One could literally do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be” – but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer – hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to skies of brass. Travel Journal 1897
“It was the spring semester of the academic year and I was in trouble. In the course of long weeks that stretched into months I fell deeper into discouragement until eventually I wondered if I had the will to live. I’m talking about me, not someone else. And I’m talking about the spring semester of 2014.”
The person speaking was Dr. Philp Ryken, President of Wheaton College. He was addressing the student body. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a person of such authority and heft speak with such candor and vulnerability. He went on to explain how many factors, doubtless, played into circumstances that produced such a despondency of soul but that regardless of cause or circumstance, he despaired of life.
He stated his purpose for sharing his story – from the other side of the crisis. “Many sitting here today have experienced the same. Some of you will, perhaps, even this year. If not now it is possible – probable – that at sometime in your future you, too, will experience an unbearable heaviness of soul that finds no immediate relief.” (my paraphrase)
The dark night of the soul. A serious study of individuals who would be considered “great persons of faith” reveal countless testimonies to times of prolonged anguish of the soul when there seemed to be no light in the tunnel. Similar to depression but distinct in certain ways, it seems that the sense of the object of their devotion, God, was denied them. A kind of spiritual oppression. A careful look at their lives might reveal a convergence of circumstances that served to trigger the darkness. But for now, for whatever reason, life is unbearable. It no longer seems worth living.
Philip Yancy writes: “I take some comfort in the fact that virtually all the masters of spirituality recount a dark night of the soul. Sometimes it passes quickly and sometimes it persists for months, even years. I have yet to find a single witness, though, who does not tell of going through a dry period. Teresa of Avila spent twenty years in a nearly prayerless state before breaking through to emerge as a master of prayer. William Cowper had prayer times in which he thought he would die from excess of joy; but later he described himself as “banished to a remoteness from God’s presence, in comparison with which the distance from the East to the West is vicinity.”
Lilias never used the term “dark night of the soul” but one could sense the same during certain periods of time in her ministry. There were always challenges. But sometimes the combination was such – or perhaps her own vulnerability was particularly acute – that she signals such despair. There was an extended period of time, in 1897, in which opposition and setbacks seemed to pile up one after the other. They were under sustained investigation, as Brits, from the French government. One of their workers who came to help them caved to the pressures, leaving them to help and him and his family instead of being helped, as planned. Young converts were being subjected to persecution from their families in forms as variable as “black magic” spells being cast on them or even poison being secretly administered into their food or drink, making them susceptible to suggestion and satanic influence. Their very presence in Algeria was jeopardized by the political situation. Lilias battled sleeplessness; her diary entries were terse and to the point.
Yet more discouraging than any outward disappointment was “the sense of ‘the oppression of the enemy'” in the very air. She wrote: “One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a ‘must be’ – hardly a prayer either, but a dumb crying up to skies of brass.” Yet she soldiered on, taking one step at a time, moving forward in spite of the darkness, providing a perspective for other travel-weary pilgrims: “Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.”
Thankfully, Dr. Ryken did not stop with the despair but gave simple words of counsel – from the other side – strategies that helped him survive, hoping it might help others. At the very real risk of doing him an injustice, I will attempt to sum his practical wisdom. (see link: http://www.wheaton.edu/WETN/All-Media?t=Presidential-Series-2014-2015)
1. Recognise such times are a normal part of life experience.
2. Try to live a normal life. Eat well. Exercise. Continue doing the healthy routines – even when one doesn’t feel like it. For him, it meant being present to his children: attending their activities, mealtimes, bedtimes.
3. Sing hymns. (Or praise songs!) Familiar texts to beloved tunes can speak words of affirmation to ones heart.
4. Listen to nature. He recalled early morning bird walks with a daughter as companion.
5. Worship. Student chapel was a part of his weekly routine as was Sunday worship. He found God “met” him when he put himself into such situations, often through song and Scripture.
6. Don’t shut down. (We might say, “Keep on keeping on.”) Continue with the ordinary functions of being human: food and drink, work and play, family and friends, worship and rest.
7 . Share your heartache with others. Trusted friends, spouse, parents. He shared the sense of struggle, not all the details, with people to whom he was accountable: trustees, his leadership team. And he found, in turn, that he was ministered to in countless unexpected ways and small kindnesses. “Burdens were never meant to be carried alone,” he said. “Tell someone – or ones – who have responsibility for your life.”
8. Prayer. “People prayed for me,” he noted, mentioning specific people and places with whom or where he was a focus of prayer. “At times when I couldn’t find words to express myself I would pray, “Help me, Jesus” 0r “Son of David have mercy on me.” And he would count on the prayers of others to carry him when he couldn’t pray.
9. The Word of God – passages from the Old and New Testaments – prayed over him, spread before him, spoken to him “quieted my anxious spirit.” He mentioned, in particular, verses from Psalm 138 which his mother would send to him; passages from Scripture with which his wife would read him to sleep.
Dr. Ryken concludes his message by underscoring that all the means mentioned above are “God’s gifts to us” – His way of ministering to us. He leaves us with these words of resounding affirmation in a God we can trust:
“The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.”
Painting: 1896 Travel Journal