It is amazing how life’s events can converge like a tidal wave and decimate your joy. What is more amazing is that the events, if isolated, are often times really not that significant. The seasons of life that robbed me of my joy were not overwhelmingly tragic. Usually, at least for me, all it takes is a series of inconvenient and discouraging events that obscure the goodness of God enough for me to lose heart. I am like Peter on the Sea of Galilee. One moment my faith is rock solid, my vision is set on Jesus, and I am stepping out of my comfort zone and into dangerous waters. The next moment… The next moment I am distracted by the waves and worries and “what ifs” of life. My faith is overwhelmed by the waves and I sink.
The most difficult times in my life have been the times when I felt as if I had lost sight of Jesus completely. Those times when I began to wonder if he was really there. There have been times in my life where I felt distinctly aware of the reality that I was standing on holy ground. The presence of God’s Spirit was palpable. Then there have been times when God was silent and his presence elusive.
I am, I believe, coming near the end of a long season of what I would call, “spiritual dryness.” Over the past couple of years there has been a series of life events that have contributed to my “dryness.” Intellectual and experiential questions followed me as I walked through the valley of the shadow of doubt. Some “churchy” people who preferred their traditions over God’s mission caused me to nearly lose faith in His Church. Old sins that I thought were overcome and laid in the grave came back to haunt me. With each of these things there came pressure.
As a pastor I wondered if I could struggle with doubt, dislike “churchy” people, and wrestle with my own sin and stay in the ministry. I began to place an immense amount of pressure on myself to perform well. With the amount of emotional and spiritual pressure I was putting on myself, it didn’t take much for the normal inconveniences of life to push me over the edge. All the while I felt like it was God’s fault I was going through what I was going through. I followed Him there. In all honesty, I probably almost “burned out of ministry.” What scared me at times is that I think part of me wanted to. Part of me wanted to have a way out. Yet, there was something in me that knew leaving ministry would be about as effective as Jonah running from God.
So, there I was—frustrated, bitter, ashamed, doubtful, and spiritually dry. During part of this season, I was preaching an average of twice a month, while going to seminary and leading the student ministry. I was supposed to be offering spiritual inspiration and guidance and encouragement to a number of people. I was pouring myself out every other Sunday, every Wednesday, and there was a fair degree of emotional energy being poured into my schooling. I came to a point where I felt like I had nothing left to give. Yet, people would come up to me and share about how the Holy Spirit had encouraged them or spoken to them through my message. I remember telling Emily once, “I feel like God speaks through me, just not to me.”
I share this piece of my story, not so you can pity me, but because I think others can relate. I think I am not alone. I think a lot of people have had difficult circumstances assault their life and at the same time felt a lack of God’s presence. I read recently that we cannot compare pain. The pain we experience is real to us and cannot be measured by comparison. I think the place where my story can relate to someone else’s is not found by looking at or comparing pain. Rather, I think the point in which we can relate is found at the intersection of our pain and our spiritual response to that pain.
I think others can relate to feeling like God is far away, and I want to share a few insights I have been reflecting on lately. I want share about dependence, deserts, and decision.
I mentioned above that I was putting pressure on myself to perform and that I was pouring myself out although I felt as if I had nothing left to give. I think this is an important place to be. I was literally exhausted with trying to accomplish things on my own. I was tired of trying to prove my value by getting good grades. Silly, I know, but I sometimes feel like I need to be academically successful in order to be valuable. I was tired of worrying about my reputation as a public speaker when I stepped up to preach. I know it is about God’s glory, but I am still the one standing in front of people subjecting myself to the audience’s criticism. I was tired of not relying on the Holy Spirit for victory and not accepting grace when I failed.
I am still learning what this looks like, but what I know is that I am tired of trying to be enough on my own. Since Titus was born, I have thought a lot about dependence. If I were to measure his worth by what he contributes, by how he performs, or by how successful he is, he would be worthless by those standards. Yet, I love him. He is immensely valuable, but not for what he contributes or for how he performs or for how successful he is. My love is mysterious. I just love him. But, right now, he is completely helpless—utterly dependent on me and his mother for everything. He can’t even move right now in a coordinated way.
I wonder if that is the sort of dependence we are supposed to have on God. We spend all of our time trying to earn salvation and trying to prove our value when God is asking for complete dependence. Jesus said that we can do nothing apart from him (Jn. 17:5). Maybe child-like faith is about dependence. When life’s struggles overwhelm us, maybe we should learn to depend on God more. Maybe the struggles are supposed to remind us of our finitude—that we were never supposed to be enough.
I was reading in the book of Hosea a few months back and I was so encouraged when I came across these two verses:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor (Achor means trouble) a door of hope.”
Through the prophet Hosea God is speaking about Israel. I found it interesting that God says he would allure Israel to the wilderness. God would draw and lead and even entice Israel for the purpose of taking her to the wilderness. A place of barrenness. A place of fruitlessness. God would lead her there. Sometimes the wilderness times in our life, those times when it feels like we are spiritually barren, are a result of us following God and not a result of something wrong we have done. I felt so many times that maybe God felt distant because I wasn’t enough. Maybe I wasn’t holy enough or spiritual enough or good enough or faith-filled enough. The truth is, maybe it wasn’t about what I did at all. Maybe God wanted me there—even led me there. In the desert. In the wilderness.
The thing about a barren land is that no amount of human effort can really make it fruitful. I can try to cultivate fruitfulness in the desert, but my efforts will likely be in vain. God has to do something. That is where the second part of this passage encouraged me. God says that there, in the wilderness, he will give her vineyards. There in the midst of my spiritual dryness God will produce fruitfulness. God will do it so that it is clear I didn’t. God can give life to things that are dead. God is in the business of resurrection.
The last part that I was encouraged by is the part about the Valley of Trouble being a door of hope. Somehow the season of trouble I have walked through will give way to hope. Hope changes everything. Hope is a mystery. I can’t really explain it. I just believe that the hope of new life, the hope of the Kingdom Come, and the hope that death doesn’t get the final say is true. It is not a false hope. There is something in my heart that believes in hope. And somehow, the very trouble that consumed me with despair will be overcome by the promise of hope.
The mind has a unique ability to influence reality. Research has shown that negative self-talk (the things you say about yourself in your own mind) and negative perspectives actually affect our emotional well-being. Our emotional well-being can manifest itself in ways that affect outcomes in reality. I have found that I am really good at cultivating negative thoughts and perceptions. It is easy for me to analyze a situation and find the bad. I have also found that cultivating a negative perspective rarely produces good outcomes in reality. I have found that my mental perceptions, if negative, affect how I interpret situations and circumstances.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things (4:8).” What we think about has the capacity to shape how we interpret the events and circumstances surrounding our lives. When we begin with despair, the outcome is rarely joy. I have to decide to choose joy. Henri Nouwen writes, “It is important to become aware that at every moment of our life we have an opportunity to choose joy.” I think he might be right.
So when you go through the Valley of Trouble, maybe God is trying to teach you something about depending on him, maybe God is going to do what you cannot do in the parched lands of the desert, and maybe God is asking you to do your part by deciding to choose love, faith, hope, and joy.