(THE PROGRESSION OF PRAYER)
In part – 1, we saw the beginnings of prayer which was much like the honeymoon time enjoyed by a couple in love and quite often extends from months to years. But then as the honeymoon period began to wane, there arose the difficulties of a receding love for God and a cooling desire for prayer causing much anguish and perplexity in the life of the young Christian. What the newly renewed Christian has failed to realize, is that just as in a marriage, the honeymoon time was only the starting point of the Christian walk. His Christian walk had only just begun and those first ecstatic months or years were only a foretaste of God’s love. He does not realize that it is these very same young and genuinely growing Christians that are moved to the next stages of growth.
In the initial babyhood stages of bliss, the baby has to be regularly nursed, fed, cleaned, coddled and even pampered. But as the baby starts to grow, the Lord then begins to wean us away from all these initial spiritual pleasures that delight the senses and desires to set our feet down on more solid ground. He proceeds to do this through a peculiar method which causes much bewilderment when not understood. This is aptly explained by St. John of the Cross in his classic – Dark Night of the Soul (Book 1 & 2), hereinafter referred to as DNS1/2. (Eg: Book 1, Chapter 1, para 2, is denoted as: DNS1-1:2)
[Note: You might find some of the extracted portions from the book slightly heavy at times, as it is written in old English, but if you read through slowly and carefully, the meaning does come through clearly.]
DNS 1-1:2 It must be known, then, that the soul, after it has been definitely converted to the service of God, is, as a rule, spiritually nurtured and caressed by God, even as is the tender child by its loving mother, who warms it with the heat of her bosom and nurtures it with sweet milk and soft and pleasant food, and carries it and caresses it in her arms; but, as the child grows bigger, the mother gradually ceases caressing it, and, hiding her tender love, puts bitter aloes upon her sweet breast, sets down the child from her arms and makes it walk upon its feet, so that it may lose the habits of a child and betake itself to more important and substantial occupations. The loving mother is like the grace of God, for, as soon as the soul is regenerated by its new warmth and fervour for the service of God, He treats it in the same way. (Emphases mine)
Secondly, it must be remembered that the newborn babe in Christ has in no way achieved instant sainthood and there is a lot of deep work the Father desires to accomplish within him. From this point onward starts a long drawn period of dealing with the sin-nature (old man) that resides within all of us. If the honeymoon were to continue indefinitely, the Christian would be lulled into believing that he is already perfect and has arrived at his destination. So the Father in His infinite wisdom, gradually brings the initial partying to an end in order to deal with the deeper issues of the flesh within. The Bible categorically states that the heart of man “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9), certainly not the baby Christian. Even seasoned Christians have difficulty believing that within their own hearts there dwells no good thing except sin (Rom 7:20). St. Paul constantly reminds us that though we have now become a new creation in Christ, the flesh (old man) is still around (See Rom 8:3-12). And so from here on, our loving Father sets us on the narrow pathway of the Cross which is also the road of self-discovery to reveal, expose and deal with the sinful flesh within. Not till we have gained this insight into our sinful self, will we cry out for deliverance and desire God’s answer. St. John of the Cross then goes on to explain in DNS1 chapters 2 to 8 the nature of all these sins of the flesh that lie within and how the Father intends to deal with all of them. So from these dry and arid nights there first of all comes a vital self-knowledge, from where flows all other knowledge of God. For this reason St. Augustine said to God: ‘Let me know myself, Lord, and I shall know Thee’ (Soliloquy Bk 2, Ch 1).
DNS 1-2:5. Some of these beginners, too, make little of their faults, and at other times become over-sad when they see themselves fall into them, thinking themselves to have been saints already; and thus they become angry and impatient with themselves, which is another imperfection.
DNS 1-6:7 These persons who are thus inclined to such pleasures have another very great imperfection, which is that they are very weak and remiss in journeying upon the hard road of the Cross; for the soul that is given to sweetness naturally has its face set against all self-denial, which is devoid of sweetness.
DNS 2-3:3 To this end God is pleased to strip them of this old man and clothe them with the new man, who is created according to God, as the Apostle says, in the newness of sense (Eph 4:22-24). He strips their faculties, affections and feelings, both spiritual and sensual, both outward and inward, leaving the understanding dark, the will dry, the memory empty and the affections in the deepest affliction, bitterness and constraint, taking from the soul the pleasure and experience of spiritual blessings which it had aforetime, in order to make of this privation one of the principles which are requisite in the spirit so that there may be introduced into it and united with it the spiritual form of the spirit, which is the union of love.
And so much against his desire, the Christian is plunged into this peculiar process of death towards the flesh, called by St. John of the Cross, as the Dark Night of the Soul. Though this sounds mystical, what is actually happening is that God takes us through this period of spiritual darkness or dryness where we cannot feel His presence nor experience His love, cannot pray nor do we feel any desire to read His Word. Naturally we tend to believe that He has abandoned us completely or perhaps we have committed some unpardonable sin and He is angry with us. The soul here longs for the former intimacies and sense of His presence, but all is denied for very good reasons. Here The Heavenly Father is doing an inner work within and perhaps no external fruit nor life is visible for a while. But all is perfect and according to God’s holy plan for your life. He loves you more than ever at this time, because He fully knows that you cannot feel nor sense Him and He is therefore especially close to you, closer than even the mention of His name. To keep us from crashing and having a neurotic breakdown, He sends seasons of refreshing and consolation from time to time, but the process must carry on to completion. One of the most important issues St. John of the Cross makes us realize is that, it is our Heavenly Father (The Vinedresser / Gardner) at work and not the devil. So relax beloved, you are in the right place where your heavenly Father wants you to be. The Psalms and the prophets are replete with such examples of Yahweh’s dealings with them. It is through this long processing that we are slowly but effectively weaned away from the realm of the senses to the much surer, sturdier pathway of faith, for we are to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
DNS 1-8:3 (2) And thus He leaves them so completely in the dark that they know not whither to go with their sensible imagination and meditation; for they cannot advance a step in meditation (prayer), as they were wont to do afore time, their inward senses being submerged in this night, and left with such dryness that not only do they experience no pleasure and consolation in the spiritual things and good exercises wherein they were wont to find their delights and pleasures, but instead, on the contrary, they find insipidity and bitterness in the said things. For, as I have said, God now sees that they have grown a little, and are becoming strong enough to lay aside their swaddling clothes and be taken from the gentle breast; so He sets them down from His arms and teaches them to walk on their own feet; which they feel to be very strange, for everything seems to be going wrong with them (brackets & emphasis mine).
DNS 1-10:1 During the time, then, of the aridities (dryness) of this night of sense, spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things.
The temptation to many here is to give up thinking that it is no use, no matter how hard they try, nothing seems to work in the spiritual realm, not realizing that God is at work in them both to will and to perform according to His good pleasure (Phil 2:13). Therefore, do not give up, for the truth is beloved, that God has not given up on you – He never will! Please remember, that you are not your own, you were bought with a price (1 Cor 6:19-20), you are redeemed not by precious stones but by the imperishable blood of Christ (1 Pet 1:18-19), you did not choose God, but it was God who chose you (Jn 15:16), and further you were chosen from before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:4), you are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13-14), therefore no one can snatch you out of the Father’s right hand (Jn 10:29), I short HE will never cast you away, for He who began a good work in you will Himself bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). He is simply putting you through the much needed processing required for conforming you to the image and likeness of His Beloved Son – The Lord Jesus Christ! This is His ultimate purpose in saving us (Rom 8:29).
So do not be discouraged, your loving heavenly Father will never abandon you. It does not matter that you cannot pray effectively right now, it does not matter that you cannot feel His presence as before, it does not matter that your appetite for the Word has grown weak, for He is at work to strip you of all earthly sense. The road He rides you on is narrow and hard, fraught with trials and sufferings, all intelligently designed and engineered by The Heavenly Gardener, but it leads to eternal life and will bring you out into the broad path of faith where your feel will no longer slip. When you are in the hand of the Gardener, there is no fear.
DNS 1-11:4 The strait gate is this night of sense, and the soul detaches itself from sense and strips itself thereof that it may enter by this gate, and establishes itself in faith, which is a stranger to all sense, so that afterwards it may journey by the narrow way, which is the other night—that of the spirit—and this the soul afterwards enters in order in journey to God in pure faith, which is the means whereby the soul is united to God.
Dearly beloved fellow Christian, nothing happens in your life by chance, but every step of your way is ordered by your Father in love, that you may grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). It might please and encourage you to know that it was always your heavenly Father who was lovingly handling you and taking you through the paces. In the end, He will restore to you the joy of your salvation, and bring you to a place of rest. Only faint not, but by faith now, knowing that it is HE who is at work in you, rise up from your ashes of gloom, straighten those feeble knees and resume your prayer walk. He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thes 5:24). So once again take your place in brokenness and humility at the Altar of Prayer.