Monday, February 08, 2016
This is a word from our friend and advisor Mark Sandford, Elijah House Spiritual Director. Originally published by Elijah House in April 2013, it continues to be relevant today.
In mid-April (2013) I began to feel purposeless, as if I were going nowhere (in spite of the fact that the opposite is true). I felt heavy and dead, and could take little joy in ministry. I have encountered many prophetic people who have been feeling the same way. But when I tell them why, their heavy feeling lifts.
Have you been feeling this way? Here's what I'm sensing. A change is coming in the prophetic movement. The movement began with a vibrant vision: we would rediscover the prophetic gift and office, and bring them back into the life of the Church. Joy came to many as prophetic words were fulfilled, but immature zeal has had its way. The need for accountability has been eclipsed by a quest for the excitement of prophecies (especially personal ones). We want so much to hear from God that we often fail to test prophetic words, as Scripture commands (1 Corinthians 14:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:20, 1 John 4:1). Although the Bible regards false prophecies as a very serious matter, too many Christians treat them as a non-issue. A prophetic leader may give false prophecy after false prophecy, and it doesn't even occur to followers to test his words. When even our watchmen are not held accountable for their actions, who is left to warn teachers who would stray into heresy or pastors who would fall into sin? Ample objections come from the internet attack dogs who spew their vitriolic fire hoses not only on fires, but on the very fire of the Holy Spirit. But not enough prophetic voices are speaking out with the balance of firmness and compassion needed to protect the precious gifts with which God has entrusted us.
I sense that in order to protect His children from themselves, at this point the Holy Spirit is applying loving discipline by sending thousands of prophetic Christians into what St. John of the Cross dubbed, "the dark night of the soul." If you are feeling the heaviness I have described, you may be one of them. Or, if you have already been through the dark night, such feelings may signal a call to pray for others who are entering into it. God often causes us to feel what others feel, to prepare us to pray from a stance of empathy rather than judgment. If this describes your situation, you are probably beginning to feel lighter even as you read this, for you are realizing that the emotions you have been feeling are not your own.
In the sixteenth century, in his book, "The Dark Night of the Soul," St. John noted that when Christians discover spiritual gifts and mystical experiences they too often fall into spiritual pride, either knowingly or unknowingly, desiring to use these to gain notoriety. Some, aware of this temptation, become overly scrupulous. They desperately attempt to scrub every imperfection from their souls, unaware of a hidden motive to find peace in their own perfection rather than in the arms of a gracious and forgiving God.
St. John saw both of these reactions as expressions of "spiritual gluttony." Through his own suffering he learned that whether we are ravenous for notoriety or perfection, God cures us by putting us on a "spiritual diet." The following are signs that this is happening:
-- You may no longer find pleasure in the things of God or life in general.
-- You may no longer easily feel God's presence, have mystical experiences or hear prophetic words.
-- You may find it difficult to pray, feeling little or no enjoyment in it.
-- You may feel spiritually dead.-- Because of all this, you may feel like God has abandoned you.
-- You may feel like you are backsliding.
--You may feel like everyone has forsaken you, especially your friends.
You may take all this to mean that God has removed His presence. Quite the opposite is true; He has increased it! It only feels like He has removed it, for two reasons. First, during the dark night you may feel like you are walking from a dimly lit room into full sunlight. The brightness of His holy presence can seem blinding, so that you can't see the light of His presence until the eyes of your spirit slowly adjust. Second, Malachi 3:3 says that God refines us like gold and silver. His increased presence can heat up the metal of your heart, causing dross to surface more quickly. You can become so aware of your sins and the deadness of your soul, that at first you do not perceive that His presence has increased.
You may also think the dark night is punishment or reaping for wrongdoing. It is not; it is God's way of leading you to despair of relying on your own strengths, abilities or gifts. In the process, you may discover sins you were previously unaware of, but these did not cause the dark night; they were merely revealed by it. So don't blame yourself for the dark night; be thankful that God is using this experience to build humble character that reflects more of His likeness.
How long must the dark night last? St. John suggested that in order for it to be effective, it should last at least a few years, but that is not absolute; there are many exceptions. It will last however long it takes to get you to the point of despair of self and then beyond it, to where you can abide in Christ, resting in the knowledge that without Him you can do nothing (John 15:5). Only God knows how long that will take.
Meanwhile, do not try ever harder to hear God or spend extra hours in fasting or Bible study in order to jump-start your stalled spiritual sensitivities (not that you should avoid these activities, but do avoid basing them on this motive). Rather, lean into God's embrace and cling to Him like a child in need. Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them" (Mark 10:15-16, NAS). To live in Jesus' embrace is, quite simply, God's goal for the prophetic movement. For what is the ultimate purpose of any prophecy, whether it be a word of encouragement, a warning, or even an announcement of impending discipline? Simply to draw us closer to God. What, then, is most destructive to the prophetic movement? Focusing on prophecies instead of God.
For those of you who have been feeling the heaviness in brothers and sisters who are entering the dark night, pray that this will not be a time of torment for them. Torment will come if they strive to recover the thrills His gifts once gave them. Pray for the grace to let that go and to embrace the choice fruit which God designed this season to produce -- sweet contentment in the arms of a loving God. Imagine the babies Jesus took into His arms in Mark 10. Were they prideful? How could they be? Babies have no gifts or achievements in which to take pride. Did they seek gifts instead of God? Babies know nothing of such things. All that matters to them is the rapturous heart-to-heart and spirit-to-spirit flow of the Father's love. "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." How we squirm in His arms! We would rather be down on the floor where we can play with our spiritual toys.
If you go through the dark night, spend a great deal of time in the quietness of God's embrace. Choose to soak in His presence, even if you cannot yet feel it. Eventually you will! The wait will cultivate patience and humility. Having endured a period without spiritual accomplishments, more than ever, you will know that you truly can do nothing in the power of your flesh. You will become more aware of your shortcomings and sins, yet be far less self-conscious and more self-accepting than before. And when you finally begin to imbibe the deep satisfaction of the Father's love, it will make you "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3), for you will no longer feel the need to become rich in spiritual gifts. When gifts come, you will enjoy the God who gives them. When they are absent, you will enjoy God.
When the dark night has made you into a child who knows no reason for pride, it is then that God will increase the gifts, not only because you can be trusted with them, but because there will be less danger that you might use them to bring harm to yourself and others. And although you will be more able to feel God's presence and power, you will no longer see feelings as the measure of God's presence and power. Lust for emotional highs will fade within the placid stillness of God's heavenly hug. And you will be able to invite others into that peace; you will be able to speak the truth -- even hard truth -- from no other motive than love.
Not everyone's "dark night" will look exactly like that outlined by St. John of the cross. Throughout Scripture we see saints who experienced elements of it, but each one's list of woes had its own configuration. What was common to all is that their time of suffering always led to the same blessed place. David wrote, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1 NAS). But he also wrote many of the most joyful Psalms. Job complained, "I cry out to You for help, but You do not answer me" (Job 30:20, NAS). But his life after his time of trial was twice as blessed as before (Job 42:12 NAS). In Lamentations 3:1-33, Jeremiah mentioned many of the elements of the dark night. He complained, "He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light (vs. 2, NIV). "Even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer" (vs. 8, NAS). "My people...mock me in song all day long" (vs. 14, NIV). "I have been deprived of peace" (verse 17, NIV). "My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord" (vs. 18, NIV). Although Jeremiah's prophetic gift brought him nothing but rejection from his countrymen, he found his blessed place in God's embrace: "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope; because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (vss. 21-23).
In Lamentations 3:24 (NIV), Jeremiah said, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait on Him." This outlook was what got him through his trial, and the increase of this outlook was the end-result. What is your portion? The extent of your gifts? The "high" they make you feel? The admiration they inspire in others? Being right when others are wrong? Your mind might protest that this is not so, but only God knows your heart. He knows how long it will take you to learn to really live the words, "The Lord is my portion."
You may pray that the length of the dark night be shortened, but do not be dismayed if it is not. I sense that for many, it will last for the next three to four years. For you, it may last for any length of time within that time period. During that season, prophecies may be scarcer than before. Spiritual highs may be harder to come by. But afterward, you will find yourself in a place to be guided by a new vision -- one centered on the simple premise that it's all about the Father's love.
Jesus said, "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24, NIV). In order to bear the fruit God intends, the current prophetic movement must die -- not die off, mind you, but die to its present form and state, to be resurrected into the balance that God intends for it.
"The Lord is my portion." When this season passes, for those who have allowed God to have His way, this may become the catch-phrase of the new vision for His prophetic movement.
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