Spiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.
Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.
He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).
What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:
(1) God mysteriously withholding ‘the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit’ for a season
(2) Satan working to turn individuals away from the truth and light of Christ
(3) discontentment with the light of faith and insisting on ‘something higher’ (what à Brakel calls the ‘light of beholding’ as saints have in glory)
(4) neglect of spiritual truth in pursuit of one’s own lusts
(5) prying into the mysteries of God, which only leads to more darkness (4:261)
(3) and (5) are closely related, and I’d like to say a few more things on these, primarily because I see these dynamics as a danger for my bent toward curiosity and in what I do as a theologian. To flesh out (5) a little more, it is a matter of
exerting our spiritual vision too much to comprehend the perfections and incomprehensible mysteries of God….[W]hen we depart from the light of God’s Word and cannot attain to an immediate beholding, our corrupt intellect and irrational reason will come to the foreground, deceiving the soul with false contemplations whereby true light is increasingly obscured.
Now, I believe that in my calling I have so far done well to focus especially on the doctrine of God and strive to engage as rigorously as possible with this most demanding of theological topics. This area of study can yield great benefits for us, but, if we are not careful with it (and with all areas of inquiry, really), we can begin to ‘overexert our spiritual vision’.
To be sure, there’s a difference between serious, careful, protracted reasoning about God and his works, on the one hand, and idle speculation, on the other. It’s the latter that à Brakel is warning against, and it can indeed foster spiritual darkness. I appreciate his remedy at this point:
refrain from exerting yourself to have views of lofty matters, but cling humbly to the Word of God. Whenever you read it and whenever a passage of Scripture occurs to you, then think: ‘This is the truth.’ If it is a promise, esteem it as such, and do not lift your heart above that Word. At the same time, reflect upon God Himself, but do not go beyond what His Word describes him to be. If there is an exhortation to believe or practice another virtue, then think: ‘This is my rule of conduct, and according to this I wish to walk in simplicity.’ Thus, by keeping a low profile, you will come to the light in the most prudent manner.