest friend to usher me into the truth of who I was. And I resisted that, because it did not feel like the presence of God. And it never dawned on me during that time that this dryness was not because of me. It never dawned on me that maybe God was doing something more profound in the heart. I was convinced, “Something is wrong with me. I’ve got to do something else.” And so I would worry, struggle. And then, I would get very frustrated. And you know, there were times when I was teaching systematic theology, my quiet times just shrunk. And I would spend all my time studying, because at least I didn’t have to deal with the confusion and the darkness and the feeling of God’s distance. Because at least I might get some insight here, because I loved ideas. I didn’t know what God was doing. But God was taking me into a dark night of the senses.

3. Dark Night of the Senses

Let me just start with this and we’ll take a break in about three or four minutes. So this is – I don’t know what this is in your outline. Maybe number three: The dark night of the senses. What is this? This first dark night. This is a period where we’re really seeing the goals of God in our life. And the real goal is that God wants to make your heart His home. That’s what the whole new covenant is about. The new covenant is not about giving you an excitation so that you and I would feel good about what we’re doing. The new covenant is what, “I want to come inside of you and I want my desires, my hopes, my joys, my loves to move right on through yours, but oh boy, we’ve got a lot of work to do.” Because what is in the way is the old manner of life. What is in the way of the filling of the Spirit is I still have - like what we talked about last week – I still have pockets of the flesh, pockets of the old man, of the old way of life. And that stuff is still me. It’s still my stuff alone. And so what God does in such a gracious, kind way, gentle way, is He turns off the light of baby-sensual spirituality. He turns off the light. And He’s going to begin to take the bottle away.

You know what God is going to do during this time? He’s going to move us into a different kind of love. The beginner’s state was the love of God for pleasure’s sake. We are moving now to a different love. It is what they called the love of God for love’s sake. Now there’s even going to be a deeper love, but that will be for another time. But the love of God for love’s sake is a deep love. I want you to think of the difference between the beginner and as we’re moving on it’s like the difference between romance and marriage.

You know, romance, isn’t that a great time? Everything is wonderful. Romance is kind of like a little bit like self-love, you know? Here’s the person I’m dating. “Hey, Baby. You’re looking good tonight. I’m looking good. I think we’re going to have a good time.” That’s kind of like loving yourself, you know? And if the date’s not going so well, you know what you can do? “Ah, I think we’ll call it quits Babe.” You know, in marriage, you can’t go home. You’re already home. And so, in marriage, you look at the person in the morning and you go, “That’s what I married?” And you look at them when their crap is kind of out. “That’s what I married?” And, of course, they can return the favor. “That’s what I married?” 

You know what marriage is built on? It’s built on truth. It’s built on truth. Simple as that. It’s built on seeing what you really are and you want to stay with the other person given what you see. I think every marriage is always going – it faces this point at some place and it’s – here’s the question that every marriage faces: “What do you want? Do you want the pleasure of the relationship or do you want the relationship? What do you want? Do you want the pleasure that accompanied, you know, this relationship potentially with Greta or do you want Greta? Because if you want Greta, and if Greta wants John, you get the whole enchilada. Crap and all.” And I think it’s now, it’s the same place with the spiritual life.

When God begins to try to wrestle the bottle from your mouth, you know what He’s really saying? He’s saying, “John, what do you want? Do you want the pleasure that’s derived in your relation to Me or do you want Me? Do you want Me to fill you? Do you want Me, the Living God to begin to work through your stuff? Well, if you do, John, then I’m going to take you on a journey of a lifetime. I’m going to take you down. Because I’m going to have to peel your heart. You see, John, I cannot go anywhere that you are not open to me going. Your vices and your natural virtues and the power of your self, those are your pockets. And John, I’m going to have now take you on a journey into those pockets.” That’s a very simple question. And God knows this. God knows this. That you and I would settle for the bottle of consolation over the transformation of our crap. Why? Because this is going to be painful. This is going to be frustrating. This is going to make you feel like a failure. This is going to make you feel like you cannot do it on your own. This is going to make you feel like you cannot make it work. And that’s the greatest gift God can give you. And so, when God begins to take the bottle away, that’s a sign where He says this, “John, you’re strong enough now. I don’t need to give you the bottle, because, John, I’ve got a journey for you. And it’s going to be the journey of a lifetime.”

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