Esp 22: Why The Dark Night of the Soul is like Fight Club

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Doug Jackson, Returning Guest and All-Star, Explains the 3 Stages of Spiritual Development and Dispels the Biggest Myths.

Do you know St John of the Cross?

What you don’t know could hurt you…but good news, you are now in for a treat!

Listen and get a fascinating perspective of the darkest places on the spiritual journey with your guide Professor Doug Jackson. See the show notes below!



Historic context of 16th Century Catholic Revival-Era Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross


3 stages of spiritual development 

How do we know if we are making progress and what can we expect?

St John (1542-1591) provides a roadmap for night

The Beginner Stage
(The beginner loves God for the self’s sake. The beginners thinks, “What’s good for me.”)

John H Coe

Doug explains the Dark Night of the Soul, the important next stage of spiritual development, in keen and helpful detail.


God starts at the first stage (in a place of joy and thrill in God) and allows us delight in spiritual things and feed on “mother’s milk” spiritually.

Next, God helps us get used to our baby teeth by moving us to love God for God’s sake.

John of the Cross takes the 7 deadly sins and show how they can happen to us in a spiritual sense.


God is weening us away from nursing and from spiritual milk. Like a baby, we may misunderstand and feel unloved or unnoticed, at first.


Commodified is the Dark Night of the Soul in Amercian Evangelicalism. The phrase itself is often used inexactly.

It’s not feeling sad or a string of bad things have happened for which we feel upset and confused.

BUT—It is that without cause we feel God has abandon us.

It is not a loss of faith, nor not depression, nor a felt distance because of sin.

It was also an analysis of depression 400 years before Freud! 


God withdraws sensible (sensory, felt) affects. The dark night of the senses. (first phase).


Maybe it feels like prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Maybe it feels that songs or sermons that had made an affect no longer do. This sense of loss will be different for each person.


Essentially, the delight in God disappears.


Mistakenly, we often may try to shock people back into spiritual infancy with a method, tactic, or suggestion that seems like it might cause feeling once again. (like a book, a conference, a service, etc)


The spiritual advice from John is to not abandon your spiritual practices (like prayer, fellowship, meditation, service, etc) continue to obey God and carry on until you pass through the night. They won’t be fun, but you continue for God’s sake, not your own.

Then you can come out on the other side to the stage of the Proficient. (Though the stages are actually more porous.)


The 2nd stage is where John says most of us get and hardly proceed from.

2nd dark night, is rare, and is horrible and includes a bewilderment and even a loss of faith in God and one comes out with a much richer deeper faith and far more settled and fuller understanding of God.

John Coe using 1 John 2:12-14 explains the stages as well.


John of the Cross found this understanding through terrible suffering and imprisonment and he saw the spiritual connection.


In the Dark Night of the Soul, spiritual answers are obscured and things are hidden from view.

Walking by faith and not sight.


If you can’t find the answers it doesn’t mean that something went wrong, it’s just that you can see right now. There will be a lack of certainty.


Stick with the basics in the dark night.


In the dark night we aren’t doubting our Faith, or God, but but we are doubting our understanding of God and our Faith.

The call is to obey God and persist in our ways as before. Eventually a dawn will come.


In this stage, we jettison things that are not core, central and true and come to understand God in a better way.

BE WARNED: Others may feel anxious to get you back in to where you were.


Backsliding is not the same thing as a Dark Night experience. The Dark Night is progression.


Prophets in the OT go through the dark night times.


Using a different lens to see what is already there.



Elijah after Mt Carmel

Apostle Paul


Jesus (wilderness and Gethsemane)

Jesus “learned obedience” and the the will of God was not pleasant

We all go through these types of dark nights



John of the Cross’s work was (and is) written for [spiritual] guides (leaders) so they can recognize what is happening and to know what not to do.


Some mystical-style theologians have been hijacked and grafted into a different (sometimes New Age) model of how the reality is ( i.e. “divided self”.)


The Devil – So what about the Devil which is a prominent feature in the writings?


John takes the readers’ Christian theology for already granted. The basic Christian theology was assumed because that was the background and beliefs of his audience.


Doug answers…Devil with a Big “D” questions. How do we come to understand John and what he is saying, if it is different than our understanding of The Devil and the spiritual world?

Don’t rehabilitate [John], or superimpose our ideas on his work.

Don’t judge or put parts on trial for the embarrassing and difficult sections of St John of the Cross.


Approach the text thus: “Eat the meat of the fish not the bones”


If the language bothers you, then let it lie fallow and see what is going on in your own heart as you read.


We can learn from old text.


On intellectual honesty and intellectual humility


On why the devotional classics become that way.


On the reading of old books (C.S. Lewis) (click to read)

We have different blind spots now. Different mistakes in different times.


Our cultural and worldview will effect our beliefs.


How do we get through the Dark Night?

It is up to God as a Grace. Our only job is to remain faithful.

Father Francis Kelly Nemeck


The promise is (found in Scripture and from those who’ve gone ahead of us in the Faith) that we come out (into dawn) and see the value of what we went through.

God says to Job: I’m God and you are not.

Job says, “Now I have seen you. I spoke out of turn.”


A word of hope for those in the dark night.

1. Those in the dark night bless those around them and their pride does not effect this because of the Night itself. We are spiritual protected.


In the Dark Night we don’t get to be proud of our humility.

Be faithful know that God is using you and wait it out.


Modern example Mother Teresa. She lived most of her life with a sense of abandonment by God.

“If I ever become a Saint I will be a Saint of Darkness, facing the dark to guide souls to the light.”


People were drawn to her service and work for God even though she felt God’s silence.


On her critics who say she stopped believing in God.

Christopher Hitchens wrote slanderously about her and others in his book “The Missionary Position”. He said she did have the courage to admit publicly that she didn’t believe in God and never had.


Mother Teresa–her fruit shows otherwise (it’s sow belief and faithfulness).

Apostasy is a deliberate walking away from God which is a danger of misunderstanding the Dark Night. This is why trained and wise spiritual guides are essential.


C.S. Lewis character Screwtape urges: “Use the word “phase” to tell him he had it all wrong”

In a genuine Dark Night, we may think we have abandon God or want to and then find ourselves incapable of it.


Doubt in God is like holding a volleyball underwater with just one hand and senses all the force and then thinking there is no volleyball because it cannot be seen.

“We aren’t working without a net and we won’t fall out of the arms of God.”


If you are in the Dark Night…(it helps) remembering “it’s a thing, a documented thing”.


Walking in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before.


What to do if you are in the throes of it all. best advice.

Richard Foster’s advice in the Celebration of Discipline. The chapter on solitude.

Don’t try to explain this to people when you are in it.

(It’s like Fight Club) “The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about fight club”

Most people will not get it. It can hurt our spiritual reputation. God is drawing us into obedience and faith in the absence of feeling. We carry on

Spiritual Director or guide is very important.

“The Dark Night of the Soul” (click to get it free)

“The Way of Spiritual Direction”

“The Spiritual Journey: Crucial Thinking and Stages of Adult Spiritual Genesis”

Henri Nouwen “The Way of the Heart”


Protestantism running thin in certain areas.

Psychology tainted some spiritual experience as pathology and than co-opted with modern Christianity.


Baptists were not systematic theologians early on because of the persecution from the Mother Church (in Rome).


Puritan writers like Jonathan Edwards take God as Physician of the Soul very seriously.


The one sermon that did in Jonathan Edwards in our time.

“The Religious Affections” To teach that the Great Awakening was just an emotional experience or demonic experience. He writes on how to understand what is of God.


On taking your time understanding the Dark Night. God is trying to bring us into greater maturity and Christ likeness.

Have you ever gone through a Dark Night of the Soul?
If you’ve reached the dawn, what was strengthen or changed in you?

Blessings in your night travels. If you aren’t in a Dark Night, it’s coming. Stay Calm and Carry on.

If you have any questions or you would like to drop me a line about what you are going through, please use the contact page. A helpful (worldwide) listing to find qualified guides is here.


God and Jacob in the OT SMACKDOWN: How to wrestle God

by Leon Bonnat. 1876

It happened in a spot located on the north bank of the Jabbok close to the Jordan River. God and Jacob grappled. Um, what?

This has to be one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible. It’s just 9 verses long. Click this to read it quickly, in a cute, new window.

(And, no, I don’t think the angel/incarnation of God had wings like we see depicted in this illustration. And I have to believe he had a much nicer hairdo, too.)

SO! After that all-night bout, Jacob names the place Peniel, which means “facing God”. Once you go head-to-head with God Almighty, in the flesh, in an epic OT (Old Testament) Smackdown, you just have to name the place something cool, or memorable. You have to do it…so you don’t convince yourself that you were just dreaming, like before. Later, you’ll say, “Yes, kids, I wrestled God all night right here. I had a pretty mean grip on him, and my hip has been killing me ever since.

The incarnation of God dislocates Jacob’s hip, with just a touch. But, you know what? Jacob still hung on tightly and relentlessly until the angel granted him a blessing. Thus, Jacob carried a permanent reminder of struggling with God.

The hip joint is very strong. Hip injuries like this are not too common, but they do occur sometimes in rough and tumble sports. Here is a little research I gathered, so we can better understand the marathon of a match, and the (possible) physical consequences.

From Chicago Sports Medicine
Post-Hip Dislocation:

This injury is more common in such sports as football, rugby, hurling, and soccer, the individual is hit in the front of the thigh, forcing the thigh/hip complex backward, resulting in hip dislocations. This tears the ligamentum teres and the posterior capsule.

(In folk style/scholastic wrestling, there is a technique/move called “Jacob’s hook”. Yes, it can be dangerous, cause a hip dislocation, and lasting pain.)

Sciatic nerve and the hip joint. Ouchy.

The vascular supply to the femoral head is stretched and torn as the posterior displacement increases. Generally (in athletics), the participant is not allowed to return to athletics for a minimum of three months. Long-term consequences of posterior hip dislocations can include sciatic nerve injury, avascular necrosis of the femoral head (hip joint damage due to decreased blood supply), and significant arthritis and cartilage damage.

A joint dislocation significantly disrupts all the structures that support the joint. The athlete will be out of commission for a minimum of three months if he/she does traditional sports medicine treatments. Even after all of that time, there is no guarantee that one will be left with a strong hip joint.

The children of Israel remember the event by never eating this part of an animal. The sciatic nerve is known in Hebrew as the gid hanasheh. The process of removing the sciatic nerve (as well as certain large blood vessels and forbidden fats) from the surrounding meat is known as nikkur, or “deveining.” Since this is a difficult and delicate process, cuts from an animal’s hindquarters (including the Filet mignon) are generally not sold as kosher.[2] (from wiki)

Part of the blessing Jacob receives involves his name change ushering in a new identity for this youngest and far sneakier of the twins boys of Isaac. He is given the name Israel.

Yes, Jacob hangs on all night. Yes, the passage makes it seem like the angel had to keep an early morning appointment elsewhere, with all that “Let me go for it is daybreak” business, as if he’s Edward (the vampire) in the Twilight series. He seems to give in to Jacob’s iron grip. But…

Israel means “God prevails”.

The ending of the name Israel, “el” is most often translated from Hebrew as God, or god.
The first part of the word (isra, or some approximation) is translated – as contended, or striven, or wrestled.

Sometimes this story is interpreted that it is Jacob who does the prevailing or overcoming; but it is God who heals Jacob by revealing himself to him, man-to-man. He “breaks” him to begin to heal him, in every way. God perpetuates a grappling stalemate. Although he could, God chooses not to defeat Jacob in a straight-forward victory by a submission hold, or pin, etc. Jacob’s tenacity is rewarded. Eye of the tiger, baby!

God welcomes our struggling with him, when we patiently and boldly holdout for the blessings that only can come from him.

Have you ever realized that God wants you close, even if you are struggling against him? He wants us to know him in that up close way, face-to-face in all our messiness. He seems to route for us, and hope we hang on all the way to the end of the dark night for the blessing.

Have you ever wrestled God?

The Dark Night of the Soul- Part II

The Dark Night of the Soul, says  Dr. Gerald May, sounds different in his patients when they speak. There may be (felt) discouragement, and silence from God. There may be a confusion, and a lack of spiritual “experience” or lack of sensation of the spiritual as there had been before. But, compared to his patients who have symptoms of depression, these folks do not have despair like those who are depressed do. They do not have the same cynicism, even though they may feel alone.

In the dark night times one knows transformation is underway. During times of depression, one hopes to return to normal.

Because God is not a “thing” but rather Spirit-all places at once-as we progress spiritually, invitations come to rebirth and journey closer to union with him as Spirit. What I speak of here is not a journey to a physical spot, but to an awareness of God, in a deeper, richer way. One that involves faith, not sight, or even the crutch of sensation, which may confused for God, but also cannot be God, in actuality.

We can leave behind the old methods of tapping into the spiritual that are like outgrown child’s clothing–too small for us. Ultimately, we move toward union with God in this way.

Some dark nights take years to move through. We must not fear them because they involve a greater revelation of God’s amazing grace and love. The end always results in greater insights of God’s love, and greater union with the Divine, in a brighter day.

In Part III, I will talk about the “Dawn” from the Dark Night.

Some information taken from my reading: Gerald G. May, M.D. The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. Harper San Francisco, 2004.

 DID you read PART I ?

Dark Night of the Soul- Part 1

Q: Where did the term “dark night of the soul” come from?

R: The phrase first turned up in the poetry of Spanish Carmelite monk John of the Cross in the 16th Century. He composed many poems while in torment in prison.

Q: “Dark” seems awfully negative, is it?

R: In Spanish the term is closer to the word “obscure”. Though the process may be confusing and painful, “dark” is not implying a negative state. It is a description, especially once one is aware of the progression of growth involved, and knows how the dawn will approach.

Q: Is the “dark night of the soul” the same as depression?

R: No. It’s also not a “spiritual term” for the suffering of someone who needs help for trauma/abuse, medical treatment for illness (mental and otherwise), and/or therapy. Sometimes the two states are seen hand-in-hand, and many times they are not.

Q: Are there different kinds of “dark nights” of the soul?

R: Yes. John of the Cross spoke of a “dark night” involving the senses, and one involving the spirit. One may have numerous dark nights of the senses. (I will go into more detail in future posts.)

Q: What is a good way to recognize a “dark night”.

R: A dark night of the senses may “feel” as though modes of prayer, experiencing the spiritual, or spiritual practices don’t “work” or satisfy. God may “feel” out of reach, distant, unavailable, or gone. It may feel like a dry period, or a time of being in a spiritual dessert. (This is not cause for discouragement or alarm, but for stamina. It is a Divine invitation for growth, and greater spiritual depth beyond what one knows. I will elaborate on what is taking place more in future posts.)

Next time I will post about the “dark night and ‘union with God’,” the process of the “dark night,” any questions/responses that come in from this post, and more. Come back soon.

Information taken from my reading: Gerald G. May, M.D. The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. Harper San Francisco, 2004.

My (upcoming) book Life as Prayer: A New Paradigm for contemporary Spirituality Inspired by Ancient Piety dedicates a whole chapter to this topic. I will update this blog with details as this work continues. Thanks for your interest. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Now, Read PART II