When C.S. Lewis’ wife died, he kept a journal of his grief. Later, these observations were published in a book, A Grief Observed. In that book, Lewis describes how God feels so very distant in times of mourning and loss, something with which most everyone can relate:
“Go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
But, there doesn’t have to be a tragic event in your life, such as the death of a loved one, to experience what some have referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” Believers – children of God – can have their assurance shaken by their own actions. We neglect the call to persevere by nurturing our relationship with the Lord; we fall into some special sin, wounding our conscience and grieving the Holy Spirit. We give in to temptation – and then suddenly, the God of our Salvation – the One who seemed once so near and dear – is very distant.
And, our own hearts accuse us, “Now you’ve done it. God could never forgive what you’ve done. A person who sins in such a way was probably never even a Christian. How do you know that God is even real? What you experienced once was probably just an emotional upheaval. There is no God.” So says your own heart in the midst of doubt and despair.
You may think that that only happens to you. But, you are not alone. It’s not a happy experience. It’s not a good experience. It’s not an experience that any person would desire. But, the dark night of the soul is an experience that you can expect at one point or another in your life.
In fact, this experience of the dark night of the soul is so prevalent among Christians, that the Word of God teaches us how to prepare and defend against such attacks. Consider the Apostle John’s words from his first epistle:
19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him
20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.
The first thing to notice about verse 19 is that it begins with a look to the future. The verb “to know” is in the future tense. That may not seem that important, but it is of great importance in understanding these two verses. John is looking forward to a time – a time that he knows will come for all believers – when their own hearts will condemn them.
When those times come, believers are to cling to two truths. In essence, the Word of God here explains to us: “Be forewarned, at some point in the future your heart will condemn you, but there are at least two assurances that you ought to cling to during those times.”
The first assurance that believers ought to cling to when their own hearts condemn them is designated in verse 19 by the words “by this” – “We will know *by this* that we are of the truth, and will assure our hearts before Him…”
So the first question that we must ask is this: What does “by this” in verse 19 refer to? If it is “by this” that we will know that we are of the truth, then if we want to be assured that we are indeed of the truth in the midst of being condemned by our own hearts, it is imperative that we grasp what “this” is. Well, there are actually two parts to the answer.
First Assurance: self-examination (a heartfelt generosity)
The first part of assurance that John wants us to cling to in times of despair is that we “love the brethren in deed and truth by giving of our worldly possession.” That’s the point that he just finished making in the previous verses (1 John 3:17-18):
17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
But, remember, it’s not just the act of loving a brother or sister in Christ by giving of your worldly possessions that John is talking about here. It’s the act of loving a brother or sister in Christ by giving of your worldly possessions with a sincere heart. In deed and in truth – with action and sincerity of heart.
John points to your heartfelt generosity, as a testimony that you can cling to in times of despair – a testimony of your own love – in deed and in truth – for the brethren. So, first of all, when personal doubts as to the validity of our faith arise, we are directed inward to examine our own hearts and motives to gain assurance.
Second Assurance: God-examination (God’s sovereignty and omniscience)
Second, we are directed outward to examine the greatness, the sovereignty, and the omniscience of God. That’s in verse 20. In whatever our heart condemns us, let us remember that “God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” God is sovereign – more powerful than, even and especially – your heart. And, God is omniscient – He knows everything, even and especially – your heart. He knows your heart even better than you do.
To find assurance in these two things – assurance that will carry you through the dark night of despair when even your own heart condemns you – takes discipline and preparation before the dark night comes. It takes the discipline of self-examination and God-examination. But, ultimately, it takes dependence upon the truth of what God has revealed about Himself. It takes trust – a trust in a God who will never let you go, a God who loves you beyond all that you can even comprehend – trust that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
This kind of assurance comes as a result of reminding yourself of who you are and who God is. In a sense, when your own heart accuses you and through your self-talk, you begin to actually call into question your own faith, you have to be able to be both in yourself and outside of yourself at the same time. This is what I’m calling “semi-transcendence.”
To better understand this concept of “semi-transcendence,” consider how the Apostle Paul gives expression to this idea in his first epistle to the Corinthians. There he speaks of being both subjectively inside yourself and objectively outside yourself at the same time (1 Corinthians 4:3-4):
3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.
4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.
Think about what Paul is saying here. He’s basically saying that when he examines himself, he is conscious of nothing against himself. But he’s learned that whether he is guilty or innocent, is not based on his own conscience (he is not acquitted by his own conscience). The one who examines him is the Lord! He is acquitted or found guilty based on God’s examination of himself, and nothing else.
That’s semi-transcendence. You have to be self-aware enough to know that you cannot always trust your own heart. And, at the same time, you have to be outside yourself enough to be able to view yourself (and your heart) with the objectivity of God’s examinations.
This concept of semi-transcendence may sound strange or perhaps even impossible to do; however, it is precisely what the Bible teaches us to do each and every time we partake of the Lord’s supper together. In Paul’s instructions concerning the proper administration of the Lord’s supper, he explains how this holy meal is supposed to lead us to semi-transcendence so that we may be disciplined and sanctified by the Lord.
First, we are called to look outside of ourselves. When partaking of the Lord’s supper together, as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In the signs and symbols the meal, we recognize who Jesus is and what He has done for us in His death and resurrection.
Second, we are called to look within ourselves. As we partake together, the Scriptures tell us that we must also examine ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:28). Do we have faith in Christ, trusting in Him alone for our salvation? Is there sin in our hearts or in our lives that we have not confessed and for which we have not repented?
Then, as we examine Christ and examine ourselves at the same time, the Lord disciplines us (1 Corinthians 11:32); He convicts us of our sin, forgives our sins, and teaches us how to love and obey Him.
Every time we partake of the Lord’s supper, let us practice this semi-transcendence. And, when the dark night of the soul comes, when our own hearts condemns us, we will be more prepared to find assurance for our hearts as we examine both ourselves and Christ. For He is greater than our hearts and knows all things.