Going On with God in Dark Nights (Part 1)
Course: Spiritual Formation
I decided I wanted to continue to discuss this work of the dark nights of the soul, the times that we look into the mirror of reality. These are times that I want to dwell on just a little bit more in order to clarify, perhaps, in our mind what these are to explore them more a little deeply and – and maybe give you also a chance to ask questions. Now I’m really going to try to stop tonight, if that’s possible. Although after I put together these notes, I thought, “Oh my gosh. We’ve got eight pages to go through.”
But I want to also demystify dark nights. I don’t want to give us the impression that dark nights are something that we want to kind of get through and then kind of get on. I remember I was doing an interview for a KKAL Live on some – I don’t know what it was called. Live something. The person talked to me. We were talking about dark nights and after we went through it a bit he said, “Well, John, this is just great, this stuff about dark nights. That’s wonderful. Now, tell me. How do we get through the dark night? What’s going on after that?” Well, the point about the dark nights that we talked about last time you don’t, per se, get through them or out of them. You’re actually entering more deeply into a relationship with the Spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that it’ll always be dark. In fact, as time goes on there may be quite a bit of light and consolation. But dark nights are really – they’re traveling through our soul to the Lord. That’s what these are.
Teresa of Avila
And so, you can even join me in the notes. I put together a fair amount of notes for you. Teresa of Avila says, “The greatest struggle in our prayer life is going to be those times when God feels silent.” You know, during times of consolation that we talked about last time, things go quite well. In fact, despite your vices, despite your problems, it doesn’t even matter. You might not even focus on them. You don’t even care about them during times of consolation. But it’s in times of desolation, that’s the concern of the spiritual writers throughout history, because during that time when our stuff is coming up, and we’re faced with it, they recognized that we do the craziest things.
Sometimes we work harder. Sometimes we try to answer our own prayers. Have you ever prayed and you want an answer from God and you actually ask God a question and you wait and if you wait for more than three seconds you may try to answer it for yourself? That’s how I’ve prayed quite a bit through seminary and beyond because sitting there in silence – I’ve asked God a question, “God, what do you think about this? Should I do this? Is this where we should go? Is this what’s going on?” I couldn’t stay in the silence, because the silence was mirroring things to me that I didn’t like. And so, I would sit there for two seconds then I would try to go to the Word to find an answer. Now that’s not bad going to the Word to find an answer, but if I’m leaving prayer because I don’t want to stay there with Him, that’s not good.
We might despair during a dark night of working harder. We might try to get the loving feeling back. We might resign ourselves to dry bones. We might try fix ourself. We might think, “Well, there’s nothing more.” There’s all kinds of stuff that we think when we’re going through these dry periods.
Maturing of the Saints
Now, my real concern for tonight that I decided – And this is my concern for those of you especially who are leaders or those of you who are leaders who are going to train other leaders and develop and work with them – my real concern tonight is for the ongoing maturing of the saints. What’s the ongoing process?
And so, tonight what I want to address it’s going to be for those who have been a believer a good while of time. I’m thinking of that person who has heard a lot. They have heard much. They have read books. They’ve heard many sermons. They’re committed to the Lord. And they have developed a pretty good character through this. They are a pretty disciplined person. They have been churched for maybe 20, 30, 40, 50 years. There’s some of you here who’ve been in the church, well, it’s all your life. Some 60, 70 years.
And you’re faithful, but this is what you might secretly wonder in your deep. Now last time, the wondering in the deep that we talked about was, “God, where are You? Why do You seem so distant?” That’s not what I want to talk exactly about tonight. I want to talk about some other kind of dark nights and here’s the question that the older person may ask who’s been in that pew a long time. And the question is, “Is this all there is? Is this all there is?”
You might be thinking in your mind at times while you’re sitting hearing sermons, “You know, I’m not getting anything new from my sermons, Lord. I’m not getting anything new for my quiet times. Oh, Lord, I know there are still struggles in my life, but Lord, these struggles, they’re generally contained. But God, I don’t seem to love you and my neighbor from the heart as I could imagine it. I act in love, but I don’t necessarily experience this deeply in my heart. And Lord, I don’t know if I really know the rivers of living water. I want them. I love You. But it just doesn’t flow out of my heart as I can imagine.” This is the person who has a good character, who has now developed a long time in the church and has been around for a while – 20, 30 years, more. And they are okay, pretty together person and they’re wondering, “Is this all there is?”
Or for those who are leaders you teach and you speak good words and you speak good words to your children and they are good words and they are good intentions. And yet, sometimes you recognize, “You know, Lord, my words aren’t exactly matching what’s going on inside.” And so the question tonight is what for those who are saying, “God, is there all there is?” So if you’ve asked this question, what I’m going to say to you tonight is for you. And those well, if this isn’t your question, just file it away.
The Ministerial Temptation
The older saints – and again, I don’t even know how to define older – All I do know is this, that by the time you get capable of parenting, you’re probably ready to die. That I do know. It’ll take you all your life to gain the wisdom to really parent. That’s the joke from God. We parent when we’re so unwise. So I don’t know how to define older, but it’s when you have heard so much and now you are asking the question, “God, is there more?”
You might be in the grips of temptation. And in the notes I say for some here’s what the temptation is. This is not the temptation I’m going to talk about tonight. For some the temptation is as you get older in life - I’m 50 now. I’d like a vacation. I’d like to retire. I understand this temptation. You can become concerned with your own life. You become concerned with yourself. You become concerned with your families. I have two children now. We fit kind of that middle age and there’s enough in life just there.
We even become concerned with our pleasures, our bank accounts, our jobs, our retirement. And I think there is a temptation to kind of hunker down and say, “Well, I guess this is the Christian life. And now I’m just going to ride it out and enjoy it, have good fellowship, good recreation.” Now that’s a certain kind of temptation, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
This is going to be a kind of unusual temptation for the dedicated. This is what I will call a ministerial temptation. What do I mean by that, this ministerial temptation? This is the temptation where individuals who now have heard the message so much of the gospel and of growth that now they have turned from the task and the call of growth. They have turned away from the task of putting off the old self, hungering for God, being open to dark nights, and they have turned to the task of ministry. This is a kind of unconscious way of bypassing the dark nights. Or maybe it’s to misinterpret still the darkness and the struggles that one might have for the absence of God and not to believe He’s present there so I’m not going there. This may be the temptation to avoid this journey in the deep.
This may be the temptation to think that introspection is not a good thing. Possibly you heard me speak over the last couple of weeks and maybe you’ve said in your mind, “Well, that’s okay for Dr. Coe. He’s kind of a weird guy anyways. No. I don’t think that’s for me, this introspective stuff. That’s for the introspective, the melancholic type or for people who have real problems.”
And this is the person now who has come to resign himself or herself to say, “You know, I’ve grown. I’m not sure there’s a lot more really. I mean, there’s always more to grow, but this is what it is. And I guess really now I’m to give myself to ministry. I guess that’s really what the life of maturity is really about.” Maybe you’ve even been told that. Maybe you’ve even been told by other leaders saying, “You know, those of you who are older, it is now time for you to give back.” And now I think it’s a good thing to minister to others, especially as we get older in the faith.
However, ministry is not to become a defense against the pursuit of God. And so the title I’ve given this is: Going on with God in Dark Nights: Maturing the Saints by Spiritual Hunger and Love. The ancient spiritual writers – They said this. They noticed that most saints they were around – I don’t know if this is true – never kind of moved through the dark nights, never even really kind of entered into because it’s an uncomfortable, painful place and it doesn’t seem like that’s where God wants me to go. It doesn’t feel like God’s there.
And so, what happens is they hit this wall. And this wall is the movement where God says, “I want to take you down.” And so the believer, they say, keep hitting the wall and they come back. And when they’re coming back, what they’re tempted to do is their trying – They’re tempted to make the spiritual life work. They’re tempted to fix themselves. They’re tempted to hunker down in the spiritual disciplines and try to just do the same old that they have been doing. And this just keeps going on and on and on and on.
And they say what begins to develop then is a church that is proliferated with what you might call mature beginners. And the worst thing is, the temptation in doing that is to refuse to admit that the dark nights are there. It’s the refusal to admit to see, “God, what’s really going on in my life?” It’s refusing to ask the question, “Do I really like to pray? I do my quiet times. Do I like this? Is this what I want to do?”
It’s the refusal to open up. It’s the refusal to hear the sermon. Say the pastor is talking about being filled with the Spirit and to ask the question, “God, am I really filled with the Spirit?” But it’s more to go on and almost pretend to the self, “It’s okay. This is what it is. I’m not sure what the more is.” And then to give myself to ministry, because otherwise you would probably have to stop and say, “God, what is going on?”
Storehouse of Potential Growth
Here’s my hunch. That next bullet. I’ve thought about this much. I’ve talked to Doug about this a few times. My hunch is that there is a group of people in the church, a huge group in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s in which there is a storehouse of potential growth that could release itself in such love, in such an experience of brokenness and humility if these individuals would be willing to take this journey into the heart. Willing to keep on the journey of, “God, I want to enter in wherever You want to take me,” because these are the ages where you’ve accumulated so much of life. You’ve hit so many walls in your life that your heart is a huge cauldron for so much learning. God is wanting to take you into places to learn new humility, new love, new brokenness, new neediness, new open to Him in ways that – again a 20-year-old can’t because they haven’t accumulated enough life yet.
And so I think that what’s happening is this is being swapped – this journey is being swapped for a pottage, a soup of ministry and dry bones. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard tell me, some who go to this church, some who go to a number of very good evangelical churches, that they no longer get that much out of the sermons, they don’t that much what’s going on Sunday. They say, “Well, I think I’ve, you know, I’m kind of where I am and now I guess it’s my turn to turn around and give.”
And there’s hardly a vision for growth at this point. I think church ministries have also fostered this by often ministering to beginners, because we tend to minister to the lowest common denominator. That’s just the way things are. If you have a party of people, you’ll have to relate to the lowest common denominator. You don’t want to be a click and do your little thing here, but this is a going to be a key challenge to the church because this would be to miss all the richness that could come to bear in human lives and could come to bear in ministry. My hunch is that there is this huge population where there is a powder keg of growth and explosion potential of love and entering into depth places that we haven’t imagined. So I want to talk about dark nights then.
Reminder: Purpose of the Dark Nights
Just a reminder. What is the purpose of the dark nights in general? Just to reiterate some of these things. Two things.
1. Development of Spiritual Hunger and Purging of the Heart
The first one is the development of a spiritual hunger and a purging of the heart. If you would, look with me to Deuteronomy 8. In Deuteronomy 8:1-5. This is actually the text that Jesus quotes when He’s being tempted. The first temptation by the devil. I’ll start reading in verse 2: “You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. [And notice verse 3] and He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna [right, the people didn’t like manna after awhile, right? What is this white stuff? This manna] which you did not know [meaning, you didn’t make it], nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone [meaning, we do not live by what we make and do, but we live by everything that proceeds from God]. [NASB]
And so as I think, what is the purpose of dark nights? Why does God send us into deserts? It says right here, “God let’s His people go hungry.” He lets his people go hungry for the purpose of testing us, humbling us, these are times to show us what is in your heart. Those of us who are in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, what do you love? What do you really love? Don’t you want to know what you love? Don’t you want to be tested? Dark nights are times when we’re going to be allowed to be hungry. In fact, dark nights are times where the self is hungry and it may not even know it until it opens up to that hunger and then we might find that we’re starving. We’re so hungry. These dark nights are the times when God wishes to purge away the vices. He wishes to show us what’s going on in our heart. He wishes to get us used to seeing our self in truth and what is really going on in our life.
You know, just as another side point here, these are what the lament psalms in the Bible are. This is Psalm 22. This is, you know, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Right? Yes, Jesus is going to say that, but that’s what the psalmist is saying. Psalm 77, Psalm 13, Psalm 102, Psalm 55. These are some of them.
I want to read to you one. This is Psalm 88. If you turn in the Bible, just look at Psalm 88 with me. I just want to give you a taste of this psalm. I’m going to read it fast. I’m not going to teach it, but I want to give you want these lament psalms are. You know what they are - is they are places in the Scripture that reflect this hunger, that reflect this drought in our life, that reflect this wilderness, the travail of heart. They try to open us to how we feel.
Pastor Dale this last week said something very wise. He said. “Feelings are lousy leaders.” That’s right. That’s very good. Feelings are lousy leaders. I don’t follow feelings. But you know what feelings are? They are excellent windows. You need to think about that. Feelings: They’re lousy leaders, but they are excellent windows. They are windows into the truth of our heart if we’re willing to look into them. They’re windows that tell us what’s really going on in my heart as I’m singing a hymn, “God, the real question is what is going on in my heart, God?” with that hymn. And so, the psalms, these lament psalms are trying to open up windows into the heart. You know what the Psalms were? This is the hymnal book that the people would come to and sing hymns. These are almost all put to music. This was their hymnal when they came together they would engage in congregational worship. The Psalms were not read individually, like we do. We go home and in my quiet time I read Psalms. In the Old Testament, this is what they brought for congregational singing, meaning the Psalms were rhythms of the congregation. They were rhythms of worship. And lament psalms were rhythms.
Now look at Psalm 88. I’ll just say here in this historical note, it says, “A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director.” Well, what’s all that about? Well, probably we think this is pretty good history. This is probably in the original text. You know what a song was? A song was something that the people knew by heart. They often sang it without music. A psalm was something that somebody composed music to and when we find a few psalms where they are songs and psalms, here’s what they were. These were very popular tunes that people now have been singing in their head, and somebody has put it to music. These become some of the most popular psalms of all. This is a psalm of the sons of Korah. You know what the sons of Korah are? That’s the first choir when David is getting this temple thing going, he selects the sons of Korah to be the choir people. And it’s for the choir director. Who’s that? Well, it’s the guy who wrote this psalm: Heman the Ezrahite. You know what Heman is? Heman in 1 Kings, he’s said to be one of the wisest man in the land next to Solomon. And in the Chronicles, Heman is chosen, his name is actually – He has a nickname. Heman, the singer. He’s the most beautiful singer at this time in Israel and he is chosen to be the number one choir director of the temple singers. So when they would come together for temple worship, this is the guy who’s a super sage, a super wise man, he’s leading the choir and it says, “according to Mahalath” - That’s probably a Hebrew instrument – “Leannoth” means affliction or sorrow, meaning these were instruments that were to be gotten together to play a dirge, affliction, sorrow. And it’s a “maskil,” meaning it’s a wise saying. What you’re about to hear is a wise-saying psalm that everyone knew in their head that was part of the congregational worship. It was part of the rhythms of their own spiritual life. Listen to this psalm. It starts out with a confession of faith and then persistence in prayer:
1 O LORD, the God of my salvation,
I have cried out by day and in the night before You.
2 Let my prayer come before You;
Incline Your ear to my cry! [This is a guy who’s saved. This is a guy who’s not just saved. He’s a great wisdom leader. He’s the choir director. And he’s praying and he’s praying and coming to the Lord. And now here’s what’s going on in his soul. And he wants us to sing this.]
3 For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol.
4 I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like a man without strength,
5 Forsaken among the dead,
Like the slain who lies in the grave, [Now imagine singing this. Does this sound like one of our praise choruses today?]
Whom You remember no more,
And they are cut off from Your hand.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
In dark places, in the depths. [This is a guy who’s saying, “God, I’m in the pits. And I think You put me there. God, I’m in the pits. I don’t know what’s going on. I feel like, God, I can’t take it anymore. I have no strength. I feel like the dead. Totally listless.” You know, I don’t feel like that right now, but he wants me to feel that way. And then he even says]
7 Your wrath [Now this is a believer so this is the anger of God towards a believer and he doesn’t know if this is really God’s wrath or how he’s feeling it, but Your wrath] has rested upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. [“God, I’m going under.”]
Selah. [You know what Selah means probably? It’s musical interlude. It means change the instruments. And so now, they’ve just sung the first chorus and they’re changing the instruments.]
8 You have removed my acquaintances far from me;
You have made me an object of loathing to them;
I am shut up and cannot go out. [Meaning I’m so out of it. My friends don’t even want to be around me.]
9 My eye has wasted away because of affliction;
I have called upon You every day, O LORD;
I have spread out my hands to You. [“God, what’s going on?” And so he says,]
10 Will You perform wonders for the dead?
Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? [You know, why don’t you do something for the living? Are You just acting on behalf of the dead?”]
Selah. [Ah, musical change.]
11 Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,
Your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? [Like, “God, only the dead seem to know You sometimes.” Now, we’re waiting for it. Where’s the resolve? Where’s the resolve?]
13 But I, O LORD, have cried out to You for help,
And in the morning my prayer comes [This guy is persistent in a dark night. This is a dude who’s not afraid. He knows His God. The God of his salvation and he’s waiting and he’s waiting and he’s waiting and he’s waiting. And you know what he’s doing? He’s telling the truth. He is looking inside. This is the truth. “And God, You want me. You don’t want a mucked up, false self that’s trying to present and be good before You. You want me. Well, here’s me, God. And this is the best of dudes in Israel. And here he really comes, Verse 14,] before You.
14 O LORD, why do You reject my soul? [Now this is not the rejection of salvation. He knows this is the God of his salvation. He’s praying to Him. He’s had a whole life of this. He’s the choir director. Think of your choir director experiencing this. Or think of the choir director before this one that was so well loved and respected for years. That’s the kind of person we have in mind here. The leader of Israel’s choir. “Lord, why do You reject my soul?”]
Why do You hide Your face from me?
15 I was afflicted and about to die from my youth on;
I suffer Your terrors; I am overcome. [There are some long time problems that he recognizes that he wants to share with God.]
16 Your burning anger has passed over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me. [He doesn’t know what to call these. “God, what are You doing to me?”]
17 They have surrounded me like water all day long;
They have encompassed me altogether.
18 You have removed lover and friend far from me;
My acquaintances are in darkness.
Wow. That’s called a wisdom psalm. Again, I don’t hear many songs like that today. Do you? I wouldn’t even know how to put that into words. What kind of music? This is the greatest choir director Israel ever knew. He was the singer of singers. Why? Why should you sing those things? I’ll tell you why. This is why Israel did. There are so many of these lament psalms. There are so many enemy psalms where David is so bugged, his enemies are around him, he can’t take it anymore.
When you were to sing those psalms you weren’t to think of David’s enemies. Right? The psalms were written for temple worship. What were you to think of? Your enemies, if you’re honest. And so why sing these things? Well, for some this is their heart and they know it. There are some people even here and I’ll bet on Sunday morning in an audience of a thousand people, there are a number of people where that reflects some of the things they feel about life. Why do we sing it? For some, it’s right where their heart is and they know it. For others, it’s in their heart and they don’t know it. And the goal of singing this hymn is that as they sing it, they’ll be able to cash in on, “Oh my gosh. That’s in my soul. Oh, God.” And now they’ll have a real prayer time. And it will be in the heart of others at some point. And for those that it’s not in their hearts right now, it gives them an opportunity to relate to those that are. It gives them an opportunity to relate to the downcast, to the depressed.
And so, I think - This is my experience now of evangelicalism right now – I think that dark nights are so mysterious to us. When I have taught on dark nights, people often are, “This is bizarre. I’ve never thought. I’ve never heard of this.” I think dark nights are so mysterious because they are so – these lament kind of psalms, this way of thinking about my spiritual life, is so unpopular. It’s not part of my spirituality. It’s not part of our congregational rhythms. It doesn’t mean that every hymn that we sing, every song that we sing, is a funeral dirge psychologically, but it means that it’s part. It’s part because it has something to teach me. And so, the purpose of these dark nights is to open up the heart in truth and develop spiritual hunger.
2. Union with God in love as the power for change in the spiritual life
And number two. It’s not just that though. It’s to lead me ultimately to union in God in love. That’s where all this is going. And for a moment, just turn to Ephesians 3. The kingdom of God in its fullest will not be a dark night. Are you happy about that? Amen. The kingdom of God will be the fullness of love. So I read in Ephesians 3:17ff. Paul prays, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” [NASB]
That’s where all this is going. It’s so that I would and you would come to know all the length and depth of the love of God. To be filled up to His fullness. In fact, that is what transformation is. That is what it is to be filled with the Spirit. That’s what it is to be conformed to Christ is that His life would actually move through us. And so you know where dark nights fit here? They prepare your heart to be His home. They are places to purge your heart so that your heart can be His place where this can go on.
Kinds of Dark Nights for the Sake of Developing Hunger and Love
1. Initial Dark Nights
And so what are the kinds of dark nights? This is B. Well, we talked about this one the whole time last time: the initial dark nights. The initial dark nights are, remember, we talked about the beginner state? The beginner’s state was this wonderful time of consolation where God – He takes us, you know, whether it was your conversion or your junior high, high school experience, where all of a sudden you became alive to God. And God was so gracious. Remember He gave you the bottle of spiritual consolation? Remember the little baby? What a wonderful time. What a wonderful time where God met us. And this was a time when the spiritual disciplines were reinforced by consolation. This is where we started to build our character and our growth, where I enjoyed reading the Scripture, hearing sermons, praying.
This was all so good, but this is also where our vices come into our spiritual life, and one of the vices in particular is this: that I start wanting God for the pleasure’s sake. I want God for how it feels. I begin to measure the presence of God by how it feels. And so God begins to turn the light out in this baby spirituality. This is the time where we no longer feel the presence of God. Remember this is what we called purgative contemplation. This is where the Spirit begins to move up and fill us at the level we can be filled with without that pleasure element. It won’t feel like a filling of the Spirit, but you’re going to be filled to the level that He can fill you in purging you.
And sometimes these stages go from dark to pitched black. Sometimes these become extremely intense, where you’re not even going to want to pray because God feels so distant. But we said last time that if you’re willing to stay in the weeds, if you’re willing to open up to the truth of yourself, if you’re willing to watch for God, if you’re willing to stay there, the Lord can begin doing that work. And that’s where the spiritual writers would say faith begins to kind of break forth in our life of, “You know, God, I’m not afraid of staying here any more. I’m not afraid of seeing myself. In fact, God, I don’t know how I know, but I know You’re here.” That’s what will begin to happen as you stay there. Now I don’t want to talk much more about that. That’s for another time.
2. Ongoing Dark Nights
I want to now go to number two. And this is really the rest of the night. I want to talk about ongoing dark nights. What are the other purposes of dark nights? What other kinds of dark nights are going to take place in my life? When God thinks that you’re ready for more growth, that you’re ready to open up to Him other places, new kinds of dark nights will begin to cycle in your life. Let me talk about one of these.
a. Ongoing Dark Nights are a Further Transition or Movement in Love by the Spirit
This is what the ancient spiritual writers called the dark night of the spirit. The first one was the dark night of the senses where God turns off sensual spirituality, but this dark night is a little different. This is the one that’s going to last the longest and it’s going to come in in little cycles. This is where God’s target is your person. He wants to begin to deal with your character in a certain way. And so, A, I say here, the ongoing dark nights are a further transition or movement in love.
Remember we talked about these movements of love? The first one was the love of God for pleasure’s sake. And as we move through this we begin to realize, “You know, I just don’t want God for pleasure.” We begin to have a real relationship. And this becomes the love of God for love’s sake, where we want a real relationship with Him. I’m willing to open to what’s going on in my life. I’m willing for him to see this. I’m willing to stay with Him in this. But now we move on to another kind of love. And this is the love of God for God’s sake. Now what’s going on in this one?
Well, in the love of God for love’s sake, those of us who have been in the faith a while – and we’re not in it just for the pleasure. We’re willing to just open up and let Him see what’s going on in our life. But what we still tend to want is we want the love of God. We want to experience love. We want to continue to experience, “God, I want You. I don’t just want pleasure in You. I want You, but I want You.” And, in that sense, the self is still somewhat the center so that even God, family, church, children, these are still constellations that revolve around, because what the self still wants is, “I want to grow. And I want love. I want the love of God.” The self is still somewhat the center.
The real Copernican revolution in the Christian life is this movement: it’s the love of God for God’s sake. This is going to take all of my life for my self to be so loved by God that all of a sudden it’s going to get displaced so that God will be my center. And that I, the church, the family, we’re all constellations to Him. That’s the greatest Copernican revolution.
You know who really experienced this? This was Jesus at Gethsemane. Jesus at Gethsemane was always held up as the dark night of dark nights, because you know what Jesus was being asked there? Jesus was being asked this very simple question. Jesus, you have experienced – This is the Father asking Jesus – Jesus, you have experienced full union and fellowship with Me from eternity. We have known love forever, and You said to your disciples that your meat and drink is to do My will. And now, Jesus, “Will You, for love’s sake, let go of the experience of love?” That’s the incredible thing. “Jesus, what do you want? Do you want to carry on the experience of love with Me or are You willing because this is what My will is for You even to let that go?”
Jesus becomes the example of one where really my love, my deepest life is, “God, whatever You want.” Now, I’ve got a long way to go on that. I’ve got a long way to go on that. I want love. I want to grow. And I know this is somewhat of a selfish desire even, because my desire to grow is, in part, I don’t want to have these hassles with my vices any more. I don’t want this monkey of even guilt and shame off my back for this. One day I’ll be here and the experience there will be, “God, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is You.” Those are easy words, but that will take all my life to experience such love to displace that. I don’t know much about this, but the Lord is beginning to teach me about this dark night.
b. The Nature of Ongoing Dark Nights
And so in B: What is the nature of this ongoing dark night? What’s going on here? Well, here’s what the Spirit does. The Spirit is going to cycle in things that He knows exactly that you need. There are going to be times in your life when you’ll going to have seasons of consolation, and those seasons of consolation are there to encourage you, to give you a sense that, “God is here. I’m loved. This is good.” And then, there are going to be seasons, and they’re just going to keep coming in in cycle where you’ll have little dark nights of the senses. And in those little dark nights you’ll just, “God, where are You now? God, I’m not as excited to read the Word.” That is a great time to open up again, “God, what are You doing? What are you trying to teach me? God, open me to what You want to show me here.”
But then there are other kinds of dark nights. And these dark nights is I want to talk about here. You know what they are really made for? It’s to take you into your character. They are to take you to begin to see at a deep level what’s really driving you in life, because often times we don’t know what’s driving us. Our hearts are so opaque.
And so number two: these deep purgings here. This is just the ongoing deserts of life where God is going to purge our character. And He’s going to purge it in two ways. He’s going to purge us of our vices. In every one of us there are pockets and I don’t know all of yours: Envy. Jealousy. Excess Anger. Lust. Wrath. Selfishness. Pride. There are pockets here and the Lord – He wants to make your heart His home. And as long as those vices continue to leak out, that can’t happen. And so, He’s constantly inviting you, “Will you invite Me in there? Let’s go on a journey.”
But now what He’s also going to do during these dark nights. He’s not only going to purge us of our vices. He’s going to purge us of the virtues that we have developed in the power of our self from our pre-Christian life and even into our Christian life. You see, by the time that we’re of spiritual middle-age – we’ve been in the faith 20, 30, 40 years – We have now many good traits. We’re kind. We’re loving. We’re generous. We give to people. We sacrifice. We’ve taken care of our children. We’ve done so much. We’ve read the Word. We have good habits. And others are blessed by those things.
But you know the truth is this. Some of this is the fruit of the Spirit, but if we’re honest, much of this is the fruit of our own fortitude. Much of it is the fruit of our own energy, because we were just beginners. We were just Christians – young Christians and all we knew what to do was just how to pick up the Bible and in the power of my self just read, try to raise my children, try to do whatever. I wasn’t born knowing how to depend upon the Holy Spirit, how to depend upon another Person, and how to let that Person live through me. And so the truth is, much of our virtues by the time we reach middle age - These are virtues that are good and people have benefited from them. You’re benefiting from them right now. You couples have been benefiting from one another, but these were not necessarily virtues developed in the power of the Spirit.
And this dark night is a call. It’s a call for you to even begin to look closely at your virtues. To begin to look at your goodness and say, “God, what really is motivating this? Apart from the Vine, I can do nothing.” Remember in John 16 Jesus says to the disciples, “It’s to your advantage that I’m going away, because if I don’t go away I can’t send the Comforter. And the Spirit is going to be the One who’s going to transform you.”
Remember in the book of Acts, Acts 1 and 2, when the disciples – You know, Jesus is leaving and Jesus tells them, “Look, you’re not ready to do anything yet. You go to the upper room and you pray because Pentecost is coming and I’m going to send the Spirit. And the Spirit is the One who’s going to begin to do the transforming work in the church.” And this is what I want to be open to.
Now number three. This is in particular. This is what the ancient spiritual writers have said and I’ve interacted in my own life with this, and I just kind of want to share this with you. This is what they said in particular. These ongoing dark nights throughout our life for those of us who are spiritually middle age, what is going to happen. It’s going to be a stripping of the psychological faculties to open them to the Spirit of God. That is, He’s going to take your faculties – and we’re going to look at this - your intellect, your character - He called it the memory, but he meant the character of a person – and your will.
And here’s what the general thing is going to be. Your character and your mind and your will, if you’ve gone on, I’m not talking about someone who has kind of baled out of faith. I’m talking about someone who’s stuck, dedicated, who’s been in the church for 30 years, has an okay marriage, somewhat together life – These faculties of yours have served you well. You have trained them well, and they have served others and you’ve developed virtues. But now, these things hinder you. These hinder you because in your mature years, here’s what your temptation is going to be. I’m 50 so here now is my temptation, is I am going to begin to trust in my character. I’m going to begin to trust in all those disciplines I’ve developed. I’m going to begin to trust in the fact that, well, you know, Greta and I have worked through a lot. I’m going to trust in that. I’ve worked through a lot with my children. I know how to study the Word. I’ve got a lot here in my head, and I’m going to trust in all of this. And I’m going to hope that life will go pretty will because of all that, rather than trust God.
This to me is the major issue – the major issue that middle-aged Christians are going to hit. And the question is: Are you going to trust the good character that you have developed as the roadmap that you are going to appeal to to live your life or are you going to say, “God, I want to go to another journey. I want to trust You anew. I want to open to You.” And they say in these dark nights, these ongoing dark nights, this is when God will begin to dry up parts of your life.
During this time others will still be blessed by your good character, but you won’t because you’ll begin to wonder, “God, is this all there is?” And you’re going to begin to see stuff in yourself and others will say, “What a good man that is. Doug, what a good guy.” Doug knows parts of his soul that none of you see, that the Lord wants to begin to expose. Why? Because He’s got a journey for Doug beyond his wildest imaginations. And if he’s asking, “God, is this all there is?” If you’re asking, “God, is this all there is?” “No. We have the real journey of a lifetime.” This is where the power of the church could be, because these are the ones, the middle-aged believers who have already developed so much and the Lord really wants to take them down. This is where the power of transformation and the church alive could be.
Darkness in the Intellect
So, let’s start. The darkness in the intellect. Well, what does this mean? That God during these dark nights will try to provide you darkness in the intellect. Wow. What’s this? Well, for beginners, here’s what goes on for the beginner. Just think when you were a young believer good theology and the development of a good Christian – sorry I don’t have notes for you on this one. Too much. – Good theology and the development of a Christian worldview, that was food for your soul.
When you were a beginner and hearing the Word, you were taking it in. You know what you were doing? You were developing what I call a mind map to what the Christian life was. This was food for you. This was a necessity. This is where it began. And as you developed this mind map, you began to see – I remember coming to the Lord at 19. “Wow. That’s the way God works. Wow. That’s what God does. That’s what He did for me. Wow. That’s what I can count on. That’s great. Wow. Look at that. This is what I should do. This is what I’m called to do.”
And, you know, while you were taking all that in, this mind map. It was all working. Do you remember during that part of your life and those seasons of your life were, “God, it was so good,” as you’re developing this Christian mind. But in the dark nights as in these ongoing dark nights, God wants to then begin to bring darkness to the intellect. Now, what does that mean?
That’s their words. Here’s what it is. God wants to bring darkness to your mind map. That mind map that you have that has helped you and guided you in understanding God, in understanding how to live and respond to God, God is now going to bring in a little darkness in that. Because what He wants to move you is this: He wants to move you from depending upon that theological mind map to depending on Him.
The Christian life is not about depending upon a set of theological principles. It’s about depending upon the very person of God. And so you know what happens during these times as you grow up? You begin to see God’s bigger than your mind map. Have you ever experienced things in life where your question is, “God, what are you doing? God, What is going on?” The sovereignty of God begins to push the boundaries of your mind map. “Wow. God, how can You do that?”
Job’s mind was blown with a shotgun. And that’s why Job at the end of the book, you know what he says? “God, now I know that You can do all things.” Wow. That’s like Aslan, right? My daughters and I are reading The Chronicles of Narnia. He’s good, but he’s not tame. Boom. My theology of the pocket is too small. My theology of even the Christian life becomes too causal. See, I cried for an answer from God and, you know, I didn’t always get an answer. I asked God to answer this prayer. I didn’t always get an answer. And all of a sudden, “God, where are You?” That’s beginning to stretch. I guess God doesn’t work like a genie after all. You see, because my theology of the pocket – You know what that really is?
As a beginner it was very causal: God, if I do this God will respond. This is good. I can count on this. And as we mature, God is taking us on a journey. My actions don’t always produce the results. I pray and I don’t get the answers.
You know what’s going on in this darkness in the intellect as we grow up? God is moving us now from trusting in our intellect – trusting in this map that we have developed. This is what God is going to do and this is what He’s not going to do – To, “God, I need to trust You. You are good, but you are not tame.” See, this does not mean that I throw away my theology. No. That’s the ground. But I’m a theologian and I’ll tell you right now. Theologians are not to trust in their theology. They’re to trust in God. It’s the person of God, because if you don’t as a theologian you will dry up. And so I want to trust in Him. And that is going to, in fact, expand my theology of what God can and can’t do in my life.
Emptiness or Vanity in the Memory-Character
The second thing they say happens is emptiness or vanity in the memory. Wow. What is that? Emptiness or vanity in the memory – And what the ancients meant by memory was the character, the character of a person. You see, our memory is, in part, what really we have become. It’s the storehouse of all that we’ve experienced and now this is my character.
And now for the beginner - think back to when you were a beginner in the faith - this was an incredible time where God was training your mind and your character, where you were becoming a kind person, you were growing. You weren’t just selfishly acting, you know, in your own ways in your marriage. You were beginning to open up to the other person and caring for them. Wives respecting; husbands loving. You did this with your children. You did this with spiritual disciplines. And you know what this character became? It became like a roadmap for you.
You see, we had a mind map and that’s cool. “Wow. This is the way God is. This is the way I’m to be. God, this is great.” But now I’m developing a road map, and this roadmap is my accumulated wisdom. And this roadmap is something that I appeal to when I’m in a pinch and something’s going on. My kids are having problems. I have this character I can appeal to to enter into this fray and to try to love them and teach them. Something’s going on with Greta, but I have this character that I can bring to bear in this.
Character is such a wonderful and beautiful thing, but these roadmaps were often much the result of our fortitude. We saw principles in the Bible. We said, “God, I want to obey it.” But we didn’t know yet what it was to participate in the Vine, to open all that to the Spirit. These are wonderful roadmaps, but much of it was just in our power. That’s just the honest, developmental truth.
And now here’s the temptation. This is to me the greatest temptation that you will have in middle age. You will come to trust your roadmap. You will trust in your character. You will trust in your character to give you this set of answers. You know, when I was coming here tonight, my wife and I were in the car with the girls and they were having, you know, a little thing about, you know, working out some problem. My wife wanted to, you know, do it a certain way and the girls said, “No. I think we should do it this way.”
And you know what my first response was? It was to interrupt the conversation with my good character. “You know, I’ll tell you what girls. You know what we’ll do? Well, when we get home tonight we’ll work it out and we’ll talk about it and we’ll just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I caught myself. I said, “You know what, John? You would do that if you were a non-Christian, because, John, you have developed a character that’s pretty good and you trust in this thing.”
And you know what I’ve come to do, too? I’ve come to hope in my character. You give John Coe a problem and John Coe’s character – I can appeal to enough wisdom here to figure out the problem and we’ll solve that. I just said, “You know, Lord, before I get in” – because there was a little conflict going on and I wanted to resolve the conflict by the power of my character.
And the Lord just caught me from all of that. And I said, “Lord, I don’t want to do that anymore. I want You. I want the first move in this middle-life of John Coe. The first move is to find You. And on that ground, fine, I’ll move to character and I’ll appeal to this stuff, but God, I want to find You in this. I want to live with You. I want to learn what it means to abide in the Vine in this.” I am filled with trusting my character to work out problems. People at work think of me as a person of good character. And I can trust that and appeal to that in working out problems, and this also gives me hope that I can work out things in the future.
Well, here’s what the ongoing dark night is. God begins to bring emptiness or vanity to your roadmaps. God begins to open up your roadmaps and they begin to feel vain. Now, what’s going on here? Well, others are still going to be blessed by it. My kids will still be blessed by me. And Greta, to some degree, right? She knows me better, so I don’t bless her that much. But the case is this: When God wants to move you, you won’t be blessed by your character anymore. You know your character is good, but here’s what you’re going to become aware of: “Lord, my character is not a source of the rivers of living waters.” I’ve got a good character, but during these dark nights you begin to be aware as a middle-aged believer, you know, I’m a nice person, but my niceness is not stemming from the rivers of living water. That’s a call. That is a call to another journey.
You know, God, I’m a good business man. I take care of my work, but you know it’s not stemming from the rivers of living water. It’s not stemming from this deep love of You and prayer and openness to You. It’s just what I’ve become. And the tendency in our falseness would say, “Doggone it. Come on John. Work harder on your prayer life.” No. It’s to open up to the truth and to say, “You know, God, so much of my good character has been chiseled in the kind power of myself and my fortitude. I didn’t try to do it out of disobedience, but that’s the only obedience I could offer as a spiritual beginner and child. And so God, thank you. Thank you that You are now beginning to open up the vanity of trusting in this.”
You might begin – and no one else will see this – you middle-aged folk out there, to the old aged in the faith – you might begin to see the vanity of your own egoism behind it all. You might begin to see right through your good character deep vices that are way down there or deep selfishness or deep pride or deep just hardness. No one else can see that, but you are beginning to have a suspicion, “All is not well in Denmark. Something’s stinking in there. And God, there are not these rivers of living water.” Wow. This is an incredible time.
We might even begin to question, “God, how mature really am I?” If you’ve had any of these questions in middle-age faith, how wonderful. How wonderful a gift. What the Spirit is calling us to, this is opening to the new virtues by the Spirit, you know what God’s goal is? God’s goal is to move you – now for those of you who are younger, you need to get better character. But even now you can begin to open this to the Spirit. But God’s goal in us is to move us from trusting our character to trusting in Him alone for the roadmap of my life. That is life in the Vine.
And so, if my daughters are having a problem and working it out, here’s the first move. The first psychological move of life in the Vine. “God, what are You trying to do in my life? God, I want to open to You in this. God, I want to teach You. I want to invite You. I don’t want to be alone in this. I’m not just going to move in good character and work out the problem.” That is a waste of a Christian life.
And so God is moving us so that He can become the map. And here’s where the question becomes real: “God, what do You want me to do?” Rather than, “Well, I already know what to do.” I want to open to Him. This is where God is moving me from trusting myself, my good character, to trusting Him. This is where God is moving me away from natural hope. “I don’t want to hope that I’ll fix it. I want to hope in You, God.” I say this is a relational Christianity, “I want to hope in You. I want to learn that new habit of heart.” What a journey this can be.
Dryness in the Will
I’ll give you C and then we’ll take a break: The dryness in the will. The third thing in these dark nights is they cycle in and come in – They just may be for a moment. They may be in a part of a day. Who knows what this is? But this dryness in the will. What’s going on here? Well, for the beginner our will and our emotions are conditioned to the joy and the pleasure of God. As a beginner, our will and our emotions and our affect are: “Yeah, I love God. I love Him. This is good.” – and they are conditioned by this pleasure element. And even as I come, as I grow, I come to realize, “Oh it’s not just for pleasure. God, it’s love. And I’m experiencing more of Your love and I’m open to this.”
But you know what I can get hooked on here? I can get hooked on religious experience. You know, so many books right now written on spiritual formation are mostly about how to experience God. That’s pretty bizarre. That’s not the question Jesus was asked at Gethsemane. Jesus was not being asked, “Jesus, do You need to experience Me, the Father, more?” No. The question was, “Jesus, are You willing to take anything that I give You because You want My will and I’ll be the center?”
And so, in these ongoing dark nights – this will be a continuing work of God to dizzy our reliance on spiritual experience to trusting Him even in darkness and whatever’s going on. At times the spiritual disciplines will just be tasteless. They’ll feel like a desert. You just stay there. You just be willing to stay there and pretty soon you’ll be hungering in the desert. New places of real spirituality and hunger and longings will emerge that you can’t imagine. And so opening to this new virtue, the Spirit here is moving us to a deeper love: the love of God for God’s sake.
This is real charity. Love. You know what this is? This will fully happen when you die. You know what’s going to happen when you die? You will finally experience such thorough love that you will be totally free, totally free so that you’re no longer the issue. You’ll be totally free of, “God, I want. I want to experience You more.” Or “God, I want to grow more.” You will be totally free from those questions, because at that point all that will matter is God, you. Now, that is not won by words. I wish I could say that. “John, let God be God. Let God have you on His terms.” My soul didn’t change. That’s going to be a whole, long life of being loved and being stretched in deserts until when love has reached this maximum point in the deserts come together then it, “God, I don’t matter.”
Now I hear some people coming to Rosemead counseling sessions and when they start looking at some of their stuff with their parents, “You know, I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here in these counseling session. All that matters is God. I don’t matter.” Well, that’s what I call a defense. They’re using a good theology to not look at the truth, because for this to take place, it’s going to be an incredible journey into God.