Surrender is very hard at Stage 3 because human beings enjoy the perks that come with success; the praise of others, a sense of job security and often financial rewards of various kinds. Because it can be so hard to surrender at this stage, God allows suffering to help and motivate us to surrender. The dark night of the soul is a personal crisis, usually beginning somewhere in the middle stage of your life, when you are in your 30s or 40s. In the dark night of the soul, past certainties become inadequate and you often question everything you have ever believed up to that point. God uses the dark night to shatter our foolish certainty, tarnish our pride, and summon us to deeper intimacy with Him. When we refuse to give up our pride and our certainty, God allows circumstances to shatter them for us.
In this painful shattering of pride and certainty, we should hear the call to a deeper intimacy with God. As we learn the real truth about ourselves, the way is open to learn deeper truths about God. A psychiatrist once asked me, “What’s the difference between the dark night of the soul and depression?” I said that they can certainly be related, but what I mean by the dark night of the soul is something that comes from God, something that God allows into your life for a spiritual purpose. Depression can be just a chemical problem, something that needs treatment, something that needs getting out of as quickly as possible. But the dark night of the soul is a call from God. It may have a chemical component, but it is more than that.
The dark night of the soul is sometimes precipitated by a stage of life, like when you hit 30 or 40. Sometimes it kicks in as a mid-life crisis. It can involve an external event, like the loss of a loved one, an accident, or being fired at your job. It can likewise be precipitated by an internal event; like cancer, heart disease, or a psychological trauma of some kind. Sometimes it is just the sense that the presence of God in our life isn’t there anymore. Our prayers are simply bouncing off the ceiling. The dark night of the soul is a very painful thing, and it afflicts most or all of us at some point in our lives. If you’re more than 50 years old you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You may even be in that place now.
The only remedies I know for the dark night of the soul are solitude and mentoring. But the only mentoring that really helps is the kind that comes from people who have already been through the dark night of the soul. The stage three people can’t help you now and that is a high percentage of spiritual leaders. It takes a person who has truly suffered to help the suffering. It takes a person who knows darkness to help someone else through the darkness. If you’ve lived with a bright light your whole life you can’t help someone through the darkness. So many of those to whom we looked for help before are inadequate guides for this part of the journey. Those who have been through this stage and know how to do spiritual counseling are unique people and are worth seeking out.
The good news about deep suffering is that it indicates God has a big plan for us. I am not suggesting that God sends the dark night, but that He allows it to happen at this stage because we need it in order to make the decisions that we need to make. When God has big plans for someone, He puts them in the best place so surrender all to Him. The decision is still ours to make, but God uses circumstances to reach out to us and make it as easy as possible to yield our ways to Him.
There are challenges in the dark night of the soul. People are tempted to escape it by going back to stage three. They keep on preaching, keep on teaching, and most people don’t even notice. Yet deep down inside they know in their hearts that God called them and they said no. So there is a certain emptiness and hollowness inside. Other people decide in the dark night of the soul that the whole problem is the church they belong to. It’s the doctrines and practices they were taught as disciples, so they decide to abandon ship. Granted, there are times when changing communities is a positive thing, but as a reaction to the dark night, such a decision can be tragic. The dark night of the soul is a call to go deeper with God, not a call to avoid Him.
That brings me to the surrender points of the dark night. The core point of surrender has to do with a false sense of purpose. In stage three, people have big ambitions for God. They have big plans for their ministry, a sense of purpose, but maybe it was a purpose that was given to them by their parents, or by the local church, or by the larger church. In their time of success they thought they were living God’s purpose, but in the dark night of the soul they realize, “All of that was for me!” It was all about pride! “I wanted to be all I could be for God in order to get recognition.” Related to this surrender point, the dark night of the soul completes our stage 3 surrender of our need for certainty, our need for applause, and the selfish drive for perfection. The outcome of the dark night is that our focus is less and less on ourselves and more and more on God.