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The Dark Night of the Soul

Updated: Oct 17, 2019


Philippians 4:11 “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. 12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”


Doesn’t Paul sound kind of like a contemporary self-help author here? Of course, there are huge differences! By definition self-help means “the use of one's own efforts and resources to achieve things without relying on others; the acquiring of information or the solving of one's problems, especially those of a psychological nature, without the direct supervision of professionals or experts, as by independent reading or by joining or forming lay groups that are devoted to one's interests or goals.” (dictionary.com) It’s big business to inform and direct our society’s search for happiness and meaning through pop psychology. Unfortunately, the proffered psychobabble is often inaccurate, irrelevant, and temporary.


Paul’s understanding of his own progress journey to acceptance and contentment follows a very different developmental avenue. First, Paul’s insight was hard-won. Our society frequently clamors for “easy” and, oh yes, "immediate"! Paul’s long-suffering, trials, afflictions, and challenges were his crucible. The complete opposite of “easy”.


So how did Paul do it? How did he learn how to live "in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content."? First, we know Paul faced adversity constantly once he was converted to Christ. 2 Cor 11: 24 "Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? 30 If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities." I'm sure you can list your own trials!


He exemplified an attitude that is worthy of exploration. His demeanor owes everything to his anxiety that nothing should spoil his ministry; a ministry that can be summed up in four words: "Be reconciled to God." So Paul claimed in 2 Cor 6:3 "Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed:" Paul did not want to:

1. Hinder men and women from accepting the gospel

2. To do anything that discredited the message he preached.


In this Paul followed the perfect example of Jesus Christ. The Savior said: “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:18–19.)


"The depth of the concepts in the Book of Mormon are a constant source of inspiration, if we will but contemplate them. There, more abundantly than in any other volume, the Lord opens the windows of heaven, not only to pour out blessings, but to let us look in. He lets us see things, if only fleetingly. In the description of the exquisite suffering of Jesus in His atonement, we are told that Jesus took upon Himself the infirmities of all of us in order "that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities." (Alma 7:12. Italics added.) Being sinless Himself, Jesus could not have suffered for personal sin nor known what such agony is—unless He took upon Him our sins, not only to redeem us and to save us, but also in order that He might know how "according to the flesh . . . to succor his people according to their infirmities." A stunning insight!...Thus the compassion of the divine Jesus for us is not the abstract compassion of a sinless individual who would never so suffer; rather, it is the compassion and empathy of One who has suffered exquisitely, though innocent, for all our sins, which were compounded in some way we do not understand. Though He was sinless, yet He suffered more than all of us. We cannot tell Him anything about suffering. This is one of the inner marvels of the atonement of Jesus Christ!" (Neal A. Maxwell)


Paul showed great endurance in service. "Endurance does not just mean putting up with difficulties and accepting them stoically. It means rather, cheerfully and confidently rising to the challenge difficulties pose. It is the attitude of an ocean going yachtsman in a storm who shouts into the wind, 'Let it blow.' It is the attitude of an experienced rock climber who revels in the challenge of a difficult route. It is the attitude of the skilled plastic surgeon facing a tricky facial reconstruction who says, 'Bring it on.'" (J. Reed's Christian Expositions)


Paul is by no means the only Christian who has suffered much for the sake of the gospel. In his book, 'Tortured for Christ,' Richard Wurmbrand wrote of his experience in a Romanian prison: "The tortures and brutality continued without interruption. When I lost consciousness or became too dazed to give the torturers any further hopes of confession, I would be returned to my cell. There I would lie, untended and half dead, to regain a little strength so they could work on me again. Many died at this stage, but somehow my strength always managed to return. In the ensuing years, in several different prisons, they broke four vertebrae in my back, and many other bones. They carved me in a dozen places. They burned and cut eighteen holes in my body. When my family and I were ransomed out of Romania and brought to Norway, doctors in Oslo, seeing all this and the scars in my lungs from tuberculosis, declared that my being alive today is a pure miracle! According to their medical books, I should have been dead for years. I know myself that it is a miracle. God is a God of miracles. I believe God performed this wonder so that you could hear my voice crying out on behalf of the Underground Church in persecuted countries. He allowed one to come out alive and cry aloud the message of your suffering, faithful brethren."


"Remember Joseph, the son of Jacob, in a story that someday we shall have the full and fascinating particulars of, overcame what could have been the disabling shock of being sold into slavery. The gall of bitterness was not in him then, nor had bad breaks made him bad. He later rose to positions of trust in the household of Potiphar. His same refusal to resent "all these things" was there subsequently in the unjust imprisonment of Joseph; his resilience could not have emerged if he had been a bitter prisoner. Should we then be surprised by his later anonymous generosity to his hungry brothers—the very brothers who had sold him into slavery? Resilience begets resilience!" (Neal A. Maxwell)


I enjoyed experiencing the personality of President John Taylor posthumously when he spoke of learning through suffering, calling it "a school of experience." He said: "I have seen men tempted so sorely that finally they would say, "I'll be damned if I'll stand it any longer." Well, you will be damned if you do not. So you had better bear it; and go to the Lord and say, O God, I am sorely tempted; Satan is trying to destroy me, and things seem to be combined against me. O Lord, help me! Deliver me from the power and grasp of the devil. Let thy Spirit descend upon me that I may be enabled to surmount this temptation and to ride above the vanities of this world. This would be far better than giving way to sin, and proving yourself unworthy of the association of the good and pure. (Journal of Discourses 22:318, Oct. 19, 1881.)"


"Observe at what point the Lord began with one of His greatest leaders, Enoch. Enoch's self-concept was "I . . . am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech." (Moses 6:31.) Moses also rose above his slowness of speech. The key to his marvelous personal development is undoubtedly to be found in a virtue that was cited in one scripture noting that he was the most meek man upon the face of the earth! (Numbers 12:3. Peter overcame a failure experience to become the President of the Church. Paul overcame the stigma of his being a persecutor and became an apostle with the widest missionary sway of his time!" (Neal A. Maxwell)


So what can I learn? My circumstances do not have to dictate my peace-no matter my challenges, my health, my relationships, my doubt, my worry, my faith crisis. I really don’t want to minimize the pain and suffering that many experience--sometimes pervasively and long term; I include myself in that "Fellowship of His Sufferings". (Neal A. Maxwell). I realize that there are dark days of despair which we think might never end. In the book, “Bridges” by David B. Ostler (67-68), he treats the issue of “The Dark Night of the Soul” as a period when people challenge their previous assumptions and assume personal responsibility for their beliefs...Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, a developmental researcher, affirms that this can feel like ‘a full-blown crisis’ and ‘is often harrowing’...Even people who live Christlike lives can experience a dark night. For years after feeling a direct and personal call to serve the poor, Mother Theresa described in her personal writings the anguish and doubt that she was experiencing. In 1959 she wrote, ‘In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss of God not wanting me--of God not being God--of God not existing.’” (wow!) There are no quick fixes for this kind of life crisis. But there are light-filled possibilities. Neal A. Maxwell wrote: "...we had to be moved on from the first estate—where the truth that "all these things shall give thee experience" no doubt seemed so very logical to us—moved on to this earth, where all these experiences are sometimes so inexplicable and even nearly intolerable...It is in our weakness and extremity that God's power is fully felt. Only when, of ourselves, we are helpless is His help truly appreciated. In point of fact, the bread of adversity and the water of affliction are, as it were, our nourishment while in the solitary cell of suffering. (Isaiah 30:20.)"


"It appears to be important that all who will can come to know "the fellowship of his sufferings." (Philippians 3:10.) At times, we are taken to the very edge of our faith; we teeter at the edge of our trust. Perhaps, even as Jesus did on the cross, we in our own small way may feel forgotten and forsaken. To go to the very edge is possible, of course, only when we believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God. When we understand that all things are present before His eyes and that He knows all things past, present, and future, then we can trust ourselves to Him as we clearly could not to a less than omniscient god who is off somewhere in the firmament doing further research. (D&C 38:2; Moses 1:6.) "The Lord knoweth all things from the beginning; wherefore, he prepareth a way to accomplish all his works among the children of men; for behold, he hath all power unto the fulfilling of all his words." (1 Nephi 9:6.)...Several cautionary notes are necessary—even urgent. We may be surprised at the turn of events, but God in His omniscience never is. He sees the beginning from the end because all things are, in a way which we do not understand, present before Him simultaneously in an "eternal now." Further, the arithmetic of anguish is something we mortals cannot comprehend. We cannot do the sums because we do not have all the numbers. We are locked in the dimension of time and are contained within the tight perspectives of this second estate." Neal A. Maxwell


I personally began my climb into light with King Benjamin in Mosiah 4: 9 “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend. 10 And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.” Belief and trust in Jesus Christ. I made a decision to trust. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision lightly made, but that moment was the beginning of healing. "Obviously, we can only break outside our present conceptual and experiential constraints on the basis of deeper understanding that is gained by the Spirit. If we think only in the usual ways, we will not understand the unusual experiences through which we must sometimes pass. But if we can trust God and know that He is there and that He loves us, then we can cope well and endure well." (Neal A. Maxwell).


President Spencer W. Kimball added great context when he said: "If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow, failure, and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing stretching far into the pre-earth past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be put in proper perspective...We knew before we were born that we were coming to the earth for bodies and experiences and that we would have joys and sorrows, ease and pain, comforts and hardships, health and sickness, successes and disappointments. We knew also that after a period of life we would die. We accepted all these eventualities with a glad heart, eager to accept both the favorable and the unfavorable. We eagerly accepted the chance to come earthward even though it might be for only a day or a year. Perhaps we were not so much concerned whether we should die of disease, of accident, or of senility. We were willing to take life as it came and as we might organize and control it, and this without murmur, complaint, or unreasonable demands...We sometimes think we would like to know what was ahead, but sober thought brings us back to accepting life a day at a time and magnifying and glorifying that day."


"No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude, and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven. …” (Orson F. Whitney)."


I can, and do, echo Paul’s admonition to us all. Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” I know that not only is this the way, but it’s the only way.


All Neal A. Maxwell quotes in this post come from Elder Neal A. Maxwell All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, Chapter 3 The Fellowship of His Sufferings

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