Did You Notice that There Aren’t Many Worship Songs About “The Dark Night of the Soul?”

January 30, 2014

I am just getting home from an annual conference for Covenant pastors. I’m tired and content and curious about how I will catch up on sleep before my husband leaves me home with a now three year old while he goes to his conference. I have work to do- writing and coaching and I’m sure there’s a sermon or two I need to write coming up quicker than I want to acknowledge. But in light of a very good conference, I am thinking only on a few things. My brain is occupied with all the deliciousness of questions.

And one question I have involves clashing realities. Working right now as a coach for pastors and sometimes even church leadership teams and whole congregations, I know things that I think I knew before, but not quite so personally. I know that in a room full of a thousand pastors- pastors of all stripes and flavors- the vast majority of them are really quivering and aching behind the quick smile and firm handshake and hands raised while singing loudly. I know that when many pastors say, “Things are fine,” they are lying. Or at least in their heads, they are adding a lot of conditions to their answer. “Things are fine… Except for my marriage. Except for my kid. Except for my complete insecurity. Except for my worry over money. Except that my ministry is failing. Except that my church is hollowing out my soul with their expectations and criticism. Except for my addiction. Except for my anger at God. Except for the crushing reality that pastoring is nothing like the ‘brochure’ or ‘commercial,’ and I’m so incredibly bored and disappointed.”

We all know that most of those conditions are totally unacceptable to speak aloud too often. So we don’t. And we ache. Or if we let them leak out a little, we add all the silly religious back-tracking to save face. We have good intentions to be honest. But the immensity of our struggles and our shames forces us to suck it up.

And as with so many conferences, there isn’t that much honesty that occurs. And it’s not necessarily that pastor’s fault. It’s probably no one’s fault. It just…is.

Gatherings like these are not notorious for deliberately creating spaces of lament. Sure, offer a seminar on grief and maybe even stand someone at a microphone urging these Shapers of the Church to tend to their pain- and those are all good- but so much else defies those messages. From the lights and the speakers to the words about how great everything is.

Praise has its place. An important one. But sometimes I wonder if we have become a little top heavy without equal space for lament. For unleashing the stoic floodgates that we so quickly build around our hearts. Where is the space for confession that can only happen in the sacredness of quiet truth that makes safe the willingness to speak of our brokenness?

I was struck at how many songs we Christians sing that do not speak directly and solely about our laments. The songs that come close still always seem to include the uptick of praise and an “everything will be ok” approach. And they can be beautiful songs. They are patterned faithfully out of the Psalms, many of which do that same thing. I like those Psalms, I really do.

But not all the lament Psalms have that uptick. And it is there that we sometimes lack as a faithful group of Jesus lovers.

If you have ever read St. John of the Cross’ The Dark Night of the Soul, I am so proud of you. If you haven’t, you need to. If it doesn’t speak to you, that’s ok… Know it anyway since you may run into someone who is living through it and will need you to not say careless things. Please.

There is so much in this book that it would be impossible to explain it all, but what strikes me most about the dark night of the soul is that is freakishly dark. Dark dark. Like really, really, really dark. And it’s made dark by the oddest thing that so many of us would struggle to understand: the dark night of the soul is caused by God actually removing his presence from us.

What do you do with that?

Last night at this conference, we sang a powerful song that said:

                                       Call out his name (Jesus) and he will come to you                                         Shout out his name (Jesus) and he will run to you

It was a beautiful song and I don’t disagree with it. Except for those times. Those dark night of the soul times. Those times when we have screamed out his name and he hasn’t come. Why? Because… Because… Dark night of the soul. And I was left with the beautiful taste of this song in my mouth asking, “Did I just not shout loud enough?” I wondered how many pastors in the room that night were asking the same question. Maybe no one but me. Though I doubt that.

There is a debate among many who have studied St. John of the Cross’ book. The debate is whether dark nights of the soul happen with regularity or in obscurity. Some say they happen often to many people. Others say, no, they only happen to a handful of people and not often.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. All I know is that the dark night is more than just being “spiritually dry” (I so deeply apologize for the Christian cliché… English hasn’t quite caught up to the language of the soul, and it will be a good day when it does.) The dark night also isn’t about unconfessed sin that clouds God from sight. It isn’t burn out. It isn’t working too hard. It isn’t stress. It isn’t the indecision of a crossroads in life. It isn’t anything like those experiences. Not to minimize those experiences… They are just not what we are talking about.

The dark night is one where God leaves. Yes. You read that right. God leaves. This ever-present, where-they-are-I-am, never-leave-you-or-forsake-you God leaves. Please don’t call me a heretic. I didn’t write the book.

Or rather, God removes from us the experience of his present. And that plunges us into the confusing exhaustion of despair, spreading our hands to a God who has seemingly taken a sharp exit, and the panic sets in wondering if he will ever return.

We go through the questions of “What did we do?” and “Why would this happen?” and “Didn’t you say,Lord, that you’ll always hang around?” And then we settle into the agony of silence, of aloneness, craning our ears, willing them to hear something- any small sound of God- only to hear… nothing.

That’s a dark night. A dark night of the soul. When everything you relied on and thought you knew is taken from you. And nothing is offered in it’s place. Only… Empty.

And God does this to us… Or some of us, depending on which side of the debate you are on.


John of the Cross argues that the dark night happens because God is removing our dependency on the experience of him and moving us to one of the deeper places or trust. Where we learn to no longer hope in the sense of his Presence, but instead release the emotion and the experience. He takes the training wheels off. He grabs us and throws us wildly into the dark abyss of the deep waters where at first we don’t know which way is up and grow crazy at the fear our lungs will collapse before we find which way to go. Confusing? Oh my, yes. And yet purposeful. So we learn to trust in ways we thought we were, but not really.

And perhaps more of us are facing that than we realize. Which is why at this juncture in my life, I am keenly aware that in a room full of people, so many, so many are aching behind the bright smiles and hands lifted in prayer.

That’s why I think we need space and silence and someone who dares to name such large elephants in the room and songs that don’t always include the uptick of praise that makes it all ok.

Because agonizing silence can be praise. Sobs that have no comfort can be praise. Speaking honestly into the void can be praise. And singing songs that have no happy ending yet can be praise. Or at least they create an honesty that is sometimes so lacking.

I love my Church. And I love this Covenant tradition I am in that offers this yearly retreat. And I so gratefully love the songbirds and creators who write and sing and lead and birth these places of worship and song. And I fully agree with the word “Shout out his name and he will run to you.”

But I equally agree with the ending or Psalm 88: The darkness is my closest friend.

And I equally believe that sometimes we need to push outward to make room, allowing for more than the clashing cymbals and light shows and loud joyous applause of our worship, so that into that space, some of us might dare to tread, looking for a God who has veiled himself in the crowd, agonizing as we wring out our dependency on what we had known as trust, and begin to step into the newness of life where God can indeed pry himself from our faithful fingers, in order to birth in us a deeper way of worship.

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