It’s Christmastime once again! The most wonderful time of the year, so I’m told. A time for joy and for being with family. A time to remember the hope that came when the Savior of the world was born.
But at the same time that it’s supposed to be a joyful season, there can also be a darker side to Christmastime. In fact, for a lot of people it’s the single most stressful time of the year.
We get overwhelmed with work stress and family drama. We face anew the burden of an all-too-quickly-dwindling holiday budget. And don’t even get me started on the traffic…
Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Christmas! It’s my favorite holiday.
But there was one year in particular when I was feeling neither joyful nor triumphant.
In fact, that December I came the closest I’ve ever been to no longer being among the faithful.
Silent Night, Lonely Night
No one else really knew about my spiritual struggle that December, but there was a silent war going on in my heart. I was wrestling with serious doubts, to the point where I was questioning everything I believed.
And worst of all, it felt like God was totally absent. I felt alone.
It was to me what some theologians refer to as a “dark night of the soul” — a period of acute spiritual struggle and doubt which becomes either a turning point or a breaking point for one’s faith.
Maybe you’ve experienced one of these dark nights of the soul yourself — a time when prayers seemed to fall flat; when things that once brought joy suddenly lost all appeal; when your faith feels on the verge of breaking.
A time when everything just felt… dark.
Intellectual doubts were one part of the problem. At the time, I was working as part of an online evangelism ministry. I facilitated conversations where people could write in their questions about Christianity, and I’d do my best to resolve their objections and encourage them to consider embracing the faith.
And man were there some challenging conversations! (Not to mention the usual weirdness and trolling that the Internet inevitably breeds — maybe that’s a story for a future post!)
I had to manage a barrage of people asking some incredibly tough questions. Some of them were the kind I’d brushed past before but was now having to consider much more carefully. Other times people brought up arguments I’d never heard before. Sometimes I had a good answer; sometimes I had nothing.
Many times I was left wondering, What if they’re right? What if I’ve gotten this whole ‘belief’ thing wrong?
For the first time in my life, certain arguments for atheism were beginning to sound more plausible. The pat answers I had on-hand no longer seemed to measure up.
Making matters worse, at the same time several close friends were dealing with the pain of losing loved ones — yet another area where I had no easy answers. It was the first time I was having to minister to people dealing with grief, and I didn’t feel ready at all.
I know I’m not unique in having these kinds of doubts or struggles. I think all believers who recognize the limits of our knowledge go through this from time to time. And grief is certainly not easy to help with, even for far more seasoned ministers.
That December wouldn’t have been nearly so intolerable if it weren’t for the fact that the connection I once felt with God now seemed absent.
It was this spiritual numbness (that’s the best way I can describe it) that was the deeper burden. It was as if the lights of the universe had been suddenly dimmed. It was enough to make me wonder if that sense of connection had even been real before.
I should mention I was also attending seminary at the time, with aspirations of teaching theology and entering ministry. And I was leading a small group at my church. All of this compounded the struggle exponentially — after all, if I could no longer believe Christianity was true, everything about the course of my life would have been utterly upended.
And topping it all off, my friends and I were bearing these heavy spiritual sorrows at a time of year when the radio, the TV, the neighbors, and even the soulless retail stores were all shouting, “Joy to the world! It’s the happiest season of all!”
It was too much.
I was just about ready to give up on Christmas.
It all came to a head one Saturday night.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I was desperate. I remember stepping away from my laptop where I was working and walking into an empty room of the house. There I knelt down in the darkness and cried out to the God I thought was either ignoring me or wasn’t there.
I simply told him exactly how I felt.
“I can’t keep going like this. I don’t have any strength left.
God, I need you to help me. I need to know you’re still with me, please; I need to feel you with me again!
If you’re not going to be here for me, I’m done. This is it.
…Please, I just need strength…”
And that was that. Silence. Nothing. No warm, fuzzy feeling or sense of peace to tell me my prayer had been heard. Just quiet, and darkness. I got up, went back to my computer, finished my shift, and went to bed.
Sunday morning came, and my wife and I went to church, same as always. As others around me sang and praised, I silently pondered what the next leg of my journey was going to look like.
Then after the music finished, something happened. Our small groups pastor came onstage and took the mic to lead the transition from music to sermon. And he announced before the congregation that he needed to say something. Something different than the scripted announcements he had given to the people in the previous service.
And this is what he said:
“I don’t know who this is for, but I really believe the Lord wants me to tell this to someone in this room.”
My ears perked up.
“He wants you to know that he has not forgotten you. He sees you, he’s heard you…”
Well, that could be for anyone, I thought —
“…And he says he’s going to give you strength.”
Okay, now that…! Such simple, basic words, but at such conspicuous timing! It felt like the words were burning into my heart, melting the ice that had grown there all December. And that was all I really needed to assure me that the words were meant for me.
But he kept going! He shared a verse of Scripture he said God had brought to mind. Isaiah 41, verse 10. It says:
“Do not fear, for I am with you.
Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
A smile grew over my face. It was like the lights had been turned back on in my soul!
My dark night was almost over.
Christmas was about to dawn.
Closer Than Ever
That memorable Sunday morning was a turning point. My desperate prayer had been answered, and the seeming silence of heaven had been broken.
I still carried my difficult questions, but they were no longer constantly clamoring at my soul, because I was once again confident in the One who is the answer. He was with me. I could celebrate Christmas with joy in my heart after all.
And shortly thereafter, God graciously led me to the intellectual answers I wanted, too.
As I was looking over the list of assigned textbooks for the upcoming Spring semester, one in particular caught my eye — The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller. I bought it right away and devoured it over Christmas break, delighted to find that it had three chapters devoted specifically to answering the objections I was struggling with.
What’s more, the entire book opens with a discussion of how to handle doubt in a constructive way. Keller writes about why we should “doubt our doubts,” subjecting them to just as much scrutiny as we would our faith. Another simple message delivered at just the right time.
Looking back on that Saturday night when I told God I was ready to be done, I can’t say what might have happened. However, I certainly felt like I was ready to throw in the towel.
I know that the truth is that real faith is based on facts, not on feelings. But in my “dark night of the soul” experience, my problem was that I thought “the facts” just might be against me. All I could rely on was my personal connection to God, and even that seemed to be slipping.
So all I could do was cry out to God to keep my feeble faith going long enough to find the answers I needed. I figured that if he really was listening, he could appreciate me being open and honest about how I really felt.
I laid it all out, like David in the Psalms, or like Job. And like them, God heard my prayer and he lifted me out of the mire. He spoke to me and restored my joy.
And he did so through a variety of means — including by speaking through people, with just the right words at just the right time (that’s a subject worthy of its own post, perhaps).
Why Do I Share All This?
To be honest, I went back and forth on whether or not to share about my Christmas crisis. It’s a very personal part of my journey, and I realize some people might find it upsetting that someone like me could be struggling so seriously with doubt while still serving in ministry.
But after praying about it, and talking it over with others whom I trust, I decided it was important to post it because if I had a “dark night” experience that challenging at my meager level of ministry, I can only imagine what full-time pastors and leaders must sometimes go through! We are commanded to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and that means encouraging and praying for those who are undergoing their own dark night of the soul. It means showing them understanding, since we never know when it could be us.
If it’s common enough that we have a theological name for it, I think it’s worthwhile for us to address it.
And because I love Christmas, I hope that those of you who find it to be a challenging time of year will read this and perhaps glean a bit of hope. We can all potentially go through times when it seems heaven is indifferent to our pleas. I don’t fully know why dark nights happen, but they do. (At least in part, they seem to be a way that we learn to depend on God and God alone.) It’s especially tough at Christmas. But know that you’re not alone.
Please reveal your presence to those who are hurting this Christmas season.
Let the light of your love fill their hearts as they remember that first Christmas so long ago, when you came into this world as one of us, to suffer alongside us and for us.
May others receive the strength they need from you, as you gave to me when I needed it most.
Refocus our eyes on the truth that you will one day come again, to bring an end to all darkness and all sorrow forever.
Let the night give way to dawn in our hearts now also, for your glory.
Have a Merry Christmas, and I’ll see you down the path!