On Sunday, August 26th, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about the spiritual journey of Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal pastor in DeRidder, La., who left the pulpit to become a spokesman for the atheist movement as a champion of the “Clergy Project.” Renowned atheist Richard Dawkins along with a band of devout followers launched the “Clergy Project” website and community as a safe haven for pastors, ministers, and other clergy who felt compelled to leave their faith for the path of “reason” and a world without God.
In the lengthy article DeWitt tells of his pilgrimage and struggle that led to this life altering decision. During a brief review of the “Clergy Project” website, one can find a number of moving and heart wrenching testimonies of those who bore the burden of ministry, who chose to lay it down for conscience sake.
As a veteran of over thirty years of pastoral ministry, I must confess I know all too well the struggles of the faith in a broken and dysfunctional world. Holding tight to one’s faith in the face of the relentless evil of our world, the plight of human suffering, the personal tragedies, and the prayers that have not been answered in the way I had hoped for can create in one’s heart what St. John of the Cross referred to as the “dark night of the soul.”
Ministry in a fallen world is not for the faint of heart. It demands that one wrestle often in the darkness with the deep struggles of the human soul. Doubt peers out of the darkness. Faith strains against the burden. Sadly too often the faithful of the church only add to the struggle with their insatiable needs, compromises, expectations, and pressure to perform at a superhuman level reserved only for the LORD himself.
Shortly after the death of Mother Teresa, the humble saint of the Catholic Church, reports began to surface about her own “dark nights of the soul.” In an article in the New York Times (8.29.2007), James Martin reveals this quote from one of her diary entries in 1959:
“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”
Later in her life after a life of selfless service, she revealed:
“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ ”
For some these confessions might rock one’s faith, but for me I have found her transparency refreshing and challenging all the same. Mother Teresa lived out her face in the midst of the very darkness that threatens the faith and resolve of the weak. She did not ignore the evil and suffering of our world, but embrace it with humility and simple, sincere love for the least of these.
These dark nights of the soul will plague all who struggle in the darkness, those who wrestle with unanswered questions and those who know we see but only in a glass dimly. Even the renowned champion of the faith, C.S. Lewis lived in the “shadow land” when the love of his life struggled for her life in the grip of cancer.
In the 73rd Psalm, the psalmist confessed his “dark night” when he wrote for all to hear:
Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Ps. 73:1-3 ESV)
In honest confession, the psalmist revealed how “impure” his heart and thoughts had become in the face of the arrogance and prosperity of the wicked. Later he confided:
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning. (Ps. 73:13-14 ESV)
As I read the struggles of those who found refuge in the “Clergy Project” I felt as those I could have read these lines in the testimonial section, but his struggle in the darkness turned when in faith he acknowledged:
The Psalmist discovered in the sanctuary the hope and light he longed for in his “dark night of the soul.” We all would be wise to heed his advice and follow his example. I have no stones to throw at those who stumbled in the darkness, especially my peers of the pulpit. I hope and pray in the search they will not give up on the ONE who seeks them for who they are, rather than what they can do for HIM.
May each of us claim these words of the Psalmist as our own: