Soul-Care Articles: Christ-centered, Spirit-led, Biblically-based, Clinically-sound, Truth-oriented

Posts tagged ‘spiritual growth’

Why Do We Suffer?

SOURCE:  Chuck Swindoll

Of all the letters Paul wrote, 2 Corinthians is the most autobiographical. In it the great apostle lifts the veil of his private life and allows us to catch a glimpse of his human frailties and needs. You need to read that letter in one sitting to capture the moving emotion that surged through his soul.

It is in this letter alone that he records the specifics of his anguish, tears, affliction, and satanic opposition. In this letter alone he spells out the details of his persecution, loneliness, imprisonments, beatings, feelings of despair, hunger, shipwrecks, sleepless nights, and that “thorn in the flesh”—his companion of pain. How close it makes us feel to him when we picture him as a man with real, honest-to-goodness problems . . . just like you and me!

It is not surprising, then, that he begins the letter with words of comfort—especially verses 3 through 11 (please stop and read).

Now then, having read those nine verses, please observe his frequent use of the term comfort in verses 3–7. I count ten times in five verses that the same root word is employed by Paul. This word is para-kaleo, meaning literally, “to call alongside.” It involves more than a shallow “pat on the back” with the tired expression, “the Lord bless you . . . ” No, this word involves genuine, in-depth understanding . . . deep-down compassion and sympathy. This seems especially appropriate since it says that God, our Father, is the “God of all comfort” who “comforts us in all our affliction.” Our loving Father is never preoccupied or removed when we are enduring sadness and affliction! Read Hebrews 4:14–16 and Matthew 6:31–32 as further proof.

There is yet another observation worth noting in 2 Corinthians, chapter 1. No less than three reasons are given for suffering—each one introduced with the term “that.” Can you locate them? Take a pencil and circle the “that” in verses 4, 9, and 11. Quietly, without a lot of fanfare, the Holy Spirit states reasons we suffer:

1. “That we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction . . . “ (v. 4). God allows suffering so that we might have the capacity to enter into others’ sorrow and affliction. Isn’t that true? If you have suffered a broken leg and been confined to crutches for weeks—you are in complete sympathy with someone else on crutches, even years after your affliction. The same is true for the loss of a child . . . emotional depression . . . an auto accident . . . undergoing unfair criticism . . . financial burdens. God gives His children the capacity to understand by bringing similar sufferings into our lives. Bruises attract one another.

2. “That we would not trust in ourselves . . . “ (v. 9). God also allows suffering so that we might learn what it means to depend on Him, not on our own strength and resources. Doesn’t suffering do that? It forces us to lean on Him totally, absolutely. Over and over He reminds us of the danger of pride . . . but it frequently takes suffering to make the lesson stick. Pride is smashed most effectively when the suffering comes suddenly, surprisingly. The express trains of heaven are seldom announced by a warning bell; they dash suddenly and abruptly into the station of the soul. Perhaps that has been your experience recently. Don’t resent the affliction as an intruder—welcome it as God’s message to stop trusting in your flesh . . . and start leaning on Him.

3. “That thanks may be given . . . “ (v. 11). Honestly—have you said, “Thanks, Lord, for this test”? Have you finally stopped struggling and expressed to Him how much you appreciate His loving sovereignty over your life? I submit that one of the reasons our suffering is prolonged is that we take so long saying “Thank you, Lord” with an attitude of genuine appreciation.

How unfinished and rebellious and proud and unconcerned we would be without suffering! Alan Redpath, the beloved evangelist and former pastor of Moody Bible Church in Chicago, once remarked;

When God wants to do an impossible task, He takes an impossible individual—and crushes him.

Here is another statement on suffering I heard years ago. I shall never forget it:

Pain plants the flag of reality in the fortress of a rebel heart.

May these things encourage you the next time God heats up the furnace!

Don’t resent affliction as an intruder—welcome it as God’s invitation to trust Him.

— Charles R. Swindoll

11 Rules on Marriage You Won’t Learn in School

SOURCE:  Dennis and Barbara Rainey/Family Life

Here’s some practical, counter-cultural advice on how to make marriage work.

For many years, e-mails have circulated the country with the outline of a speech attributed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates titled “11 Rules You Won’t Learn in School About Life.”  It turns out that Gates never wrote these words nor did he deliver the speech—it was all taken from an article written by Charles J. Sykes in 1996. And it really doesn’t matter that Gates wasn’t involved, because the piece does a great job of unmasking how feel-good, politically-correct teachings have created a generation of kids with a false concept of reality.

I thought I’d not only pass on these rules, but also make a few of my own—on marriage.

First, here are the 11 rules of life that you won’t learn in school:

Rule 1: Life is not fair—get used to it!

Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will not make $60,000 per year right out of high school. You won’t be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait until you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping—they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault.  So don’t whine about your mistakes; learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes, and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents’ generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to anything in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you “find yourself.” Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is not real life. In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.

Sage advice.

After reading this piece, I was inspired to take a crack at something I’d been chewing on:  “11 Rules on Marriage You Won’t Learn in School.”

Rule 1: Marriage isn’t about your happiness.  It’s not about you getting all your needs met through another person.  Practicing self-denial and self-sacrifice, patience, understanding, and forgiveness are the fundamentals of a great marriage.  If you want to be the center of the universe, then there’s a much better chance of that happening if you stay single.

Rule 2: Getting married gives a man a chance to step up and finish growing up.  The best preparation for marriage for a single man is to man up now and keep on becoming the man God created him to be.

Rule 3: It’s okay to have one rookie season, but it’s not okay to repeat your rookie season.  You will make rookie mistakes in your first year of marriage; the key is that you don’t continue making those same mistakes in year five, year 10, or year 20 of your marriage.

Rule 4: It takes a real man to be satisfied with and love one woman for a lifetime.  And it takes a real woman to be content with and respect one man for a lifetime.

Rule 5: Love isn’t a feeling.  Love is commitment.  It’s time to replace the “D-word”—divorce—with the “C-word”—commitment.  Divorce may feel like a happy solution, but it results in long-term toxic baggage.  You can’t begin a marriage without commitment.  You can’t sustain one without it either.  A marriage that goes the distance is really hard work.  If you want something that is easy and has immediate gratification, then go shopping or play a video game.

Rule 6: Online relationships with old high school or college flames, emotional affairs, sexual affairs, and cohabiting are shallow and illegitimate substitutes for the real thing.  Emotional and sexual fidelity in marriage are the real thing.

Rule 7: Women spell romance R-E-L-A-T-I-O-N-S-H-I-P.  Men spell romance S-E-X.  If you want to speak romance to your spouse, become a student of your spouse, enroll in a lifelong “Romantic Language School,” and become fluent in your spouse’s language.

Rule 8: During courtship, opposites attract.  After marriage, opposites can repel each another.  You married your spouse because he/she is different.  Differences are God’s gift to you to create new capacities in your life.  Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different.

Rule 9: Pornography robs men of a real relationship with a real person and it poisons real masculinity, replacing it with the toxic killers of shame, deceit, and isolation.  Pornography siphons off a man’s drive for intimacy with his wife.  Marriage is not for wimps.  Accept no substitutes.

Rule 10: As a home is built, it will reflect the builder.  Most couples fail to consult the Master Architect and His blueprints for building a home.  Instead a man and woman marry with two sets of blueprints (his and hers). As they begin building, they discover that a home can’t be built from two very different sets of blueprints.

Rule 11: How you will be remembered has less to do with how much money you make or how much you accomplish and more with how you have loved and lived.

Pass on the rules to a friend who will enjoy them!

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Adapted from Preparing for Marriage Devotions for Couples, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Copyright © 2013. Used with permission from Regal Books

 

Change The Way You Pray

SOURCE:  Paul Tripp

At some point in our life, we had to memorize The Lord’s Prayer, but just in case you need a refresher, here’s the first half again: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10)

As historic as these words have been for the church, I’m afraid that they have simultaneously become some of the most clichéd words in the Christian faith. In this case, I think we have memorized one of God’s most important commands without actually understanding what he’s telling us to do.

Remember, Jesus says to his disciples, “Pray then like this” before delivering these lines. So what is Jesus telling us to do? Change the way we pray, and pray for God to glorify himself.

I know for myself – and I know I’m not alone – that so much of my prayer has nothing to do with the glory of God. Regrettably, in much of our prayer, we’re actually asking God to endorse our pursuit of self-focused little glories. But we phrase it in a way to make it sound not so selfish:

  • “God, give me wisdom at work … (so I can make more money and acquire more power)”
  • “God, alleviate my financial woes … (so I have more money to spend on the pleasure and possessions that will make me happy)”
  • “God, help my child to be more respectful … (so that my evenings will be more peaceful so I can get the things done that I want to get done)”
  • “God, work in the heart of my spouse … (so I can finally experience the marriage of my dreams)”
  • “God, give me a better relationship with my neighbor … (so he will like me enough to make his dog quit trampling on my flower beds)”
  • “God, please heal my body … (so that I can do the physical things I love to do)”

We need to change the way we pray.

The first thing we should do in prayer is to ask God to glorify himself, or love himself, more than anything else.

But doesn’t that seem selfish and narcissistic of God? I thought he was generous, selfless, and loved the world so much. These are all very good questions, and worthy of answers.

First, don’t evaluate the character of God as you would a human being. God is not a man and cannot be judged by the same standards he has set for human beings. For a human to be obsessed by his own glory would be a horrendous spirit of pride and self-aggrandizement. But not so with God. God is a being of a different kind, in a position unparalleled in the universe.

Second, if God were to deny his own glory, he would cease to be God. To be God, he must be above and beyond every created thing. Willingness to subjugate himself to anything other than himself would cause him to no longer be Lord over all.

Third, God’s zeal for himself is the hope of the universe. If God would forsake his glory (and therefore, his glorious purposes), all of his promises would have less value than the paper on which they were printed, and the hopes for the salvation of every sinner would be dashed.

Finally, by calling us to pray for God to glorify himself, Jesus frees us from our self-destructive addiction to self-glory and the endless catalog of false glories that comes with it. God’s unshakable commitment to his own glory is the most loving thing he could ever do for us. It’s what redeems us from us and breaks our bondage to all the things in life that we wrongly think will give us life but lead only to emptiness and ultimately death.

I hope this helps you to change the way you pray!

8 LESSONS LEARNED FROM A LONG BATTLE WITH SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION

SOURCE:  Derek J. Brown/The Gospel Coalition

When I came to Christ during college in the winter of 1998, the months following my conversion were a time of spiritual bliss. The glory of God was visible everywhere, Jesus Christ was precious, God’s people were a delight, and personal holiness was a new passion.

In his mysterious providence, however, God soon led me into a season of spiritual agony.

Although I was at a school known for its vibrant community and biblical fidelity, my tendency toward intense introspection and a growing concern over personal sin conspired to create the perfect storm. Only two years after I stepped on to campus, I opted for a semester off because I was convinced I had committed the unpardonable sin. I was in a spiritual tailspin that would last the next few years.

In his kindness, after approximately five years of intense struggle, God gradually drew me out of the mire. Often during this season I asked the Lord for immediate restoration, but that was not his plan. Instead, it became increasingly clear that God was teaching me a few vital lessons for the sake my stability in the faith. If you find yourself in a similar season, please receive these gentle yet earnest exhortations.

(1) Remain in the Bible

When the blackness of spiritual depression is heavy upon your soul, you may not sense a hearty appetite for Scripture, but you must sit yourself at the table anyway. While intentional Bible reading is not the only means God will use to lift the veil, it is indispensible, and it must be used together with other means. Remember that David, who more than once cried out to God in mind-numbing despair also confessed that God’s word “restores the soul” (Psalm 19:7). To pursue a way out of your spiritual woes apart from Scripture will either lead to greater trouble or set you on a trajectory of unstable experientialism. Remain in the Bible.

(2) Stay in the Church

While walking through the thick haze of spiritual depression I remember a brother who shared similar struggles informing me that he was planning a multi-week solo hike to get alone with God. Although it sounded good at the time, I can say with confidence today that this brother’s plan was wrongheaded and dangerous. Although time alone with Jesus is essential, our Savior does not intend to remedy our troubles by removing us from the community of believers. Rather, he has given our brothers and sisters and pastors for our joy and to help us persevere in the faith (Phil. 1:27; Heb. 3:12-15). Stay in the church.

(3) Immerse Yourself in the Gospel

When I say immerse yourself in the gospel, I mean primarily two things. First, do what you can to ground your mind and heart in the doctrine of justification. Dive into books like The Cross-Centered Life by CJ Mahaney or The God Who Justifies by James White. Read until you are convinced that your right standing with God is based on Christ’s righteousness alone and that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Your spiritual troubles are likely to remain to the degree that you are not resting in this foundational truth.

Secondly, seek to understand the doctrine of indwelling sin. When I was first converted, the depth and pervasiveness of my sin often staggered me. Colossians 3:1-11 and some solid counsel from John Owen, however, brought lasting comfort to my soul. The truth I needed to hear was this: regeneration provides me with a new power to fight sin, not an instantaneous eradication of all my inward corruption. If you are unclear on this particular truth, you will be tossed to and fro by temptation and your many sinful inclinations.

(4) Seek Means, Not Just Breakthroughs

While I don’t think it is not wrong to ask God for immediate breakthroughs of light into our spiritual darkness, I am convinced it is far better to seek means of gradual restoration. This approach is preferred because the constant desire for existential breakthroughs can unseat us from sure rock of Scripture and draw us away from the disciplines that God typically uses to grow and sustain our faith. Most often God will use the unheralded means of adequate sleep, exercise, a reasonable diet, regular worship and fellowship, Bible reading, good books, time outdoors, faithfulness in our responsibilities, and profitable ministry to pull us out of the throes of spiritual depression.

(5) Pursue Obedience, Not Just Introspection

Those who tend toward spiritual depression are often those who ruminate incessantly over the condition of their hearts. Some self-examination is good and biblical (2 Corinthians 13:5), but if we are not careful, self-examination can turn into morbid introspection where we relentlessly appraise our motives and evaluate our affections. And, although our introspection may appear super-spiritual, it might become a substitute for obedience. Instead of deleting that troublesome iPhone app and confessing your sin to a trusted friend, you look inside and ask, “Am I really repentant over that recent indulgence in pornography?” But God grants assurance not through introspection, but through obedience. As you actively repent from known sin, you will find far more assurance and relief from depression than if you merely look inward for conclusive evidence that you really love Jesus.

(6) Keep Working

There were many times during my struggle when I was convinced that time alone reading Scripture, praying, and pouring over books was the sole answer to my misery. Because of this, I often approached work as a hindrance to my spiritual health instead of what it really was: a God-given means of renewal and stability. I would even ask my employer to grant me early leave from my workday so I could retreat to my home, close the door, and ponder over the Puritans. It wasn’t until I was forced into work situations that didn’t allow withdrawals into my theological fantasyland that I started to see some break in the clouds. That I found significant help in the simple means of a profitable workday is no coincidence, however. God made us to work, and he intends that we find much physical and spiritual refreshment in attending diligently to our responsibilities.

(7) Fulfill Your Ministry

The weight of spiritual depression will often tempt us to fold in on ourselves. The remedy to our plight, however, is not more turning inward, but turning outward: first with faith to Jesus and the gospel, then to others in good works. You might feel that you are unqualified to serve in ministry in light of your own spiritual troubles. But let your pastor make these decisions as you submit to his leadership, and commit to fulfill your ministry. God has given you a spiritual gift to use for the good of the church (1 Corinthians 12:7) and you might be surprised by how the consistent use of your gift will set you on the path toward renewed joy and steadiness in the faith (see Paul’s description of the faithful deacon in 1 Timothy 3:13).

(8) Don’t Stop Moving

Those of us who tend toward spiritual depression may begin look for a remedy that removes the need for further action on our part. We may also conclude that the slowness of our recovery is reason for more despair. But both of these tendencies obscure the truth that our Christian life is best likened to a marathon. Occasionally we may sense that we’ve hit our stride, but often we will enter stretches where the weight of our burden is enough to bring us to a crawl. But continue we must, for God has set along our course all the refreshment we need to remain in the race. Don’t stop moving.

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Derek J. Brown (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is adjunct professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastoral assistant at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley. You can visit his blog at DerekJamesBrown.com.

Lord, Examine Me Deeply

SOURCE:  Adapted from an article by Stepping Stones/Lighthouse Network/Karl Benzio

Look Up to Look Deeply Inside

Assessing ourselves thoroughly means we have to allow God to reveal our deep, hidden, faulty areas. Looking inward really requires lots of courage. We are so quick to diagnose and judge others. What if we took that same energy and time to refocus and examine ourselves?

It’s astounding how ignorant we are about our true selves.

We rarely recognize the distortions, laziness, envy, pride, entitlement and weaknesses inside us. We must dump the idea that we understand ourselves just because we live our lives. The only one who truly understands and knows us is God. He wants to show us who we are, then equip us and ultimately transform us to become Christ-like by developing the Mind of Christ.

To look inward, we need regular quiet time alone with God to analyze our daily decisions and ask why we made those decisions. By using the perfect mirror of The Holy Bible and God’s lenses, we can see our misguided desires and affections. These lead to false idols and substitute fixes that distance us from Him. Seeing ourselves through His eyes enables us to change our foundation from sand to solid rock, allowing us to become a powerful Lighthouse shining God’s glory. Going through this process is what transformed my life and set me free of the bondage in which I was wallowing.

Take some time to ask yourself, “What outranked God? What was more important to me than pleasing God in that situation? In my decisions today, what fleshly desire or fear was more important than keeping the Holy Spirit on the throne of my life? How could I have honored Him with a Godly decision?”

Today, examine an area of temptation or a wrong decision you made recently. Heart diagnostics can be painful. But being honest with yourself will open the door to reaping the fruit of the spirit and growing the mind of Christ. How honest you will be and how much you will use God in the examination and self-assessment process is your decision, so choose well.

Dear Father God, I am so thankful that You are God with us—constantly and eternally. This fact alone is sufficient to fill my days and nights with joy. Thank You, my Lord. Sadly though, my mind slips out of focus and I begin looking outward at the broken world around me. I know by Your Word that I need to be alone with you in order to learn and grow in You. I desire this time alone with You, Lord. Please help me push away all the distractions that prevent me from being alone with You. When we are alone, I ask that You give me the courage to look deeply inside myself. Let me be honest with myself so that I may be honest and open with You. Give me your lenses to see my core accurately. I pray to You in the name of the One who gives me courage, Jesus Christ.  AMEN!

The Truth
…when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. Mark 4:34

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Matthew 1:22-23 

Increased Awareness of God: Desirable AND Possible

SOURCE:  Jan Johnson

The With-God Life

One of my directees runs an organization with 330 staff and a large budget. He is in and out of meetings all day and constantly interacts with people. He asked me, Is it really so important that I talk to God about things – even little things – all day long? My experience is that this continual conversation throughout the day makes life so much richer.

The authors of Joy Starts Here called it the “Immanuel lifestyle” because Immanuel means God-with-us. They describe it this way:

The Immanuel lifestyle is one in which we increasingly discover how Jesus does things and invites us to join him while we enjoy him. Increasing awareness of God’s interactive presence with us begins to enter ways we relate with others, live our lives, raise our children, do our work and drive our cars. It takes very little observation to notice that when we are aware of God’s presence and point of view, there is profound peace as we live that moment. Shalom is that sense that God is working everything together in a good way even when we are not sure how. We sense that God is not worried so why should we be troubled?   (pp. 130-131)

Such a life is not only possible, but also desirable.

As we learn to live this way, we don’t feel so alone in facing the challenges of life. God is the companion of our life. God is at our my side and I am at God’s side in a very real sense. God’s presence is more real than the keys I’m typing on my keyboard. They will not exist a thousand years from now, but my life with God will be more real than ever.

We can also ask God for courage and for good ideas and God will give them to us. We can ask God questions, especially, What do I need to know about this person I’m meeting for lunch? About this circumstance that baffles me?  About how to treat this pain in my shoulder?  God has good ideas and I’m eager to hear them – I need them!  As I open the Bible or listen to a sermon, I can always ask, What is it I need to know here? To absorb more deeply?  To rethink?

This conversational life is so much more expansive than simply dialing in and asking for a good parking place. I suppose there are times when that might be a good idea, but ours is a full-orbed relationship with God, not about getting more stuff or making life more convenient.

In this “with-God life,” we spend our days Enjoying the Presence of God. It’s a good thing. It’s a safe thing. Before the beginning of the world, God thought of you, and thought, What a great idea!  I can hardly wait until you show up! This with-God life is what we were built to run on. Without it, we are only half-alive.

Even when our souls are barren, God is at work.

SOURCE:  David Henderson/Discipleship Journal

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.

Hard Ground

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.

Fallow Fields

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.

Winter Yield

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.

Surprise Harvest

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.

—Hos. 6:1–3

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.

—Hos. 14:5–7

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.

His Fruit

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.

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