The Dark Night of the Soul

God has promised, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). If you get up from your knees and don’t feel any different, and you don’t feel forgiven, does that mean He has not forgiven you?

So you again tell Jesus you trust in Him as your Savior—because He promised that all those who received Him are children of God (John 1:12). And again you don’t feel any different. Does that mean you don’t really belong to Him?

He promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And, “I am with you always even unto the end of the world.” If you do not “feel” his presence with you, does that mean he has abandoned you?

Actually this is not uncommon with Christians who want a close fellowship with God. The mystics through the ages called it “The dark night of the soul.” At times this “dark night” continued for years. It is not an unusual experience.

This “darkness” may be because we confuse “feeling” for “faith” — we depend on how we feel.  …how we feel about God’s presence …or how we feel about being forgiven.

I have appreciated a couple paragraphs from a small book called “The Sanctified Life” by Ellen G. White:

            Many who are sincerely seeking for holiness of heart and purity of life seem perplexed and discouraged. They are constantly looking to themselves, and lamenting their lack of faith; and because they have no faith, they feel that they cannot claim the blessing of God. These persons mistake feeling for faith. They look above the simplicity of true faith, and thus bring great darkness upon their souls. They should turn the mind from self, to dwell upon the mercy and goodness of God and to recount His promises, and then simply believe that He will fulfill His word. We are not to trust in our faith, but in the promises of God. When we repent of our past transgressions of His law, and resolve to render obedience in the future, we should believe that God for Christ’s sake accepts us, and forgives our sins.

Darkness and discouragement will sometimes come upon the soul and threaten to overwhelm us, but we should not cast away our confidence. We must keep the eye fixed on Jesus, feeling or no feeling. We should seek to faithfully perform every known duty, and then calmly rest in the promises of God.

At times a deep sense of our unworthiness will send a thrill of terror through the soul, but this is no evidence that God has changed toward us, or we toward God. No effort should be made to rein the mind up to a certain intensity of emotion. We may not feel today the peace and joy which we felt yesterday; but we should by faith grasp the hand of Christ, and trust Him as fully in the darkness as in the light.

Ellen White, The Sanctified Life, p. 89 – 90

God understands the weakness of human nature — that men get tired, fatigued, and discouraged. Scripture says, “He knows that we are dust.” and “He is touched with the feelings, infirmities”

So never trust how you feel. But rather trust in what God, who does not lie, has promised.

The Apostle John said if we do not believe His promises, we are calling God a liar! (1 John 5:10-11) —that’s strong language! Rom 5:8

Temporary Residents

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Hebrews 11:8

Abraham did not always know where he was going, but he did know that wherever he happened to be, that it was not his permanent residence.

As a boy we lived along the railroad tracks just outside of Kerman. We used to have Hobos stop by to get some food. With no work and no prospects of jobs at home, many decided to travel for free via freight trains and try their luck elsewhere. These Hobos shifted from place to place – where ever they could find jobs. Where they were staying was not their permanent home. They were always looking for something better.

After listing the faith of Abraham and others, the Scripture says:

“All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.  …But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland.”  Hebrews 11:13-16

I got to thinking about this as I put a quotation in our Weekly News a couple of weeks ago by Randy Alcorn: “What is the single greatest deterrent to generous giving? I believe the answer is the illusion or belief that this earth is our home.”

Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we too are temporary residents here. This world is NOT our home. We are not illegal. We have green cards. But the danger is that we get too comfortable here – we think this is all there is to life.

Like the pilgrims, hobos and illegal aliens, we must remember that our home is in heaven. We know that where we currently live is not our real home.

If we are to live as temporary residents in this world how should this understanding affect us?

1. First it should affect our attitude – how we think.             It should affect how we think about this world and God’s country. It should affect our goals, our purpose in life. Being temporary residents should definitely affect our attitudes.

2. It may also affect how we integrate into society. The puritans/pilgrims of England moved to Holland for freedom. However they soon discovered they could not understand their children who were learning the Dutch language. That’s not an issue with us. However we must choose what aspects of the culture around us we absorb into our being. We need to be selective of features of the world’s culture we accept because we are involved in character development. We must choose what influences us.

3. Furthermore, we are more than just migrants. We are subversive agents of another kingdom. We are representatives of the government of heaven. As such we seek to advance His kingdom we make friends for that kingdom. Even our relationships have a higher purpose.

So don’t get too comfortable.

“I’m but a stranger here, Heaven is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand Round me on every hand;
Heaven is my Fatherland, Heaven is my Home.”

Worship in “Spirit and Truth”

When talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she asked Jesus where they should worship God, on the nearby Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem as believed by the Jews. She had always been taught that Mt. Gerizim was a holier and more ancient place for worshiping God. Jesus replied that soon they would not be able to worship in either place. But more important than the location was to worship God “in spirit and truth.”

What did Jesus mean by that phrase?

21  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father.

22  “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.

23  “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.

24  “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:21-24 (NKJV)

The Greek word for “spirit”, pneuma, has the basic meaning of breath, air or wind. Scripture also uses the word for the Holy Spirit. In relation to people, it sometimes means the inner being. For example, “spirit” is used for mood, attitude, emotions or character.

Most translations translate the phrase simply as “spirit and truth” or “spirit and reality.”

However some of the paraphrases do a little interpreting. For example, The Living Bible assumes “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit. Here is how it paraphrases verse 23: “For it’s not where we worship that counts, but how we worship – is our worship spiritual and real? Do we have the Holy Spirit’s help?”

Jack Blanco in his The Clear Word paraphrases verse 23 as “But the time is coming and is already here when people can worship God anywhere, because true worship is a matter of the heart. This is the kind of worship that God is looking for.” This paraphrase assumes “spirit” means the inner person.

Looking at the context however, the reason given for worshiping in spirit is that “God is spirit.” (verse 24). In other words God is not physical, material or tangible but He is spirit. God is not confined to things. Therefore image worship is an inappropriate method of reaching out to God. It becomes a barrier to developing a trusting relationship.

And since God is spirit He is not confined to places. God is not limited to Jerusalem or any church headquarters. God is everywhere. We can worship as well in a tin shed (as I did in northern Brazil) as in a Cathedral. True worship has nothing to do with location, but has everything to do with the condition of the heart.

When we turn to the meaning of worshiping “in truth,” verse 22 seems to help: “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22 NKJV)

Jesus seems to be speaking concerning the truth about God. The Samaritans do not really know Him. They do not know who He really is. Jesus later said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 NKJV). They need to know what God is like in order to really worship Him. If they think of God as harsh, vengeful and capricious it will affect their worship. On the other hand, if they know Him as loving, fair and dependable this will influence their worship in another way.

Our worship will be more meaningful as we understand the character of God. Like the Apostle Paul, I truly want to know Him better.

Who’s in the Spotlight

So the people all come together in rows in the church, and they face forward. So what?

Well, it’s the same physical set up as a stage play, and everybody knows about those. You plunk down in a seat. …At H-hour the lights go up; the actors start performing, a prompter offstage whispers cues – and the spectators lean back and evaluate how they do.

But church? No. No. No. No. No. No. No!

Church is unique. Whether the people in the congregation ever discover it or not, they are the actors. The up-front people are the prompters, whispering cues as needed – and God is the audience, looking on to see how they do.

Many poor churches don’t even know who’s supposed to be doing it! What lousy, lousy plays they put on! The actors sit around lethargically while the prompters practically exhaust themselves trying to do all their lines for them so the play will still give a lively appearance.

It doesn’t.

  • Quoted from Up with Worship by Anne Ortlund, original idea by Soren Kierkegaard.

Tell the Truth!

Truth is a key idea in Romans 1. But Paul is not writing about truthfulness in general. Rather, he speaks very specifically about telling the truth about God. Every reference to “truth” here refers to the truth about God’s character.

18 But God shows his anger [wrath] from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.
20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.
22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.
23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:18-21-23 (NLT)

Paul says, mankind at one time knew the truth about God. God had revealed himself to them in nature. They could see many of His character qualities in the things He created. Paul mentions the “invisible qualities” of His eternal power and divine nature. But they could also see evidences of His faithfulness, kindness and love – for example in the care of a mother bird or animal for her young. They could see His justice in the consequences of wrong choices.

Certainly sin the  obscured face of God, but even today it still reveals some reality of what God is like.

Knowing what God is like is important.  Because if I think that God is arbitrary, vengeful or severe I will be afraid of Him. I must know Him as kind, generous and merciful to trust Him. God has shown Himself as fearsome in the past because of the needs of people at that time. But the most complete revelation of what God is like is in the life of Jesus.

The very purpose of Jesus coming to earth was to reveal by His life and teachings what God is like. In His prayer (John 17) Jesus told His Father that He had finished the work he had been assigned. He closed that prayer by saying, “I have revealed you to them,” or as some translations put it, “I made known to them your name” – meaning, your character. That is why Jesus could say to the disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” If you’ve seen my compassion for people you’ve seen how the Father feels. Every miracle, every expression of acceptance and kindness was a disclosure of God’s feelings for people. Jesus was God in human flesh. Every other communication about God through past ages was inadequate (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus was the final and complete revelation of the character of God.

But to live the way they wanted, Paul says people ignored (or suppressed) what they knew about God and began to think up foolish ideas of who He was. Rather than worshiping the Creator, they worshiped His creation.

But Paul is really concerned to show the results of ignoring a true understanding of God’s character – it changes our own! The next verse after that quoted above says,

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. Romans 1:24 (NLT)

Paul gives extended descriptions of what that depraved behavior is like. (Read Romans 1:16-32 to get the full message of the section.)

What they believed about their gods, affected how they lived. It changed their behavior and their character.

And isn’t it true even today? People will rise no higher than their heroes.

Let’s tell the truth about God.

Why Praise?

Why are we commanded to praise the Lord? I do not believe God has such a poor self-image that he needs our praise so He feels good about Himself. He doesn’t need our encouragement.

Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—

Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the LORD, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the LORD, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the LORD, O my soul. – Psalm 103:1-2, 20-22 (NIV)

I have heard it said that, “Our main purpose as Christians is to praise God.” In other words the very purpose of our creation was to worship and praise God. If they mean that God created us so He would have someone to praise Him – I just don’t believe that.

What is the role or purpose of praise? Why are we so often invited to praise the Lord?

It must have more to do with the benefits we receive by praising, rather than the benefits God expects to receive from our praise. Our praise does not benefit God; rather it benefits us!

If that is so, what are those benefits to us?

  • Praise recognizes the blessings we receive from God.
  • It declares God is worthy of our adoration.
  • It expresses appreciation for His benefits.
  • It remembers our history with God, how he has faithfully led us in the past.

C.S Lewis, in his book, Reflection on the Psalms, says,

“When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people [a]round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.”

Then Lewis came to realize that praise simply expresses appreciation and enjoyment. Like any admirer of works of art or a lover who praises his loved one – we praise what we value. Expressing our appreciation enables us to fully appreciate an object. “In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”

Furthermore, praise and worship is a relational experience. It builds our faith and trust in God. It renews that relationship. As we recount how God has cared for us in the past or how he has inundated us with His grace and mercy, we can only be grateful and trust Him more.

So yes, let us “Praise the Lord!” We are the ones who gain the blessing by our praise. It is our hearts that are drawn closer to Him. He’s there already.

Wrath?

God is a wrathful God? Common synonyms for “wrath” are rage, anger and fury. Is that what the Bible means?

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Romans 1:17-18 (ESV).

Vs. 17 and 18 says two things are revealed: “the righteousness of God” and “the wrath of God.” Both are related to the gospel. Wrath is generally understood as God’s judgment on sin.

God is jealous for his people. He is protective. And the day is coming when He will defend His people from those who are out to hurt them. If you saw someone slap your mother, how would you feel? Maybe that illustrates in a little way how God feels about sin because of what it does to His people. God’s wrath is not like human anger or fury. Rather, it is the protective counterpart of His love.

But in this passage the “wrath of God” seems to refer to something else. The rest of the chapter explains what Paul means by “the wrath of God” here.

The passage primarily depicts the actions of the wicked for which God’s actions are a response. But God’s actions are stated three times in verses 24, 26 and 28. In each case the scripture says “God gave them over” (…to do what they wanted to do).

Because people ignored the truth about God and worshiped what He created rather than the Creator Himself,  God abandoned to whatever their hearts desired. And because they continued in their wickedness, God let them follow their passions. Read verses 18-32.

In other words, if I want to do my own thing in opposition to God’s will, He will give me the freedom to do it. As verse 28 puts it, “Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done.”

God values human freedom. It’s the foundation of His kingdom. His gentle Spirit will draw us to Himself if we will allow it. He will change our hearts and “make us willing to do His will.” But He will not use force. Listen to C. S. Lewis:

There are two kinds of people:  those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “All right, then, have it your own way.”

According to Paul, an expression of His wrath is to allow us to suffer the consequences of our own choices. That’s frightening!

But could it be otherwise?

Who Do I Worship?

Greek drama retold the stories of their gods. The problem was, their gods were as vengeful and immoral as the people. They created gods in their own image. They had no higher standard to emulate. After all, we tend to take on the characteristics of whose we admire.

Jesus told the woman at the well at Sychar, “You Samaritans don’t really know the one you worship.” John 4:22 (CEV). Certainly the Israelites at Sinai, having only known the gods of Egypt, had no concept of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Do I know who I am worshiping? It makes a difference in how I approach God and what I expect to receive.

What is my concept of the God I worship?  Do I think of Him as a

  • Santa Claus, for my “want list”?
  • An overindulgent grandfather?
  • A strict judge watching my every misstep?
  • An absentee landlord, not really a part of my daily life?

What is my relationship to this deity? Is He a distant acquaintance or a trusted friend? Is our relationship estranged or harmonious? Is my God weak or powerful? Majestic or ordinary? Dependable or capricious?

I know the answers to these questions in my head. In my head I know He is a father who longs for his children to come back home. But what does my heart believe about this God? How can I get my heart straight? How can I know Who I am worshiping?

Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 (NIV). Jesus came to earth for the very purpose of revealing the characteristics of God to us. How can we know what He is like unless we are shown? To know Him is to trust Him. That is salvation. Paul exclaimed, “I want to know Him.”

I too, want to know Him. And I know my worship of the Lord God will be more meaningful as I come to know more of what He is truly like.

Faith is Trusting a Person

All relationships are based on trust. If there is no trust then there is no healthy relationship.

Back in the Garden, God’s motives were attacked:  Satan said God could not be trusted. He is not looking out for your best interests. He is not really telling you the truth. (Genesis 3).

If I have reservations about whether God really cares about me, whether He has a hidden agenda, then there is a flaw in our relationship. If I suspect that God is arbitrary, vengeful, stern, or severe, then I will not really trust Him.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17 (ESV)

Faith (or believe – the English verb for faith) is basically faith in a person. It is not just believing a fact or something I was told. It is a relational word. Faith is essentially “trust”.

“Faith, as I understand it, is a word we use to describe a relationship with God as with a person well known. The better we know him, the better this relationship may be.” – Graham Maxwell, Can God be Trusted? p. 43.

The phrase “from faith to faith” in most of our translations is accurate. But in Greek idiom the repetition is for emphasis. The NIV says it is “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” or the New Living Translation says, “This is accomplished from start to finish by faith.” In other words, this new relationship with God is totally based on faith – nothing else.

The ticket to heaven is faith or trust. If we truly trust God, He can trust us in His kingdom forever. That’s all that’s required. All else follows automatically.

What do I rely on for my relationship with God? Do I rely on my being “good enough?” Do I trust that my “faith” is great enough – or fear it is not? Or do I simply rely on God’s kindness – characteristics revealed in the life of Jesus?

Isn’t this trust just my response to who God is and what He has done for me?

“I am proud of the Good News about Jesus because it contains God’s power to save everyone who will trust Him. That’s “everyone” whether Jew or not. The Good News is that God puts people in a proper relationship with Himself when they trust Him and there is no other way. As Scripture says, “The person who is in a right relationship with Him by faith will really live.” (paraphrased)

Worship: It’s All about the Relationship

What is the essence of worship? Prayer?  Vocal solo? Offering? Preaching? Is worship spoiled when the music is off-key or the preacher stumbles in his sermon? What is the difference between worship and entertainment?

What is the function of worship? What is it supposed to do to us?

It seems to me that worship is not dependent on an interesting preacher or talented musicians. Rather, it’s all about building the relationship with God.

The purpose of worship is to renew the relationship between me, a sinner, and a gracious, loving God. I believe God requests our worship, not because he is an egomaniac, but because worship builds the relationship of trust, love and dependence. We get to know Him better for who he really is.

It’s all about knowing who I am and Who God is. I need to be aware of His presence – to know I am not alone, to trust Him more. It’s being reminded of my great need, surrendering myself to Him again, and in various ways expressing my love and appreciation to Him.

The danger is that I can sing the songs, listen to the prayer (or even be the one praying for the congregation), follow the text as the pastor explains it – the danger is that I can do all these things and still not experience a renewed relationship with God. Worship is what happens inside me – and us, as we, as a group, encourage each other in this relationship with God.

Have you really worshiped lately? What do you think? I’d like to hear your ideas.