The Dark Night of The Soul vs Clinical Depression

This site contains affiliate links to books. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.


Last week we discussed clinical depression, its symptoms, and when to go for help. This week I want to turn our attention to something that looks like clinical depression, but is actually a type of sickness in the soul. St. John of the Cross called it the dark night of the soul, (

Some, like the late psychiatrist and spiritual director Dr. Gerald May, have written about the dark night in an effort to explain it, ( Others, like the late monk and psychotherapist Dr. Thomas Moore have written as a guide to walk through the dark night without losing hope, (

What is The Dark Night of The Soul?

Photo by Atanas Dzhingarov

First, the dark night of the soul is not for a select few, the holiest of holy people. Neither is it simply bad things happening to good people. Dr. May believed that in some ways it could happen to anyone.

Yet it is much more significant than simple misfortune. It is a deep transformation, a movement toward indescribable freedom and joy. And in truth it doesn’t always have to be unpleasant!…The dark night is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely.

The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald G. May, M.D.

Although May’s description is more upbeat and glowing, Moore tends to describe the dark night perhaps more realistically.

“To be spiritual is to be taken over by a mysterious, divine compulsion to manifest some aspect of life’s deepest force. We become most who we are when we allow the spirit to dismember us, unsettling our plans and understandings, remaking us from the very foundations of our existence. Nothing is more challenging, nothing less sentimental, than the invitation of spirit to become who we are and not who we think we ought to be.”
— The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life

Secondly, a season of darkness implies nothing sinister, as May points out. Neverthless, it is generally a time of stripping away things or ideals to which we have clung. In the midst of the upheaval is confusion and oft times pain. Therefore, we feel as though we are wandering in a dark forest without a light.

A Personal Dark Night

My first experience with a season of dark night was deeply wounding. It happened during a time when our eldest was undergoing his own painful struggle within a personal relationship. In addition, he had been tossing overboard most of the belief system we had instilled in our children since their birth.

For a brief time, he tossed us overboard, too.

I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom, wailing before God. Hadn’t we followed His commands to raise up our children in His ways? Hadn’t we loved them all unwaveringly? (In other words – hadn’t we followed the spiritual A, B, C’s in order to have godly children?) Then why wasn’t God holding up His end of the bargain??

Looking back, I’m a litte surprised the Lord didn’t strike me dead due to my impudence!

Yet, His mercy never ceases. Over time, He revealed to me the useless, false beliefs I had clung to in an effort to control the outcome of my life. Dr, May was right about me when he said:

We cling to things, people, beliefs, and behaviors not because we love them, but because we are terrified of losing them.

The Dark Night of The Soul, Gerald G. May, M. D.

I would never have seen the error or rigidity of my belief system had I not gone through that season. Yes, the pain was searing, and it was long. However, when I emerged, a new grace flowed into areas of my soul that had been parched.

That is the fierce beauty of the dark night. 

The Bible and Spiritual Darkness

The late R.C. Sproul wrote about the dark night of the soul:

This is no ordinary fit of depression, but it is a depression that is linked to a crisis of faith, a crisis that comes when one senses the absence of God or gives rise to a feeling of abandonment by Him.

This malady afflicted Jeremiah, who gained the nickname The Weeping Prophet, (Jeremiah 13:17). In addition, David soaked his bed with tears, (Psalm 6:6). Elijah was more defiant in I Kings 19, when he believed that God had forsaken him.

But then…when we grasp our lies to our chests while God is attempting to loosen our fingers, we can become defiant, too.

Moreover, Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon experienced numerous seasons of spiritual darkness. Yet, each of these eminent men of faith continue to have impact today due to their depth of intimacy with God, which they gained from those seasons of darkness.

It’s a paradox, I know. However, I’ve come to realize that’s how the upside down Kingdom of God works. For instance:

  • we must die in order to have life (John 3:16; I Corinthians 15:21-22
  • when we are weak, we are made strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
  • whoever desires to be great in the Kingdom of God must learn to be a servant (Matthew 20:25-28)

Light Emerges From the Darkness

Since I was a young adult, the beach has been a favorite spot for me to relax. Perhaps there more than anywhere else, I experience the majesty of God and His creation. Waves constantly rolling in to shore soothe my spirit. My husband, who is a gifted photographer, enjoys taking photos of the sunrise over the ocean.

Consequently, we have some beautiful shots of the sunlight emerging from the dark.

These photos remind me of times we come out of the darkness of depression or a deep disappointment in God. It’s as though we are stepping from behind the clouds. Rays of light begin to fall across our faces once again.

David must have felt frightened and somewhat abandoned in Psalm 30. Even so, in the last two verses of the chapter, his faith reemerges as he practically sings:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.

He will, you know…one day; all the mourning will be turned into dancing. What a glorious day that will be.

Hold on, sisters; hold on…Light will shine in your darkness, again. But for now, be held through the dark hours before the dawn.





I'm interested in what you think!