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.


Prayer of Communal Lament: For Franklin Regional HS



My small hometown–Murrysville, PA–is undergoing a time of shock and pain because of the Alex Hribal’s attack. Two steak knives and a blood bath. Many heroes were made, but the event was and is traumatic–rocking the community to its core.

My young niece (the daughter of my brother’s who is a Franklin Regional Alumnus from the 1990s) was not allowed to attend her classes at the elementary building at Franklin Regional and her street shut down as FBI, State Police, and legions of first responders, media, and others have swarmed the scene. 

My family’s church, the church were I was married, mourns as an entire community and feels trauma and pain deeply because several from their youth group teen were wounded. Some of them have undergone surgery.

All are expected to survive. Praise be to God for that grace.

It would be easy to say this youth of 16 years old is a monster, but students attest that he was very nice. Answers for why it all happened are left unanswered at this time.


In these times, the community of faith raises its voice in communal lament. We are comforted by each other and by a good God who is with us in our pain.

Sadly, violence has become a normal occurrence in school settings… and it may be your hometown that suffers next. But, parish the thought!

If not that, than surely you and your community will encounter pain and loss.


For that, here are some thoughts on Communal Lament.


1. About 1/3 of the Psalms are songs of lament. They are meant to be sung as prayers. They can be read with that in mind.

2. God invites us to cry out in our pain, not to suppress it, or put on a “happy face”. That kind of honesty dignifies our feelings and helps us feel our emotions fully,  so we can move toward healing.

3. Communal laments are always meant to be expressed in the context of ongoing faith and trust in God. 

4. Our laments (communal and individual) are a normal response to the pain and loss of life and living; they help us experience greater bonds of community and healing from God.

5. Laments of the psalms are unvarnished. That is an important quality to understand. They depict the anguish, desperation, pain, and messy feelings that often smack of ill-intension toward enemies and abusers, in parts. They may seem to condone retaliatory violence. But, that’s not the end of the story (song)…

6. If the reader or hearer pays close attention, she or he will notice each song ends in hope and trust in the Lord. This is key to the communal lament. All is left in God’s hands. 

(In this way, our burdens lift and our faith grows.)

7. Communal laments are a cry from a whole group for Justice (things to be put to rights) and this ultimately necessitates the elements of…

• Mercy

• Forgiveness

• Reconciliation

• Restoration

• Redemption


Here is a resource on the types and categories of Psalms. May they be of comfort to you.


Join with your community and raise your voices in lament when your hearts are heavy with sadness, pain, and grief.


For your reflection:

Psalm 63

A psalm of David, regarding a time when David was in the wilderness of Judah.

1 O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water.
2 I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory.
3 Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
5 You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.

6 I lie awake thinking of you,
meditating on you through the night.
7 Because you are my helper,
I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
8 I cling to you;
your strong right hand holds me securely.

9 But those plotting to destroy me will come to ruin.
They will go down into the depths of the earth.
10 They will die by the sword
and become the food of jackals.
11 But the king will rejoice in God.
All who trust in him will praise him,
while liars will be silenced.

FUN. at the Grammys

Last night was a big night for FUN. at the Grammys…

I’ve heard their music but never really thought that much of them until they were featured last night in performance on the GRAMMYS and winning several awards.

The night featured new musicians at it always does and I realized just how much music gets to the core of things. It sparks numb areas of the brain and sweeps you into some greater rhythm. Maybe a unifying rhythm with the rest of humanity….or maybe I’m being grandiose.

The songs FUN. did reminded me of something. Not just a period of idealistic youth, but the role that anthems play in our lives. FUN. does well with anthems….those songs that shout a bit, the ones that let you know that something needs to be said, a deeper cry of the heart is ebbing up and pouring forth….maybe like a rain storm on stage.

It made me wonder….”What is my anthem?”

Followup on “Sexy Worship” Post

Photo of "corporate worship" (not a person in a bar waving "hello"...I think.)

By way of followup to the previous post, it’s probably wise to broach the topic of corporate and individual worship more thoroughly. Please note that the earnestness of this post topic is best served (here, in this venue, anyway) when swathed in a modicum of levity.

This time around, I’d like to discuss this, not just post my thoughts. I see a great benefit in conversation here; and saw it already and especially over at Stand Firm in the Faith: Anglicanism in America. There, Matt Kennedy covered my recent article (On Being Embarrassed When Worship Songs Seem Sexual). I appreciated reading the several dozen responses, and found most of them helpful. You can also read them here. After you reflect on this topic, whether you read the other responses or not, I hope you too will respond with your own thoughts or insights on the matter.

As I mentioned in the last post, personal worship and devotional practices, such as involvement in literature (biblical or otherwise), poetry, songs, and psalms may have a decidedly personal angle (or perspective) as relating to God. Also, it’s not just a contemporary convention that worship “songs” (most of which are prayer-like in structure and form) focus on the individual rather than, or at the expense of, the corporate church assembly.

The Romantic period gave us plenty of examples of this phenomena in art and literature. Even earlier, John Donne offered up intimate imagery within various genres. One example is his Holy Sonnet 14.

 John Donne (1572-1631)

Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

It seems, this sonnet, and countless other early examples of a similar sort, were not meant for corporate participation. This stands in contrast to the worship songs sung within church groups these days. Nevertheless, these works provide vehicles for deeper communion with God. They may easily benefit our spiritual formation.

At  Stand Firm in the Faith, Carl wrote:

The Bridal Imagery in Scripture is predicated upon a collectivized image the Church.  It cannot and should not and must never be personalized.

This offers an excellent point to consider. I’ve heard many minters tell their audience that church is about worship (not performances, decor, fellowship, good preaching, etc.). Haven’t you? We may quickly assume, though, that church should be about our worship experience. Instead it is centered on the Church–the people Christ has saved–offering adoration to the Creator and Savior, whether we are conscious of it, or not.

Incidentally, worship happens with Christians past, present, and future, which is another reality we miss with regularity. So, it’s a Christian worldview, not merely a reduction of that. Worship mustn’t be viewed chiefly as an opportunity of personal expression to God, Jesus…and Spirit. Therefore, if worship is selfish, it’s not worship (of God) at all.

The Christian mystics throughout Christian history may have seen this sort of intimacy differently. This will take some research for me to know for sure, but if any of you have insights here, please share them. I would deeply appreciate it.

A crucial question to ask ourselves, or to those we minister: Is corporate worship intimate to compensate for a lack of intimate personal devotional practices, and a deepening relationship with God?

What about you:
Are your times of personal devotions usually more or less intimate than your corporate worship times?

On Being Embarrassed When Worship Songs Seem Sexual

[CAUTION: This post is satirical. Calm down.]


Worship songs? No. Everything.

I’ve been both a victim and a participant in the American cultural norm…Scope out opportunities to rejoin comments with, “That’s what she said.”

(To be sure, the phrase was around long before the TV show “The Office”, but a certain Michael Scott character seemed to usher the phrase into a broad and sweeping cultural vernacular. Am I right?)

So now, it seems thousands of words and phrases are hijacked, and church gatherings are not immune to it either. Or, maybe it’s just me. It can be hilarious, dreadful, or just plain embarrassing. Recently, a few worship songs have sort of had their way with me on this, so to speak.

“Bride of Christ” by Marion Coltman (I thought it was entitled: “Jesus, keep your hands where we can see ’em”) …and it’s all just a bit too much for me.

I didn’t want to think it at the time, but the Casting Crowns song “Your Love is Extravagant” sounded just a little too much like a “friends with benefits” song. Golly, all you have to do is take the “t” off Christ, and you have a fine mess (in my head):

Your Love is Extravagant

Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel like moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place
Your love is extravagant

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known You considered me a friend
Capture my heart again

Spread wide in the arms of Christ is the love that covers sin
No greater love have I ever known; You considered me a friend

Capture my heart again
Your love is extravagant
Your friendship, it is intimate

Don’t get me wrong, Casting Crowns does so many great worship songs I really enjoy. This may be one your favorites, which is fine. I hope it creates a worshipful experience for you, and for everyone, but I get derailed.

Basically, if a worship song talks about touching, my mind wanders. Such as Kari Jobe song:

I wanna sit at your feet.

Drink from the cup in your hand.

Lay back against you and breathe, here your heart beat

This love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand.

I melt in your peace, it’s overwhelming.


The fact is love is risky. God is risky…Obviously risky and risqué has sort of been a fine line in songwriting. But, to be honest, I realize that love can often feel awkward as it gets emotionally deeper. When it starts to change and effect us–and affect us. The awkwardness is part of the path to greater spiritual maturity. (In this case, I’ll let you know for sure when I get there.)

Admittedly, the psalms that King David wrote got quite amatory, and for some it feels embarrassing. I can handle David getting up close and personal with God. I’m fine with Song of Solomon’s sexy talk, and David’s passionate poem songs, but maybe in singing those things corporately, we confront those issues of intimacy differently than we do in our times of personal devotions, songs, or prayers. What do you think about it?

I think the challenge, for me, is a renewing of my mind a bit more, and praying for better ears to hear. Thank you for your patience with me, Lord.

Lastly, for all you songwriters out there, if you’re writing something sweet to sing for Jesus, please–for me–don’t put the words “intimate,” “secret place,” and “rhythm” too close together. (It can be a “worship hijack” for some of us, okay, for me.)

When was the last time you felt embarrassed/awkward at the worst time?

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