The Dark Night

All Christians who persist in following God will experience spiritual dryness. This can happen for a combination of reasons discussed elsewhere in this site, including sin patterns, emotional wounds, chronic illness, physiological issues such as depression, and other factors. However, there are some who don't neatly fall into any of these categories. They are vigilant in resisting sin, involved in Christian community, actively working through their emotional wounds and are relatively physically healthy, but are still overwhelmed by the feeling that God has abandoned them. This is described here as the "Dark Night," a more intense spiritual emptiness, where one searches desperately to know and experience God, but is met with silence.

The term "dark night of the soul" was first used by St. John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish priest whose work, The Dark Night narrates the path of the soul as it is purged and prepared for union with God. It usually begins some years in to the spiritual journey, once the person has reached a level of spiritual maturity. Like the diminishing light at dusk, it can be a slow process for some. For others, it can happen abruptly:

...It is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and the spring of sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired" (I.8.iii).
John discusses three primary ways that the Dark Night is distinguished from the "aridities" caused by some of the reasons mentioned above:
"The first is that since these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God... he does not allow [them] to find sweetness or delight in anything" (I.9.ii).
The Dark Night is not simply a spiritual difficulty that stays relegated to the spiritual life. Finding the way through the darkness becomes a (or the) central driving force in the person's life because they take little joy in anything else.
“The second sign... is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God" (I.9.iii).
While all Christians will inevitably feel distant from God, those in the Dark Night are overwhelmed by the feeling that that are failing God and he has rejected them.
"The third sign... is the powerlessness, in spite of one's efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination" (I.9.viii).
There is a baffling disjointedness in the soul which only wants God, but cannot worship, pray, read scripture, or stay focused on preaching or teaching.

It should be noted that many passages in scripture depict the anguish of God's perceived absence, but there is nothing that labels the Dark Night as a set-apart “event” in the life of a Christian. It can be easy to fill in the blanks with scripture (like seeing Paul’s years in Arabia as his experience), but the context never supports these conclusions. For this reason, the pages and posts in The Dry Well will describe this experience, but no attempt will be made to establish anything like a comprehensive theology, or a set a boundary line between spiritual dryness and the Dark Night. 

What God is Doing

God wants all of you. He is after your heart and is creating in you the capacity for faith that you could never create yourself. This faith does not rest on what you know or feel about God, or what you do for him - it rests on him, on the God who simply is. He is also at work in the following ways:

Removes your controlYou did not begin the Dark Night, and you will not end it. You will not set its pace or itinerary. The only thing to do is submit to what God is doing, or hinder his work by getting in the way.

Confronts your sinIn the darkness and silence, you are left with yourself and all your mess. Without the tangible presence of God in your life, the hidden desires of your heart that long to fill the void will be forced out of hiding until they are in full view.

Highlights your brokenness: The silence will also give you the ability to hear the pain of your own heart caused by past wounds.

Collapses your strivings: You may commit yourself to disciplines or devotions to God that are meant to bridge the chasm, but most of them will crumble because they are built and held together by you. There is nothing to hold on to in the Dark Night.

Restores your humanity: God desires for you to live an integrated life - physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. 

Responding to God

During my first years in the Dark Night, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to find the way out. I repented of all the sins I could think of, actively dealt with emotional wounds, spent long hours praying and reading books, etc. When I finally read The Dark Night, I expected John to urge greater vigilance in prayer and acts of love. However, I was surprised and relieved to read his counsel for those in the midst of it:
"The attitude necessary… is to pay no attention to discursive meditation since this is not the time for it. They should allow the soul to remain at rest and quietude even though it may seem obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time, and even though they think this disinclination to think about anything is due to their laxity. Through patience and perseverance in prayer, they will be doing a great deal without activity on their part" (I.10.iv).
"Rest and quietude" sound counter-intuitive for those desperate to find God, but this allows space for God to do what only he can do. John was primarily writing to those who lived according to a monastic rule, so their lives would have been structured by communal work, worship and prayer. Since most of us don't live in monastic communities, we will look at some ways you can respond to God in the Dark Night.

What You Should Stop Doing

Put down the thermometer: stop measuring your spiritual temperature based on the way you feel love and devotion towards God. He doesn't allow you to see the progress he is making - if he did, you would only try to control the process according to your expectations.

Stop beating up yourself: you can easily hinder God's work by weighing yourself down with unnecessary shame about not measuring up to expectations God doesn't have for you. He also doesn't want you to believe terrible things about yourself that he doesn't believe.

Stop trying to break through: Even committing to good things like a daily time of prayer can be harmful if you are doing this to break through the alienation you feel with God. This also isn't the time for long fasts, extreme disciplines or any other act of striving, which will only lead to burnout. Consider any action motivated by the desire to earn God's approval or prove your faithfulness as disobedience. 

Stop waiting for "redemption day": It is common to wait and hold on to a hope that God will suddenly transform your life and relationship with him in the blink of an eye. This keeps you from being present to what God is doing in you today, and is like holding your breath when he is actually leading you to your death (see my story).

What You Can Do

Talk to God: Even if you don't feel like he is listening, or you are too angry or hurt to talk to him, keep talking to him. Tell him about your anger and frustration and shame. This doesn't need to be a discipline - simply talk to him when you need to talk to him. Prayer journals can be very helpful in processing what God is doing in you, and you can go back months and years later to gain perspective about all he accomplished.

Bring God your sin: When the parade of cheap substitutions present themselves to you as your heart looks for something to fill the void, simply bring them to God and repent of them. It is important to choose God instead of these substitutes, but inevitably they must be refused because you have looked at them in the eye and know that they will not give you what you truly desire. When you see that God is helping you clear the rubble out of your heart because he loves you, the shame associated with repentance will be replaced with relief and gratefulness that he is lifting these burdens.

Bring God your brokenness: Talk to him about your emotional wounds, and ask for others to walk with you as you heal. Professional counselors can be invaluable in helping you see and address these wounds.

Take care of your body: Exercise and eating well will help you to be more at home in your body, and can help relieve the symptoms of depression.

Recognize his grace: Once you submit yourself to God in the Dark Night and stop trying to get out of it, it will become easier to see the good he is doing. How is God dismantling false expectations you have about the spiritual life and yourself? How is he helping you to become more humble and human?

Stay involved in a church community: While it's not necessary to tell everyone everything at church, never isolate yourself. Share your struggles with a few people who have a spiritual "grid" about what you're going through - they should be good listeners who don't give a lot of advice. This may not be the best time for you to lead a ministry team, but find a place to serve and stick with it (even if it is stacking chairs on Sunday).

Read scripture in community: It is important to keep immersing yourself in scripture to understand the character of God in his story. By reading scripture with others (preferably you aren't leading the study!), you will hear different perspectives that will help dismantle unbiblical spiritual ideals that are keeping you trapped.

The Holy Spirit

I spent many years trying to break through the darkness by going to events with groups that wanted to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. I left these events discouraged because I never experienced what happened to so many others, but I also came to see that I had a lot to learn about the Spirit and the way he works with the church and the world. The Holy Spirit is the intimacy with God we desire, but his work in us is often very different from what we expect.

If you have committed your life to Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the fullness of the Holy Spirit is in you now, today. It is undeniable that some stories in scripture demonstrating the work of the Spirit were emotionally intense for those involved, and his presence and work today can be just as intense. However, there is every indication that the normal work of the Spirit is simply that - normal, and not overly exciting. We are led by him, speak by him, are convicted by him, taught by him, and operate from his gifts in the ordinary (and usually mundane) routines of life. God wants us to be full of love, joy, peace and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit, and it is through the work of the Dark Night that the clutter of our lives can be cleared out to make room for him.

All translated passages used from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross


  1. wonderful practical advice, thankyou

    1. Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for the feedback - I would love to hear your story if you have the time. You can email to


  2. I don't know if I'm in "the Dark Night," but for the past year I've felt "stuck" in regards to my closeness with God. Prior to whenever this feeling began, I used to feel so close to God. Now no matter how hard I try to pray or worship or anything to get close to God, I'm only left with this exhaustive, heavy feeling. I do believe God has me exactly where He wants me, but I don't truly understand why. Thank you for this helpful article. Many of the points made apply to me in regards to what I feel and how I should respond.

  3. Hi Tyler.Ray17,

    This experience is very familiar to me - I would love to hear your story if you have the time to write back.


  4. Sure, Patrick. What's your e-mail? I tried to click on "email your story," but having issues with Outlook. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for this lucid and detailed description. It's quite helpful to remember this in times when we feel cut off.

  6. Very well put! The body of Christ needs to have more of a grid to understand the Dark Night of the Soul in order to help others through it!
    I had no one to help me understand and others rejected me because it made no sense to them.
    I have tried to help others understand how to become more like Jesus through the Dark Night. I also have A LOT more patience with others who are experiencing the death-to-self season. You have stated all of this very well - I agree with you whole-heartedly. Thank you for equipping the Body of Christ!

  7. Thank you so much for this article! i didn't what was wrong with me and now i know that what im experiencing is the dark night. again, thanks so much!