There are seasons in the spiritual life that come and go and each brings with them unique challenges and rewards. Perhaps the most feared is the spiritual drought. This is a time when you feel especially distant from God and your spiritual life seems to dry up. This can be devastating. In many ways, the spiritual insight and faith we gain from prayer and reflection are akin to water which is so necessary for our survival and when it drys up we are left in a very desolate place. When this happens we face several choices: 1) Do nothing and wither from thirst 2) Drill new wells 3) Drill an existing well deeper.
The winter and spring of this year was a time of intense spiritual drought in my life and in my encounter with this crisis I tried all three of the above choices. Now that I have moved (with God’s love and grace) through this spiritual drought I thought I would share some of what I learned so that others might not make the same mistakes that I did.
One of the first things I did was reflect on how I ended up in a time of spiritual drought and, for me, the answer was pretty clear: I let my work at the church and my family responsibilities crowd out my time for prayer, scripture reading and personal reflection. Over time I just spent less and less of my time doing the things required to nurture my spiritual life. Now I did so for a number of “good” reasons: increasing responsibilities at work and at home, a desire to help others, the mistaken belief that time for personal spiritual formation was a selfish thing (and being selfish is a bad thing for a Christian to do), the desire to meet certain goals as a pastor, father, and husband. In all of this it is easy to lose sight of what gives you the energy to be and do what you want and need to do. In the Old Testament, God warned the Hebrews that this sort of thing can happen. As they were about to settle Canaan, God warned them of the dangers of forgetting who and whose they were. He warned them of the peril of crediting their ability as the source of the success they experienced. And of course, we know that is exactly what they did. So you begin to take the source of your spiritual energy for granted. You accomplish goals and complete tasks and you begin to think that it was your resolve, your intelligence, and your ability that made it all happen. Without time for prayer and reflection you will forget who and whose you are. And when that happens, many are the voices that will fill the void you have created. You fall prey to the temptation that you can be all the things you need to be and do all the things that you need to do on your own.
But the truth is you can’t do it on your own. Sooner or later you will reach the limits of your own strength and resolve as the debilitating effects of spiritual thirst set in. When this happens, it launches a cascade of undesirable effects in your life. My enthusiasm for ministry went way down and my work at the church felt mechanical and hollow. My creativity dried up and writing became extremely difficult. Insight into my own life vaporized. I stopped being patient in stressful situations at home or at work. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt as though I was “looking through a glass darkly” as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12. And when you have trouble recognizing the person you have become, it is time to admit that you have a problem and take steps to remedy it.
I started taking those steps over the summer months. With the help of others, I started drilling the spiritual well deeper and also began to drill some new wells. Perhaps I should not be surprised by it but the living water was there all along waiting for me access it. As I reflect on what got the water flowing again several thoughts come to mind. Getting started is perhaps the most important thing. Don’t beat yourself up for what you have allowed to happen. Just begin the search for the living water. Don’t wait for the pefect book or tool or resource because there will never be the perfect book or tool or resource. Set aside the time for prayer and spiritual reflection. Don’t wait for the time to materialize. Don’t try to fit it into your schedule. Do it first and then fit the rest of your life around it. I would also recommend that you do what works for you. Try different things until you hit on the right combination of prayer, scripture, books, journaling, etc. And make sure you have realistic expectations. Not every day will be a “mountain top” experience where you feel God especially near. To borrow an anaology from baseball: you don’t have to hit a homerun every time at bat – just try and get on base. Some days will be more special or revelatory of spiritual insight than others and that is OK. God is also found in the normal routines and disciplines of life. God often meets us in the ordinary. Time spent in prayer and spiritual reflection attunes our senses to God’s presence in the places where we might have previously overlooked him.
John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) conceived of the spiritual life as a lifelong process way back in the 18th century and we would do well to remember his guidance. For Wesley, spirituality is the not the result of a singular event. It may begin there but it needs refreshment if we are to grow in our relationship with God. Each day brings us another opportunity to drill the spiritual well ever deeper. If we stop drilling, we run the risk of running out of water as the well dries up. I have learned the hard way about the dangers of letting that happen. It is not an experience I wish to repeat. It is my prayer that these words will either help you avoid such a crisis or will help you find your way out of it because living in spiritual thirst is no way to live.