In the past two weeks, I’ve heard five different people describe their spiritual lives as a desert. It’s a metaphor we’ve probably all heard before — stretches of time in a spiritual journey that are dominated by feelings of isolation, dryness or silence from God. I’m not talking about feeling lost or spiritually numb for a few days or weeks but spiritual droughts that last months, sometimes years. One friend shared that he has been in a spiritual desert for ten years. Ten years. That’s sounds as life-sucking as a journey across the Sahara. As I listened to his story, I felt such tremendous compassion and concern for him. Every instinct in me was to soothe his hurt, to help him out of his desert, to fix the problem. If only it was that easy. Relief for a spiritual drought lasting months, years or decades has to be more complicated than turning on a faucet and filling a bathtub or drinking a glass of ice water after a day in the sun.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the predicament of my friends in the desert. My pastoral heart has me intensely wishing that I were a rainmaker, but if I understand anything about my calling it is that my most important work is not to fix but to walk alongside. So how do I support someone who is in the desert? How can those of us living in a spiritual garden walk alongside you in the desert? As one friend beautifully put it, “How can we be water for you?” Here are a few of my thoughts, hopefully received even as a small cupful of cool water.
First, to you desert dwellers who have shared your story with me or others, thank you. Your honesty is so important. More than materialism or apathy, I worry that pretense is the sickness eating away at the health of the American church. What you have done by sharing your story is to resist the power of pretense. You’ve taken a very courageous step toward keeping our dialogue grounded in reality rather than fantasy. You’ve shown that you, at least, will be a person who speaks truth, even when it’s risky and uncomfortable.
I hope you know how refreshing your honesty is, what a radical gift of hospitality you’ve offered us. Your honesty welcomes me, even calls me, to follow your example and be real about the parts of my relationship with Christ that are stale or shriveled. I’m sure the first century church did not thrive and spread because the Christians gathered weekly and pretended the persecution they were facing was no big deal. Instead, I imagine that the literal and spiritual survival of the early church depended on coming together to openly share their struggles, to cry out to God and to worship even when answers were unclear.
I’ve been sifting through scripture the past few weeks, going back to the source of the desert metaphor, to renew my hope through the biblical story. The desert is a timeless physical and spiritual reality for the people of God. Moses and the Israelites were delivered from a life of slavery and harsh oppression. Their very next steps were spent wandering in a barren desert for four decades, their long-hoped for destination – a promised land flowing with milk and honey – always appearing and disappearing along the hazy mirage of the horizon. Even though their needs were always miraculously met by God, their faith was messy. They praised and trusted in God when their bellies were full and their thirst was quenched, but they grumbled and fretted and worshipped idols when the hikes grew too long, when God seemed absent or when their cravings for Egyptian meat overcame their satisfaction in heavenly manna. The desert is all over the biblical narrative. Psalms, Job, the prophets, 1 Peter — all give raw and real testimony that faith is difficult. Even Jesus entered the desert and was tempted to betray his Father.
Thankfully, Jesus lived as a man without pretense. He told his disciples plainly, “In this life you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33). It seems like the witness of scripture gives us permission to be honest about the difficulty of faith with ourselves, with each other and with God. (Take a few minutes to listen to Psalm 22 or 42.) Perhaps there is wisdom in understanding the desert not as a personal failing of faith, but an inevitable reality, the refining path of hot coals we walk across when we choose to follow Jesus.
Surviving a spiritual drought is certainly one of the hardest tests of the Christian faith. We Evangelicals put so much emphasis on spiritual high experiences and the feelings of faith that it’s no wonder that we fall apart when we reach dry, flat, silent places. An overemphasis on feeling faith might disable us from knowing how to find spiritual nourishment when we are numb.
It’s a common story – a Christian confronts a crisis or gets stuck in the desert and they can’t reconcile their experience with their knowledge of a good and loving God. When they reach a certain point of exhaustion or exasperation, many people abandon their faith in God. Thankfully, scripture offers us real hope, messages that tell us that faith is more than feelings. It is a daily act of believing that God is, that he is Yahweh, literally, the one who is with you. Faith is believing, not despite, but through the exhaustion, confusion, heat, fear and abandonment you are feeling, that God is getting dusty in the desert with you. Faith is clinging to what you know to be true rather than being enslaved by what you feel. Faith is trusting the reality taught by scripture rather than embracing the false reality projected by our culture.
Last week in a bible study I co-lead, we read and reflected on John chapter 6 where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Like God’s relationship with the Israelites in the desert, Jesus miraculously provided for hungry people’s most basic and immediate physical needs when he fed 5,000 from a few fishes and loaves. But then he declared himself to be bread that can completely and eternally satisfy their spiritual hunger. These are either soothing or tough words for those in the spiritual desert who feel disconnected from God. This raises a whole new set of questions for desert wanderers who are earnestly seeking a revival in their relationship with God. Why doesn’t God just relieve our pain, enliven our faith and lead us back to spiritual vitality when that is what we desperately want? Why must we wait? How can our faith survive in a barren land?
So I’ve circled back to where I started, staring up at questions as big as the Sahara. Ultimately, I wonder, what water do I have to offer to those in the desert? As I’ve read and reflected and prayed my mind keeps coming back to the phrase “remain in me.” Jesus used these words when he spoke of himself as the bread of life (Jn. 6) and as the true vine (Jn. 15). What does it mean to remain in Jesus? I could fill a whole article on this question alone, but in the context of the desert, I think it means to obey God’s commands, to read God’s word, to love God and our neighbors as best we can with what resources we have within us. If you feel disconnected from God, lost or alone, remaining in God might look like a simple daily declaration of your commitment to follow God. It might look like praying the words or patterns of the Psalms when you have no of your own words. It might be an intentionality to attend church even when you don’t feel like going, and especially making sure we get there on days when you can join your family in the Lord’s Supper. Remaining in Jesus certainly means continuing to share your faith, even the difficult, messy, dry parts, with your fellow Christians and with God. It surely means clinging to scripture as your reality and hope. Remaining in Jesus absolutely means following God through the desert.