Starry, Starry Dark Night of the Soul

or Insanity and Spiritual Songs


Van Gogh’s work has been regarded by some as “hallucinatory,” however his letters show that few artists were as intelligent and rational. His work was not the product of his dark times but of his struggle against them.

“I am feeling well just now… I am not strictly speaking mad, for my mind is absolutely normal in the intervals, and even more so than before. But during the attacks it is terrible—and then I lose consciousness of everything. But that spurs me on to work and to seriousness, as a miner who is always in danger and makes haste in what he does.” [1]

William Cowper, who battled debilitating and often life-threatening depression throughout his life, and yet was the author of many famous Christian hymns and poems, was the same. John Piper writes:

“I live with an almost constant awareness of the breach between the low intensity of my own passion and the staggering realities of the universe around me, heaven, hell, creation, eternity, life, God. Everybody (whether they know it or not) tries to close this breach—between the weakness of our emotions and the wonder of the World. Some of us do it with poetry.

William Cowper did it with poetry. I think I know what he means, for example, when he writes a poem about his mother’s portrait long after her death and says,

And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief.

There is a deep release and a relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and saying some precious or stunning reality that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we’ve glimpsed with our mind and what we’ve grasped with our heart.

It shouldn’t be surprising that probably over 300 pages of the Bible was written as poetry. Because the aim of the Bible is to build a bridge between the deadness of the human heart and the living reality of God.” [2]

I want to relate this to every Christian life. This fruitfulness from the darkness is a process that belongs to every child of God. At the very heart of it is the tension caused by challenges to unseen truth by an unbelieving world, and the desire for vindication and rest. This is one of the processes inherent in Covenant history, and an understanding of it helps us to persevere in the truth, even in the darkest times. The New Covenant is no exception. [3]

God calls a man
…..Separates him for duty
……….Gives him the rules
…..Tells him the consequences of his performance
Arranges for the next tour of duty

Of course, this is Ray Sutton’s 5 point Covenant pattern, and I maintain that it becomes 7 point when “played out” on the stage of history:

Creation: God’s call and anointing
…..Division: The man is sent to work

and this is where the distress of the Covenant comes in. The central point is split into three—LAW/LAW/LAW:

……….Ascension: He receives the Covenant Law (as above)
……………Testing: He is challenged by a false Law

This is where the rubber meets the road. It is the Starry Night of Day 4, the saints in the wilderness. Will we be rulers, or will we be ruled? Will we be filled with the law as burning bushes (Lampstands) like Daniel and his friends, or will we be incinerated like the sons of Aaron?

The test is that the world suddenly doesn’t seem to correspond to what God said. We can only see so far, and Satan and those who follow him maintain that what is beyond our sight is not what God said (which is also why evolution is not science but philosophy). How many Christians feel that God has abandoned them, or betrayed them, or failed to reward them for their faithfulness so far? The challenge is to understand that God is qualifying you for more responsibility, more servant-kingship, and of course, more glory.

God’s Word often seems to contradict reality. Imagine being instructed to build a very large boat on dry land, and to put up with the jeers and taunts of the scientists and philosophers of the day. Imagine being instructed to tell the rulers of Judah to submit to the king of Babylon. Imagine being a Pharisee instructed to eat with Gentiles, and form new Jew-Gentile synagogues across the empire. Imagine being instructed to tell the King of the Jews that it is, in fact, You Who are the true King of the Jews. Both Jesus and Paul were thought to be mad. Do you know that feeling? [4]

Of course, vindication came, in torrents, in every one of these situations. The Book of Hebrews is a plea to Christian Jews to hold out, to persevere with this “new Covenant,” despite the fact that the Herods were still building monuments of white stone and gold all over the Land (including the Temple) and Christians were being persecuted and slaughtered across the empire. The words of Jesus certainly didn’t correspond with reality, did they? But the elect, as Daniel predicted, shined like stars. They believed the Word spoken, saw the fulfilment of the promises by faith, although they were far off and not yet seen. Faith is not blind. It is long-sighted.

Faith is also attractive, especially when it rides against the zeitgeist. It is very striking for people today to come across Christians who not only know what they believe, but are also not idiots. I teach the Bible to high school students, and the testimony of someone who believes it from cover to cover stays with them forever. I know, because the Bible was taught to me by people just like that. Brave testimony, under distress, is the heart of the New Covenant.

……….Maturity: He repeats the Law, warns the Bride,
……….and there is great plunder

After obedience at Testing, there are always plagues and plunder. That’s what we see in Exodus. That’s what we see in the ministry of the Apostles and the Reformers and the great missionaries (and not-so-great).

How about you? Are you willing to submit to God for the sake of the plunder? For the New Covenant missionary, the plunder is people, even if he doesn’t live to see the result (like Jim Elliot). I read about a missionary who spent seven long years evangelising some remote tribes and died without seeing a single convert. But those who followed after him reaped the harvest. Unlike discipling your own children, teaching the Bible to other people’s kids seems fruitless at times, because the seed takes a while to germinate. We have faith that it will sprout and that God will give the increase. Many Australians trace their conversion back to Sunday School or SRE (Bible teaching in public schools).

Faith is like time travel. In the midst of suffering, abandonment or persecution, we travel back in time to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, in our life, in the biographies of saints, and in the Bible. And we jump ahead in our head and hearts to the Conquest and Glorification that God has promised for the elect. The Psalmists did this (in both directions), and so did Christ and the Apostles. God is consistently faithful, regardless of how things might feel right now. How can we be trained to judge if there is no tension, no true and false witnesses presenting evidence? The question is, will you turn to other, short-term gods to ease the pain? [5] Or will you persevere and produce the abundant fruitfulness possible only through this process of pruning? Jesus said that if we judge ourselves, we will not be judged.

He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied. Isaiah 53:11

Van Gogh sold only one painting, and died by suicide in poverty. William Cowper had the loving ministry of John Newton, and His God, watching over him. Imagine if Van Gogh and Cowper could see how their labours, the fruits of lives spent suffering in the dark, have been a blessing for hundreds of years to millions of people.

Faith, the substance of things not seen, is like time travel. By your obedience to the Word, and your fearless witness, you are a memorial to something that hasn’t even happened yet, and something that happened long ago. Like Noah, like Jesus, you are the incarnation of the past and a window on the future. Faith is the domain of the prophet, and in the New Covenant, all God’s people are prophets who know the end from the beginning.

So stick with it. Stand. Perseverance is just about everything. And vindication will come.
[1] Quoted in Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical.
[2] Listen to or read the transcript of Piper’s wonderful biographical sermon here. See also Seeing In The Dark.
[3] See A Lamentable Life.
[4] See Mercury Rising.
[5] See What Comes Out.

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