Leadership Journal Christianity Today

When the Light Goes Out
Christianity Today Leadership Journal
Marshall Shelley | posted 10/17/2011

Last night two of my marathon-running friends were telling me about hitting the dreaded “wall.” That’s what often occurs sometime after the 20-mile mark in a marathon, when runners’ glycogen (stored energy) within the muscles is depleted, forcing them to slow the pace considerably.

They described feet feeling like lead, muscle coordination beginning to fail, and self-doubt eroding their motivation. They had to get more glucose into their system to have any hope of finishing.

I congratulated them for hitting it! After all, the vast majority of people will never hit the “wall” because they could never run the 20 miles to ever reach that point. All sorts of other body parts would fail long before they ever ran out of glycogen.

Christian leaders often describe a similar phenomenon to hitting the wall, only in the spiritual realm. It’s called “the dark night of the soul,” a phrase coined by St. John of the Cross in the 1500s. During such a dark night, which can last for years, God seems absent. It’s a time of bleakness and abandonment. Prayers seem leaden, faith doesn’t come easily, and confidence erodes.

Have you experienced such a time? If not, and you are a Christian leader, you likely will. If you have experienced it, or are in one now (dare I say it?), congratulations!

A dark night of the soul is not something anyone experiences until after, well after, you have experienced life with Christ. Lots of people, including atheists, claim that God is absent. They talk about the darkness, but they’ve never known what it is to walk in the light. They do not sense God’s presence, but that’s not the kind of dark night we’re talking about here.

Greg Hunt, in his book Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night, describes different sources of the kind of darkness Christian leaders experience. These include:

  • Faltering faith. Like the man in the Gospels who declares, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
  • Some moral obstacle. Isaiah 59:2 records God saying that our sinful choices can separate us from God.
  • Faith development. James Fowler, who defines faith as “the quest for meaning,” argues that faith grows in stages and progresses from periods of stability to unsettling periods of instability, when one stage gives way to another, more mature, stage.

Whether from one of these sources or some other, John’s “dark night” is what believers experience when the light they’ve known and cherished goes out.

As we researched this issue of Leadership Journal, we quickly learned that many if not most church leaders readily admit to having experienced a dark night of the soul. Their stories of these experiences are bleak, but also helpful and encouraging. As painful and disorienting as these times may be, it’s in the darkness that God does some of his best work.

The good news is that even when we can’t see any light, the sun is still shining. We just may not be in a position to see it currently. We may have to wait for the dawn. And in the waiting, even when we can’t see anything, God is still at work.

Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
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