The Dark Night of the Soul

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I’ve heard various people state that most Christians, especially maturing Christians, will experience a time of trouble unlike any other, often called the “dark night of the soul.” Yes it will involve a form of suffering, which typically lasts for an extended period of time. But to understand the traditional view of the “dark night of the soul” as famously rendered by St. John of the Cross in the 16th Century, one crucial ingredient is missing.

What makes the dark night of the soul so horrific? It’s not only the suffering or the trials you go through, but during those struggles, you experience the silence of God. Even though you cry out to God, plead for a response during one of the toughest struggles of your life, it’s as if God’s not there.

Silence.

I think all of us would agree with Martin Luther, that German Protestant Reformer who boldly stood before the political and religious rulers to declare he would stand only on the Word of God, who also experienced a dark night of the soul and in the midst of it cried out, “Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don’t remain silent!”

So what should you do if or when you are in the midst of that “dark night”? Here are a few encouragements to ponder:

  • You are not alone because as mentioned above, this has happened to many others. In fact, some great people of faith have experienced this! Marvel at the incredible people of faith on this list: the great prophets Elijah and Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and even Jesus as we see during his prayer at Gethsemane, and modern Christians such as Martin Luther and even Mother Teresa.
  • The silence of God does not mean the absence of God. Numerous theologians have stated this point, and it’s crucial to bear in mind. Our faith is not based on hearing God, but trusting in his Word daily.
  • And lastly, during this agonizing time, obedience is more important than ever! We have a saying at our church: “You don’t have to completely understand to completely obey.” All of the above people would testify to the truth of this statement, but an illustration may be even better. C.S. Lewis in his classic book The Screwtape Letters has the mentor demon Wormwood advising his underling about such a situation:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

If or when you find yourself in such a time, may your obedience lead and sustain you during your dark night of the soul, and then the words of 2 Corinthians 5:7 will become more true than ever – “For we walk by faith, not by sight (or sound)”.

RA

James, Devotion #4: Joy is not a Joke!

 

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James 1:2 is one of the most misunderstood passages in the book of James, partly because what it commands seems so diametrically opposed to what we should do. In fact, many commentators begin by discussing this point first – it would have been their first post. But as I see it, you can’t begin to comprehend how and why we are to be joyful during our trials unless you understand first the reasons for the joy. Therefore, that is why it’s post number 4 for me.

With that, why is James not joking when he says we should be joyful during our trials? Specifically, James is not saying you have to:

  • Be happy when you get cancer;
  • Be happy when you get fired from your job of twenty years;
  • Be happy when a loved one dies.

Well, then what is James saying here? Let’s dig in!

IN THE WORD

Read James 1:2-4:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB)

As we begin our investigation of this passage, observe that James is not telling you to be ‘happy’ at all! Our English word ‘happy’ is an emotion that is based upon circumstances that occur in your life. The word James uses for “joy” has nothing to do with our English word happy.

Consequently, some things to know about this “joy” James speaks of:

  • It is the major theme of James 1:2-4. This is evident once one understands the context of James 1 (as we’ve discussed in the previous posts), but also observing the subtle emphasis he places on the word since it’s the first word in his original Greek sentence. While this is not always true of Greek word order, a case can be made for it here: James wants you to understand “joy” and his next few sentences will explain why.
  • We are not just to be joyful, but experience “pure joy” or be “entirely joyful”. Why? In the original language the word “all” is used, functioning as an adjective modifying “joy”. So James is declaring that we are to experience “complete joy” no matter what is going on. Or, to underscore the original text, we are to experience “all joy” all the time!
  • You will not always ‘feel’ this way, but we are commanded to ‘think’ this way. I cannot stress this point enough!! That’s why in English this verse begins with the word “Consider” or some translations have “Regard” because the verb used here is a verb of thought: you must think this way, even if you don’t feel this way.

Now, carefully notice what joy is not:

  • Being ‘happy’ even though horrible things have occurred (our English word ‘happy’ would not even be used in that case);
  • Pretending to be ‘happy’ in front of people (you know, putting on that ‘happy’ face though you hate life!);
  • Always being ‘happy’ all the time (who could do that?).

This is why I said earlier joy has nothing to do with being happy. What is joy? Here is my definition: Joy is a state of being, mostly demonstrated by trust, contentment, and peace, based on who we are in Jesus Christ because of what he has done for us, and is still doing through us by the power of his Spirit!

How and why can I be “completely joyful”? I can because I “know” (see verse 3):

  • My trials have a Purpose, as we’ve discussed in Devotion #2;
  • My trials develop Perseverance in me, or as I translated it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what”;
  • As I progress through my trials, my Perseverance will enable me to become Perfect, which as we discussed in Devotion #3 is not sin-free, but daily striving toward perfection as modeled in the life of Jesus!

IN THE WORLD

Let’s close with one question and then a project:

In my life, when I’m in the midst of tough times and I’m ‘struggling through my struggles’, most of the time it’s because I’m letting my feelings guide my thoughts. Can you relate to such a time? If so, how can we prevent that from happening as often as it does?

As further encouragement, read these verses below (preferably in the NIV) to learn more about joy and the importance it should have in a Christian’s life. Allow me to share three passages, and you can read the rest:

Galatians 5:22-23: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Notice joy is a fruit of the Spirit and so joy is given to us from God).

Hebrews 12:2: fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (What “joy” was set before Jesus . . . many answers could be given, but one is that Jesus saw the purpose of the cross – he endured (persevered!) for a purpose!).

Psalms 126:3: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” (What could I possibly say to explain that further – Amen!).

Enjoy! RA

Psalms 21:6

Nehemiah 8:12

Psalms 28:7

Luke 2:10

John 15:11

Romans 14:17

2 Corinthians 7:4

1 Peter 1:8

James, Devotion #2: My Trials and Struggles Have a Purpose! (James 1:2-3)

Here’s what I hope you discover today from James:

  • Trials are not a time to gripe but grow!
  • Trials are meant to produce endurance, or as I call it the virtue of clinging to God no matter what!

Last time we looked at James, we summarized what an ‘adequate’ or truly biblical view of suffering looked like. Here is what we summarized:

  • Suffering is to be expected (as we learned then!)
  • Suffering has a purpose (this we will learn today!)
  • Suffering is to be received with joy (this we will learn next time!)

IN THE WORD

Let’s start today by reading James 1:2-4:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB)

So, according to James, what are the purposes of my trials and tough times?

  1. Trials are not a time to gripe but to grow!

Most Christians would have to admit, and I certainly do, that when tough times come, one of the first things we do is question God. We say things like, “Why God, why me?” and “I thought you loved me?”, and then complaints usually ensue. For a picture of this, you can see this demonstrated repeatedly in the Old Testament with the children of Israel: almost every time a challenge occurred during the Exodus event, the Israelites wailed at what was occurring, and griped at God, even at times wishing instead to return to the enslavement of Egypt! This is a natural response to tough times, but as Christians, James challenged us to live supernaturally by proclaiming our trials have a purpose!

James declares that the supernatural response is not to gripe, but to see the challenging times and trials as what they really are – a “means of testing” with a purpose. In other words, when tough times come, God is not mad at us, nor has he left us, but is seeking to determine how tough our faith really is. And the word that is used in this context also suggests that the testing will show your faith to be approved, as fine metals coming out of the fire prove their genuineness and value! So, along with 1 Corinthians 10:13, we actually can see God does not test us beyond what He knows we can handle![1]

  1. Trials are meant to produce Endurance!

Additionally, in order to have a supernatural response, James informs us the time of testing is also critical and needed for what it can produce in us, and that is    ?   . That question mark is not a typo, because it signifies the difficulties of translating James’ next word. Scholars have translated it in variety of ways – ‘endurance’ (NASB/NET/HCSB), ‘patience’ (KJV), or ‘perseverance’ (NIV). All of those are worthy translations, but still fall short of the intended meaning because the essence of the word is ‘to remain under’, ‘to abide’, and stresses a constancy no matter the circumstances![2] Consequently you can see the problem with trying to find one English word that describes all of that. In my humble opinion, I translate the word with a phrase – the testing of your faith produces or results in a willingness to cling to God no matter what! Think of it this way, when trials come, we either cling to anger, fear, or bitterness, or cling to God knowing there is a purpose and strength to be found in Him. And, as Paul in Romans 5:3 and 15:5 reminds us, this is not something that comes from us, but God gives it to us – again a supernatural experience, and further affirmation that we are never alone during our trials!

IN THE WORLD

Reflect on these questions:

  • How would it change your view and attitude of trials and sufferings if you would undeniably acknowledge what you are facing has a purpose?
  • Have you seen this “perseverance” or as I called it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what” as an outcome of your own trials? Describe its presence in your life.
  • How have you been reassured by the book of James today that you are never alone during your trials?

Next time we will look at another purpose James has for our trials.

 

[1] If you remember from our previous lesson on James, the word for trials can mean both external sufferings and challenges (such as persecution, etc), but also the inner temptations we face (as James will discuss later in chapter 1). Although Paul uses the same word as James does in 1 Corinthians, to be contextually accurate, I do believe Paul is using the word more in reference to the temptations we face, but I still believe the promise holds true with either emphasis of the word.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, James: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) p. 49. I like how they explain this word based on the RSV’s ‘steadfastness’ stating this is ‘not a passive virtue but a steady clinging to the truth within any situation.’ And Douglass Moo in The Letter of James: The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), p. 55 says the essence of the word usually translated ‘perseverance’ is best seen as “the picture of a person successfully carrying a heavy load for a long time.”

James, Devotion #1: Change the Way You Think of Trials (James 1:1-2)

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As we begin our study of the book of James, here’s what I hope you discover today:

  • James wrote his letter to Christians going through trials in order to describe what authentic faith looks like;
  • Everyone will ‘hop from a host of hardships’;
  • Most Christians have an ‘inadequate view of suffering’.

IN THE WORD

Read James 1:1-4

Some quick facts as we start the book of James:

  • James was the half-brother of Jesus, and an important leader in the early Jerusalem Church (see Gal. 1:19 and Acts 15:13ff);
  • He wrote this letter to Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, who no longer lived in Jerusalem or Palestine, but had scattered to other places (he uses the term ‘diaspora’ which refers to the Jewish people living elsewhere during and after the exilic period);
  • Since the above is true, that means the book of James is probably the first book of the New Testament written, most likely in the mid-to-late 40s AD.

The book of James is concise, practical, and controversial:

  • Concise because it is only five chapters long, so it is direct and to the point;
  • Practical in that it seeks to describe what real faith looks like and how it should work;
  • Controversial because many believed it contradicted the Apostle Paul and his teachings regarding faith and works (which it doesn’t)! For these reasons and more, I love this book!

For today’s study, we will look at only one verse: James 1:2

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” (NASB)

Let me emphasize two crucial points gleaned from this passage (and which coincide with our above bullet points):

1. Everyone will ‘hop from a host of hardships’ (my translation)

I like my cute, alliterative translation better than most others because while the New American Standard (NASB) gives us a good literal translation of the text, it ignores the alliteration that is in the original Greek among the words ‘encounter, trials, and various.’ This alliteration is important to acknowledge as a literary device, because it was intended to augment the importance of the statement: You will face many different kinds of trials!

Let’s briefly unpack this first statement:

  • All Christians (‘my brethen’) will face trials! James could have said “if” you encounter trials, but he chose to say “when”, stressing even more the importance of learning how to respond to tough times since we will all face them!
  • “Trials” is a rich and broad term that can refer to both outward struggles such as persecutions, or the inward struggles such as sins like greed, lust, etc. Context will dictate which is being emphasized, and here the context surely refers to the outward struggles, as James will talk about the inward struggles a few verses later (V. 13ff).
  • “Various” reminds us that trials can be of many different kinds. In other words, stop comparing your trials to your neighbor’s, and instead, focus on how you are suppose to get through your struggles.
  1. How do we have an “inadequate view of suffering” today?

This is a great quote, and also I believe accurate assessment, from the German theologian Helmut Thielicke.[1]

Personally, I struggled with this for many years because I listened to other people and false teachers instead of the Word of God. What were some of these inadequate views I held onto? Lots of things that honestly I wanted to hear: things like, “If you belong to God, nothing bad will ever happen to you!” Another one I believed: “If bad things happen to you, there must be some sin in your life; consequently get rid of that sin and you will get rid of the suffering too!” I could go on, but you get the point.

Slowly I began to realize that these views of suffering did not correlate with the Word of God. For instance, here in James, he boldly informs us that we should not be surprised when tough times come our way, but in fact, tough times and trials must be expected! Accepting this point may be half the battle in learning to respond properly.

And not only that, but in the days ahead you will learn that an adequate view of suffering reminds us:

  • Suffering is to be expected (as we just learned!)
  • Suffering has a purpose (this we will learn in the next post!)
  • Suffering is to be received with joy (this we will learn soon!)

IN THE WORLD

Prayerfully answers these questions:

  • What trials/suffering are you going through today?
  • How are you responding during your trial?
  • Evaluate your view of suffering – is it ‘inadequate’ like the two examples I gave above, or biblical?

Lastly, pray to God thanking him for the truth of his Word, and the power, by His Spirit, it has to correct all of our ‘inadequate’ views.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg. and Mariam J. Kamell, James: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), p. 49. This is one of my favorite commentaries for the book of James.