As I mentioned in the last post, a person can stay at level three and bask in the success. But that’s called a “hollow three,” and in the end becomes a “dying three” because things that cease to grow, die.
If, however, you continue to grow, you will encounter what psychologists call “the dark night of the soul.”
When we realize that success is not all there is, and in fact when we realize that success for its own sake is deadly, we confront a dark night indeed. At this point, something happens, or we realize/recognize something that makes us question our very existence, our purpose in life, whether or not anything we have done and been retains any meaning.
It has been my privilege to know a number of really excellent Christians, and every one who has a continuing, vibrant ministry after decades pass has encountered this dark night, this crisis of faith and even of existence.
I have also seen a number of what I can only call failed Christians, many of the pastors, who, when they collided with this darkness ran away from it. As an example, one pastor I’ll call Theodore (not his real name) had some difficult questions about inspiration and the gift of prophecy as a young minister. But his wife told him– she told me this herself– that he should not pursue those questions, as they would only lead him to discouragement. She was probably correct. He turned away from those questions, and remained as he was.
Although he possessed many gifts that could have made him an excellent pastor, his ministry and his sermons always remained shallow. Having avoided the deep waters of his own questions, he could not lead others through those doubts. Indeed, he shied away from any such questions.
It is truly sad. I never think of him without thinking of the famous lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
His wife wanted him not to take the risk, and he did not. He did not risk the voyage on the flood tide, and ever after his ministry was ‘bound in shallows.’
I remember a similar crossroads in my own life. I had just accepted a call to be principal of a multi-teacher school. Upon arrival there, and settling into the new position, I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I realized that if I would just mute my questioning, and not do anything that would make any waves, I could probably stay in that school until retirement.
At the same time, I realized that my creativity and energy as a teacher were two attributes that made me an excellent teacher (my supervisors were unanimous in their positive evaluation). But that creativity and energy could often put people off. I knew my wife would prefer a quiet life, no controversy, no more moving, just ‘go along to get along.’ And one evening as we were shopping in a teacher’s supply store, I had just about resolved to do what it took. Damp down the creative fires, be more conventional, not do anything out of the ordinary.
And there, in the store, I saw a poster of a square-rigged sailing ship at anchor, the ship and land mainly a dark silhouette, the water mirroring a brilliant sunset. And on the poster, these words by John Shedd. “A ship in a harbor is safe. But that is not what ships are made for.”
The moment I saw that poster remains frozen in memory. I realized that I had been seeking to anchor in a safe harbor. But deep within my soul, I knew that was not what I was made for.
Since that day, some 35 years ago, my wife and I have weathered many rough seas together. And although there was a time when she hated that poster — she had her own dark night — today we both agree that, had I taken the easy, secure path, we would have lost much.
Everyone is tempted to avoid the dark night. Everyone wants to remain safely anchored in the haven of “Success.” But that is not what we are made for. To grow is to move beyond success, to face the dark night and heavy seas, and to find there deeper meaning in our lives.