Seasons far beyond the weather
The seasons of nature are often reflected in the seasons of our lives and the seasons of our soul. All the spiritual giants I’ve known, personally or by reading about them, have had periods in their spiritual lives during which they felt very distant from any relationship with God. These are often called dry spells or desert times, and they can be accompanied by feelings of abandonment, despair, and confusion.
It’s not just you.
Inspirational Christian author Catherine Marshall wrote a moving account of her spiritual struggle in Beyond Ourselves. Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Paul all had their own desert periods too. If you practice any kind of a spiritual tradition, you know the rare “mountaintop” experience is offset by periods of spiritual winter in which our hearts can feel frozen and hard. We wonder where God is and why we no longer feel his love.
I have had these times myself. Some of the most dangerous (in terms of damaging my faith) have not been so much feeling abandoned as feeling indifferent. The chinks in my faith armor have been chipped away to reveal holes where doubt and fear could seep in. Always, always, I have found my way back to God (or have allowed myself to be re-found by God) and rejoiced in the reunion, but it's not a comfortable place to be.
Perspective and preparation are critical.
If you are experiencing spiritual winter now, remember this is a natural cycle and will not last forever. Don’t despair and don’t give up on yourself or God!
Even if you’re not experiencing it now, prepare yourself. M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, described the person who walks into the ocean without thought and is unexpectedly knocked over by a wave, emerging scraped and bruised from the underwater tumble. The savvy swimmer, however, anticipates the wave and dives straight into it, passing smoothly under it and up on the other side. When we expect the spiritual winters, they can feel less devastating than they might otherwise.
Like the devoted gardener who stays busy in the winter making preparations for the spring, we must tend our spiritual winters as best we can. I’ve researched some ways to warm yourself during these times. Like the bulb hibernating in the dark, cold earth, or the maple tree whose sap is stored in the trunk and roots during the winter, you’ll stay nurtured and ready for spring when the sun yields more heat and the sap starts to rise.
Survival tactics during a spiritual winter
- Lean into it instead of resisting it. In Beyond Ourselves, Catherine Marshall tells of months during the illness of a beloved grandchild when she felt totally abandoned by God. She ranted and cried in her prayers until she was exhausted. Finally, unable to maintain any semblance of control over the situation, she prayed what she called the Prayer of Relinquishment in which she abandoned herself to God’s eternal care and love, giving up all control over the outcome. Being the control freaks many of us are (okay, I'll speak for myself), this is not easy, but it often gets ourselves out of the way so God can work.
Eckhart Tolle, German-born counselor and spiritual teacher, reminds us, “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? …Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
- Consider this might be a time of preparation. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul all went through a desert time, which turned out to be a proving ground of strength and fine-tuning. They emerged from their desert experiences with a burst of spiritual energy and accomplishment. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1: 6-7).
- Take care of yourself physically. When I experience feelings of depression or low spiritual energy, I sometimes realize I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. It’s not a spiritual winter; I’m simply exhausted. Get rest. Eat a healthy diet. Seek balance in your life.
- Confide in a trusted friend. “Shared joy is double joy and shared sorrow is half-sorrow” (Swedish Proverb). Sometimes it simply helps to let things out, especially when the other person might be able to encourage you to “hang in there” and not despair.
- Check in with your conscience. If you have been living out of synch with your core values, you could feel a distance from God. This is self-imposed. Confess. Do what you can to make it right. Ask God to reveal to you what you need to do or let go. God loves you and wants nothing more than for you to be enfolded in his everlasting arms.
- Work on your mindset. Instead of thinking God is absent, believe God is currently not visible. Remember the sun is still shining above the rain clouds, even when you can’t see it.
- Count your blessings. Scripture reminds us to give thanks in all things (not for all things but in all things). There is something powerful about the exercise of practicing gratitude that lifts the spirit and wards off despair.
- Be patient and resolve to wait on God. “…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
- Stay alert for signs of love and comfort from God. The Israelites thought God had abandoned them in the desert, yet there was a pillar of fire by night, a pillar of cloud by day, and manna every day. How dense could they be? Where did they think these miracles came from? Sometimes we feel so sorry for ourselves we fail to notice God’s love, often poured through the actions of others.
- Nourish your soul…even if you don’t feel like it. Don’t give up on your spiritual practices. Pray, even if your prayers feel empty. And yes, it’s okay to be honest with God if you’re angry, bereft, or frustrated. As David wrote in Psalm 38, verse 9: “All my longings lie open before you, oh Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.”
Read devotional literature, even if you’re not in the mood. Hannah Whitall Smith, in her classic The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, reminded readers we have God’s word through Scripture to give us guidance. It might take longer to get the message if you’re skipping your Bible reading and holding out for a voice from a burning bush.
- Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. When you’re in the midst of a spiritual winter, it can seem as though God is working in everyone’s life but yours. This is simply a delusion.
- Be kind to yourself, especially if you’re going through a life change or hard time. Most of us are quick to berate ourselves for things out of our control. Accept help from others if it’s offered.
Below are some resources and further scripture readings to help someone cope when they’re going through a spiritual winter. What books, practices, or resources have helped you strengthen your connection with God when you’ve felt disconnected? Please share in the comments below or join the conversation at my Facebook Page.
Bible Verses of Encouragement from Bible-Knowledge.com: 79 selected verses all telling you to never give up, to keep pressing on, and to fully rely on the Lord and his guidance to get you through the trial and into your next level of service with him.
Cybernation.com Quotation Center website
Tada, Joni Eareckson. “Let Down Your Net: Spiritual Refreshment for Pastors.” A sermon from SermonCentral.com, 2007.
Photo credit: “Alone” by Patrice Dufour, Vancouver, Canada, via StockXchng.