THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
May 26, 2019
39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
— Luke 22:39-44, ESV
Juan de Yepes was born in the pivotal sixteenth century to a family plagued with poverty and baptized into a church filled with corruption. Had Spain not shielded her people from the Great Reformation, Juan was the kind of courageous Christian who would have cast his lot with Luther and Calvin and other Protestants. Instead, he became a priest and joined the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic church.
For his efforts to bring the church back to the Bible, Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross), as he came to be known, was persecuted and imprisoned. In prison he became a poet and penned one of the greatest works ever written, as attested to by both religious and literary scholars. Though he gave it no title, it gained a wide distribution under the name “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Now when Christians go through severe trails, tribulations, or temptations, the title of John of the Cross’ work is brought to bear on the experience. The “Dark Night of the Soul” is a valley of sorrow, searching, and serious commitment. In keeping with John’s theme, it eventually brings the believer to a good and gracious place, where in the words of twentieth century hymn writer Helen Lemmel, “The things of earth grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” Or, if you prefer the theological gleanings of The Steve Miller Band, “You know you got to go through hell before you get to Heaven.”
If, or when, you experience the dark night of the soul, you would do well to read the classic poem or the full-length commentary written by John of the Cross. Better still, you can go to the Gospels and walk with Jesus to the cross. Take time to linger for a while in this text, where with uncharacteristic brevity and unique detail, Luke tells us the true and theological story of Jesus’ “Dark Night of the Soul.”
The Dark Night of God’s Cup
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”
A cup is commonly found in Scripture but it is not always common. Sometimes it is a metaphor for a most uncommon event or experience. Some cups are wonderful, others are terrible.
The Psalmist sings of the “cup of salvation” of the Lord, while the Prophet and the Revelator warn of God’s “cup of wrath.” Christ’s cup, His impending crucifixion, clearly contained both. It was a mixed drink of wrath and salvation. To drink it would be to taste God’s wrath, to finish it would be to save God’s people.
We think of Jesus as the ultimate hero. He would be the first soldier to fall on the grenade, the first student to rush the shooter, the first in line to give up His life for a someone else. Why the reluctance?
Christ’s cup required a long look. The longer we look at danger the less our desire to enter in. In the mystery of the Trinity in a place before time, the Father had put he cup before the Son. With every Old Covenant sacrifice the cup was pushed closer to Christ’s hand. At the last Passover as the lamb was sacrificed for the meal, Jesus knew He would be the next Lamb up. Dread, procrastination, a plea for pardon, these would be the normal human responses, and the Messiah was as much a man as He is the true and living God.
Christ’s cup required a strange sacrifice. Generals are not placed on the front lines. A godly mother is not allowed to serve the prison sentence of her convicted son. People rank in society, and no person who has ever walked the earth could be ranked as high as the divine, sinless, Son of God, Jesus Christ. We think it absurd that the New York Times plastered on its pages in 1966 the headline, “God is Dead.” Surely such thoughts of absurdity must have crossed God’s mind in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Imagine spending years on death row for a crime you did not commit. Imagine having the wherewithal to prove your innocence and put the true culprit in your place. Imagine maintaining your silence as they slip the noose around your neck, or strap you down on the gurney to put the needle in your arm. This was the cup hanging over Jesus’ head in the garden, and it made for a long, dark night.
The Dark Night of God’s Will
“Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
So why would God do it? Why would Jesus stay in the garden and wait to be arrested, tried, and crucified? Why not escape back to the Sea of Galilee and go live His best life now?
“Will” is a very important word in the Bible and the subject of many a rigorous debate. This one word can mean two different things . Both meanings can be interpreted during the dark night detailed in the text. God the Son is praying with God the Father and each seems to have a different will. How can God’s will be different from God’s will?
Jesus, God the Son, has already expressed His will. Remove the cup. Take away the cross. “I want to live,” to use the title of the 1958 movie based on the true story of an innocent prisoner on death row pleading to escape the death chamber. “Will” in this sense speaks of one’s desire, best wish, what one wants. For Christ to want to live and not suffer and die was by no means sinful or selfish, only normal, non-masochistic. The fact that He was innocent of the soon to be trumped up charges only heightened His perfect sensibility of shying away from death.
Jesus had free will, did He not? Why, He invented free will, didn’t He? So, since He did not deserve to die and He did not want to die, He could have freely walked away, right? That’s not how free will works, for the will is only free when loosed from bondage and enabled to do God’s will.
“Will,” the kind held by the Father in this prayer meeting, can also mean decree instead of desire. If I write you into my will, then you shall have what I leave you after I’m gone. I have willed it. I have decreed it. It will be done. God the Father has decreed from eternity past to spend eternity future with the people and angels He has chosen for Himself. The people, however, are sinners and sinners cannot live in the presence of God. Therefore, God decreed a perfect sacrifice for sin to be made, pictured in many Old Covenant rituals, offered at the inauguration of the New Covenant, whereby the Suffering Servant, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, would die on the cross so that the one who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
So which is greater, the desire of the perfect Man or the decree of sovereign God? Jesus asked and answered that question at the end of this long, dark night.
The Dark Night of God’s Soul
“And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
God and man were in the garden that night, and I’m not talking about Peter, James, and John. God and man were in the garden that night, in one man, the man Christ Jesus. The Trinity contains three persons, Father and Son and Spirit, but the one and only God has one body, one heart, and one soul.
Once the decision had been made to deny desire and obey decree, only Luke gives this glimpse of the sheer agony required to do so. Jesus freed His will to do God’s will, but it would be at an ultimate cost. The burden was monumental. Angels got involved. Blood vessels burst.
Peter wrote in his first epistle that angels are keenly interested in the salvation of human souls. On this dark night, when Jesus made the decision to save those souls, the angels of Heaven must have circled above Jesus in the garden. They marveled at the love, sacrifice, and perfect plan of God. They knew what Jesus was about to do, and they sent down a representative to let the Lord know that the angels would be with Him. What a marvelous sight of God’s ministers ministering to God.
But even angels did not make Jesus’ job any easier. He realized He was about to enter into a world of hurt that no mere mortal has ever known. Salvation is not some easy decision a man makes when he glibly walks down some aisle and repeats some rote prayer in order to receive a get out of hell free card. Salvation is a slow, deliberate, agonizing decision made by God to go to the cross and be tortured, forsaken, and killed. Salvation is a slow, weighty, sincere decision to totally trust and obey the One who endured this dark night for you.
You can see what He decided for you. What have you decided for Him?
The Dark Night of Your Soul
“I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”
Five frogs were sitting on a log. Five decided to jump off. How many were left? The answer is five. These were Baptist frogs. They made a decision, but they never followed through, they never actually jumped.
If you have decided to follow Jesus, how do you know your decision is real? How do you know you have followed through? How do you know you are truly saved? You may not, until you encounter your own dark night of the soul.
It may be peer pressure and the fear of being an outcast, unpopular, alone. It may be an unhappy marriage and the fear of forgoing the kind of sex and adventure that cheaters seem to enjoy. It may be a loss of income, the cost of doing business honestly rather than expediently, or the career that pays less because it honors God more. It may be the suffering, even death, of someone you know and love that does not seem to fit with your preconceived ideas of a good and gentle God. But dark nights, when faithfully endured, bring light.
The light of God comes into your dark night of the soul when you discover that God’s will is more important than your own. The light of God comes into your dark night of the soul is when you decide you would rather suffer for doing what is right thank profit from doing what is wrong. The light of God comes into your dark night of the soul when you realize that whatever pain and suffering you are going through, it does not compare with the physical and spiritual suffering and death of Christ, which God has done for you, and now you must do what is right for God. Do not just decide. Repent. Believe. Follow, even in the dark night of the soul.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org