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Dark Night of the Soul

We have been provided an example of how the faithful deal with cognitive dissonance. The author of the post has hit on spiritual hard times after becoming accustomed to frequent experiences of a spiritual appearance. She hasn’t felt an experience which she would interpret as the Holy Spirit in a year. The last time she had such an experience (if I understand the sequence of her story correctly), she interpreted the experience as God telling her that her sister would be healed of leukemia. Her sister died shortly thereafter.

Now she has begun to doubt God. She prays for his reassurance and receives silence in return. She believed God loved her, yet he leaves her alone in her time of need. The longer she goes without receiving reassurance, the more she doubts. Surely, she reasons, God wouldn’t want her to lose her faith. So why doesn’t he help her?

It fascinates and pains me to read the tortured rationalizations offered to comfort this woman. It’s hard to avoid seeing a parallel to Mother Theresa who went decades without feeling a connection to God. Some of the rationalizations offered to the woman are also paralleled by those offered to Mother Theresa. I used many of these rationalizations to maintain my own faith.

  • Just hold on. God will answer you, someday.
  • God is testing you.
  • Don’t question your earlier spiritual experiences.
  • Believe me. I know that God loves you.
  • Perhaps you misinterpreted God’s message. Perhaps it was a spiritual healing rather than a physical one. Perhaps this healing will take place after death.
  • Satan is trying to deceive you.
  • People grow the most when they have no evidence to base their beliefs on yet continue to believe.
  • We shouldn’t expect God to always communicate with us. He gives us just enough to get us through.
  • Silence means that God trusts in your judgment.
  • Even Jesus felt alone on the cross. [Not according to the scriptural account he didn't. He was quoting Psalm 22 when he said "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He was teaching a lesson through the message of that Psalm, not expressing personal bereavement.]
  • You’ve probably withdrawn from God in some way, perhaps by sinning or not doing all that you can.
  • You’re probably feeling the Spirit, just not recognizing it.
  • Don’t question God. We don’t understand his way of doing things or his purposes.

This may be just what this woman needs to get beyond her doubts, but is it honest? Couldn’t the same methods be used to maintain a person’s belief in any false thing? Using this scheme, there is no way to find your way out of a false belief. If you feel good about it, that means it’s true. If you feel bad about it, take your pick from the above reasons why it’s still true.

All of those rationalizations serve to avoid the obvious, if painful, conclusion: the loving God she believed in was a product of her imagination. That’s not a comforting thought, and I’m not about to go for the exposed jugular like that. I doubt I have the tact necessary to put it gently. But it is the one answer that makes real sense out of what she is experiencing.

How desperately we cling to our comforts against the dark night!

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  1. chandelle said,

    December 15, 2007 @ 7:48 pm

    well, since this post linked back over at fMh, i’m sure she knows your feelings now!

    honestly, it was difficult for me to read the comments on that post, as it was for you. i wanted to say, maybe just confront the idea that there is no god, that whatever experiences you’ve had before were your own intuition or, yes, even delusion, and then see what beauty and triumph can come from facing that and moving on in a new direction. i felt like most of the comments were just enabling her to stay closed and limited instead of encouraging her to think beyond the limits of what she WANTS to believe. the one person (hellmut) who deigned to suggest that perhaps there really wasn’t a spirit, per se, speaking to her, and that it was impossible to know either way, was smeared with circular reasoning and the same tired arguments until his opinion was entirely eradicated. of course, it is a faithful LDS blog, but is there not room for the consideration that when god stops “speaking to you” it’s a wonderful opportunity to consider things from a different point of view?

    then again, everything that was said there, i have also said, to myself and to others. pot, meet kettle.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 16, 2007 @ 12:31 am

    well, since this post linked back over at fMh, i’m sure she knows your feelings now!

    You’re right, of course. Somehow I feel better that I say this here rather than in the comments there. That’s a rationalization of course, but it allows me to say what I think needs to be said without feeling like I’m kicking someone while they’re down.

    I also agree with you that we can’t fault the faithful too much. It’s all too human to try to preserve our cherished beliefs rather than follow the evidence to rational conclusions. I’m happy in a way that I’ve had such a dramatic change of heart in my life. It’s made me more humble and willing to admit my own fallibility. I’m trying to guard against becoming dogmatic again.

    The real tragedy, as you said, is that that whole exercise on fMh seems to limit her growth. I stagnated for so long by trying to hold on to beliefs that contradicted my experience. If only I could have realized the joy of speaking honestly to myself even if I’m afraid of the truth that I have to tell.

  3. Lessie said,

    December 16, 2007 @ 10:22 am

    Hi Jonathan (and Chandelle),

    I agree with both of you. I was sitting there, looking at all the excuses being made for God and going, why do we keep doing this to ourselves? I liked what Hellmut was trying to say as well Chandelle, and it irritated me that they squashed him so completely.

    I have to say though, that that’s why I’m still agnostic–who am I to doubt other’s experiences? Being one who said she’d never leave the church, never quit believing in God, etc. I’ve learned my lesson and I don’t say never anymore.

    Anyway, I didn’t comment on the post because I didn’t want to kick her while she was down either. Although I do have to admit to a certain measure of peace concerning my decision to leave. I’m not nearly as emotionally wound up as I was before I quit going to church. I just didn’t think that such a comment would be welcome there.

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 17, 2007 @ 8:21 am


    I give Hellmut a lot of credit for saying what he did the way he did. I couldn’t imagine where to start. I think it was inevitable that any suggestion that the foundations of Mormonism may be in error would be seen as an attack. I guess you have to try, but it’s too bad he was seen as a fly in the ointment.

    Like you, I’ve been trying to avoid making absolute statements. Life’s crazy. Who knows what it will bring?

  5. Wayne said,

    December 17, 2007 @ 5:01 pm

    My TBM sister had a similar experience. When her newborn was so close to death. She explained to me, that she prayed and prayed for a specific out come while her daughter was in the NICU, “God” predictably did not answer her and did not deliver what she asked.

    The conclusion she came to was that the function of prayer was to force her to accept the situation as it was. She took comfort from this, and she is still a devout Mormon.

    I told her that it was a very Zen conclusion.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    December 17, 2007 @ 6:25 pm

    That’s a diplomatic way of putting it.

    I am fascinated with this now that I’m kind of on the outside looking in, now that I’m not making these same rationalizations. When tragedy strikes, it seems to be human nature to find a reason for it. Somehow the idea that our suffering serves a higher purpose comforts us. We find it extremely difficult to accept that shit just happens and that’s the whole story.

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