The Surprising Fruit of Spiritual Drought
A beautiful lake spread out before me, frosted with ice and rimmed with pines. All around was bright snow and sunshine. But I trudged unseeing from my car to the lakeside cabin, my heart even heavier than the bookbag I dragged along.
Five days before, I had written this in my journal: “Lord, where is my joy? I’m not happy. I’m sighing a lot, wanting to sleep. ‘How the gold has lost its luster’ (Lam. 4:1). What a perfect description of the state of my heart. All is dull and flat. Lord Jesus, have mercy.”
I was on a retreat of desperation. Yawning behind me were six months of spiritual dryness. God was remote, and my heart seemed as cold and hard as the winter ice. I could see no way out of the soul slump that enshrouded me.
Though it was winter in my soul, God was not hibernating. I see now that He was busy even when I was floundering; I’ve learned that He has gifts for us even in the soul’s December.
More than we can count—or would care to admit—are the times in our spiritual lives when winter sets in and our souls, like farm fields in December, fall idle. Where life and growth once blossomed, we now have only the frozen remnants of yesterday’s harvest to show.
My experience over the past year is an example. Last summer brimmed with opportunity for me to flourish spiritually. In May, my wife and I jumped at the chance to go with Ray VanderLaan to the Bible lands. You can imagine what an enriching adventure that was, stomping for two weeks through the thistle and scree of Israel behind such a renowned teacher.
In June, I brought my oldest son with me on a mission trip to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. With two teams from our church, we mixed cement and slung boulders and spoke fractured Spanish to the glory of God.
In July, our family headed west, pitching our pop-up under the shadow of some of my favorite peaks on the planet, the mighty Tetons. Joining up with close friends, we spent a joyful week rafting and hiking and wildlife-watching.
Yet just days after our return from the Tetons, I wrote: “I feel as though I were looking out on life through a window from somewhere else. Why so lifeless, O my soul? Why so thin and spare? Spirit of the living God, awaken my sleepwalking soul.”
What rich, God-filled experiences I had had. Yet even with the fresh air of the mountains still in my lungs, I was scraping bottom spiritually. I felt sullen toward God, flat in the faith, and grumpy about my call. My life in Christ had become dull and mechanical, the joy of ministry seemed an oxymoron, and my vision receded to a small circle compassing my immediate needs and circumstances.
Spiritual dry times accompany many and diverse situations. Sometimes those droughts have nothing to do with us. A dust bowl descends, and all we can do is remain faithful, waiting upon God. At other times, however, spiritual dryness can be traced back to something for which we are responsible.
Sometimes sheer soul-neglect is to blame. Perhaps we have let the busyness of life or the blur of entertainment squeeze out margins for quiet reflection, regular prayer, and Bible study. Whether out of fear or laziness, pride or sin, we squander our best on lesser things.
At other times, difficult life circumstances disrupt our routines and send our spiritual life into disorder. A move plucks us from the embrace of friends. Cancer claims a parent without warning. Unexpected bills force us into the daze of a second job. Whatever the circumstances, life is upended, sending the spiritual furniture of our souls spinning across the floor like deck chairs on the Titanic.
Sometimes it is not neglect of our spiritual habits but slavery to them that brings spiritual famine. We may dutifully carry out spiritual practices yet still have a heart as sluggish as a car in a Minnesota winter. In these moments of grace-amnesia, we turn our disciplines into displays, forgetting our efforts are utterly incapable of earning God’s favor. Neither daily prayer nor study makes us holy; these disciplines merely put us within reach of the one who can.
Some dry times are not our doing at all; we may have as little to do with our spiritual drought as a meteorologist has with the weather. For reasons beyond our knowing, dust storms whip up or arctic winds descend, and all we can do is hunker down and hold on.
Whatever the circumstances, we find ourselves with a fallow field: nothing growing in the soul but a few weeds. Where once was vibrancy, all is flat. We are dull toward the things of God.
What was behind my drought? A friend whose counsel I sought said: “I think you have let something become more beautiful to you than Jesus.” Zing! He was right. God’s Spirit confirmed that over the previous year I had become more concerned with trying to please my congregation than pleasing God. My misplaced devotion nourished the spiritual weather patterns that led to my soul famine.
God is astir midwinter. He has gifts for us even in the seasons of spiritual dryness, whether born of our neglect or not. For “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). In our failures and struggles, God is most keen to meet us, to receive us, to reestablish us in His love. He is always at work, not merely when we are working as well. Such is the gracious nature of God.
But the place to look for God’s fruit in spiritual dry times is not in the limbs of plant and stalk. In these more visible parts of our lives—our attitudes, our relationships, our decisions, our priorities—little yield will be found. No, it is lower, at ground level, that we should look for a harvest in our spiritual winters. Through the cycles of growth and dormancy, freeze and thaw, God works the soil and strengthens the plant.
John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” once encouraged a parishioner who found herself in a time of spiritual dryness. He wrote:
[Such seasons] are like winds to the trees, which threaten to blow them quite down, but in reality, by blowing them every way, loosen the ground about them, circulate the sap, and cause them to strike their roots to a greater depth, and thereby secure their standing.
In a similar way, the prophet Hosea used agricultural images to describe three unexpected treasures God gives when our fields fall barren.
Spiritual drought exposes our need for God. For some time, I have pondered why my prayer life is so spotty. During my drought, God revealed the answer: Prayer is fundamentally an act of God-reliance; I, however, am fundamentally a self-reliant person.
It is our centermost human impulse to rise up from our proper place before God’s throne and wander off in search of a throne upon which we ourselves might sit down. What lies behind the bulk of our spiritual sluggishness if not this: the laughable idea that we can do without God, that we are gods ourselves? How readily we embrace the myth of self-determination. Ludicrously, we convince ourselves that we are competent, capable, and in control.
How God delights in showing us otherwise! Ever so gently, He gives us a taste of the disordered chaos that would mark our lives apart from His ever-sustaining presence. In Hosea, God decries this propensity to forget Him:
She has not acknowledged that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil. . . . Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens, and my new wine when it is ready. . . . I will ruin her vines and her fig trees, which she said were her pay from her lovers; I will make them a thicket, and wild animals will devour them.
—Hos. 2:8–9, 12
God uses spiritual dry times to check our repeated drift toward functional atheism and to awaken again a mindfulness of our moment-by-moment need for Him. He exposes our spiritual poverty, bringing us to the end of ourselves and throwing light upon our utter inability to sustain a meaningful life apart from Him.
“My soul’s veins run with depleted blood,” I wrote last fall, painfully aware of the depth of my need. “I breathe my own wasted air. My soul is dying faster than it is being replenished. I need Your rest.” And later, on my retreat: “These days of spiritual depletion and weariness have given me a glimpse of life without You: ‘Things fall apart; the center does not hold’ [W. H. Auden].”
Crop failure—”The stalk has no head” (Hos. 8:7)—is the end of our own effort . . . and the gift of God to those who have forgotten that He has made us for Himself.
Spiritual drought awakens our longing for God. More than once I have trudged down the side of a mountain with one gripping thought engaging the whole of my attention—and it wasn’t the view. After hours of hiking at high altitude in dry air under a hot sun, my body begins to dehydrate. Weak and parched, I feel as if someone stuck a hairdryer in my mouth and turned it on high. My skin wrinkles into dry folds and emanates heat like a radiator. All I can think of is water.
Like body, like soul. Coming up against the end of ourselves awakens not only an appreciation of need but longing as well. When I enter a spiritual dry time and begin to register thirst, God is my water. He is all I can think about. I miss Him. I need Him. I search for Him. I plead for Him. I want Him back. With a passion and singlemindedness that is uncharacteristic of other days, I long for God in famine. Lesser loves recede, and God dominates my field of vision, becoming the sole object of my attention.
Again Hosea speaks, capturing the single aim of a parched soul:
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.
Journal entries in the midst of my dry time reflect this acute longing. One example is “Hearth Untended,” a poem comparing my early morning efforts to rekindle a fire from the previous night’s coals to my desire to bring my soul back to life.
Blue-grey dawn, invasive chill, yet in the ring there quavers still a spark.
Kindling laid with fingers lame and hasty prayer to set aflame the dark.
Forgive, O Lord, my heart untended. Bring fire into this night just ended. Fan to flame my heart fresh-rended. Spirit, make your mark.
“Break up your unplowed ground,” pleads Hosea, “for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you” (Hos. 10:12). For dry ground, nothing matters but the rain.
Spiritual drought restores our fruitfulness for God. During a recent sermon series, I unearthed an interesting bit of information. A typical wheat field will yield four or five times what is sown. After several years of planting in the same field, the yield gradually drops. But after a field is allowed to lie fallow for a year, then plowed several times and replanted, the yield jumps to twice the normal level, producing 8 to 10 bushels of wheat for every bushel sown.
The parallel to our spiritual lives is striking. When once again the dry soil of our soul has felt the patter of rain, our lives take on a vibrant urgency and fruitfulness uncharacteristic of prefallow days. We remember what is amazing about grace, what is Holy about the Spirit, and what is good about the news we have for the world.
Listen to God’s word of grace through Hosea:
I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon. Men will dwell again in his shade. He will flourish like the grain. He will blossom like a vine.
My spiritual famine ultimately drove me to a 72-hour retreat. I prayed, read, walked, thought, pleading that God would visit me anew. And He did. On the third day, miraculously, I found myself whistling again. God had broken in.
Robert Murray McCheyne was a broken pastor who tended to everyone else’s spiritual needs to the neglect of his own. He died at 28. Before his death, he wrote, “Your own soul is your first and greatest care.” Mindful of the admonition, I came home with a fresh resolve to tend to my fields. God reminded me that certain practices keep me spiritually fit and ready to serve, and that I must see to them faithfully. Among them: daily quiet times, monthly spiritual retreats, time with friends of the soul, and time in creation.
The five months since my retreat have been intense ones. Key staff people have left the church I pastor, and ministry demands mount up like snow in Siberia. But I have held true to my resolve, clinging to God and tending my soul. He, in turn, has proven Himself faithful to me. I have experienced more peace and trust—and, by His grace, I have been more effective in ministry—in the past five months than at any other time in the past four years.
Does this mean I will never experience another dry season? Hardly. But now I know where to look for fruit, even when the leaves turn brown. “I am the one who looks after you and cares for you,” God says through Hosea. “I am like a tree that is always green, giving my fruit to you all through the year” (Hos. 14:8, NLT, emphasis mine).
I may fall fallow, but, thankfully, God never will.