“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” Psalm 40:1 (NIV)
There’s a vicious cycle I’ve experienced in the spiritual life, a phenomena you, too, may have experienced. I’m going through a dry season, a time of drought in my relationship with God.
It’s one of those periods where reading the Word seems to yield no fruit, where you leave feeling more discouraged than when you started, when there is no passion in you for prayer, when your soul longs and gropes for something, anything – an experience, an encouragement, a breakthrough – to reassure you that God is still there, still faithful, still holding on to you.
I wish I could say I was one of those faithful, patient spiritual warriors who remain steadfast in prayer despite apparently receiving no answer, who wait for breakthrough and experience it dramatically and powerfully one day after months of desperate, passionate prayer and worship, who keep rejoicing in darkness despite everything that stands against their faith.
But I’m not.
I’m one of those people who crumple at the first spiritual hurdle. I’m someone who, without a tangible and regular experience of God’s love and grace, grows weary of prayer – so I give up with it. I’m one of those make-excuses-why-not, get-on-with-life, pray-out-of-obligation kind of pray-ers. I’m a quick-fix kind of guy. I’m impatient, and when I don’t get an answer, I take matters into my own hands – and stumble and fall.
At the source of my unenthusiasm for prayer is a sense of guilt and shame. Because, time and time again, consciously or not, I’ve thought that receiving from God rests on my effort, some special method or discipline that I don’t have. I’ve grown weary in prayer because I don’t think I’m good at it and because I don’t think I know how to do it. So I give it up. And then, my relationship with God seems to deteriorate, so it’s ever-harder to reclaim lost enthusiasm and love, to come to Him again.
I don’t want to pray or study the Word because I think I’m getting it wrong, I don’t know where to begin again, and it seems to yield no fruit. So, you see, I’m in a spiritual rut.
And I don’t think this pattern is isolated to me. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot recently.
I’ve believed a lie that receiving from God rests on my spiritual efforts and exertions. I’ve believed that I need to pray better, longer, more articulate prayers to get an answer, believed that I need to spend hours in arduous Bible study to truly be counted a man of God. I’ve felt far away from that mark. I’ve felt a spiritual fraud, because I don’t have passion for that.
In other words, I’ve lost sight of grace. In a subversive, discrete way, a law of works has crept back into my spiritual life. The dangerous thought has infested my head that by doing more, by working harder, I can somehow get on better terms with God, to leverage an experience from him again.
And when I’ve failed, I’ve grown bitter and impatient.
The truth is, the great men and women of God in the Bible never lost their status as great men and women of God because they underwent periods of spiritual drought, darkness and doubt. Rather, what made them great men and women of God was simply that they waited. They trusted. They hoped.
They didn’t pray longer or harder or more passionate prayers. They didn’t learn new disciplines or skills to try and exert an answer from God. No. They did something much harder yet more beautiful. They waited in silence. They came to God day by day, hoping, trusting, faithful, simply positioning themselves for the day when the rain came again, so that they would be best placed to receive the shower.
They didn’t fall away at the first sign of difficulty. They didn’t think they were any less connected to God because He didn’t seem to respond to them, or because they didn’t experience Him. Neither did they become self-pitying, self-critical, guilty or ashamed that they were doing something wrong in their spiritual life.
They knew that God would not restrain mercy and abundant, steadfast love from them, would come through again. They knew that though the seasons change, His love remains the same yesterday, today and forever. They knew that silence from heaven was not a sign that God loved them or cared for them any less.
Just because clouds mask the sun, doesn’t mean that the sun isn’t there any longer. On a grey, overcast week, I don’t stop believing that the sun will break through again and that I will experience the warmth of its rays. So it is with God. Though there are dark spiritual clouds overhead, that doesn’t stand to reduce my assertion that the Light is behind them, and that I shall “rejoice and be glad” in the rays of heaven’s laughter once more.
Prayer, I am learning, isn’t a means of exerting an instant fix or experience from God. My faith is far too often founded on fleeting experiences and encounters, and when I don’t get them, I fall away. Faith goes much deeper than that. Faithful prayer does not exist in the kingdom of instant gratification or feel-good experiences.
Rather, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV). Hope obtains to things that cannot be seen – things that have been tasted, maybe, but are still yet to come in fullness. We have but tasted a drizzle of eternity’s waters, but we wait patiently for the day we shall swim and plunge into their depths.
Faithful prayer is not about earning the right to dip in those waters, but rather to cultivate the soil to receive them. The rain will come regardless of whether we work or not. But prayer positions us to soak it up, to fully receive from God when it does. Experiencing God again is not based on any effort of my own. The season of waiting and drought doesn’t diminish my status as a Son of God bought with the precious blood of Christ, loved by the Father.
Rather, what I do in the season of waiting is a formative experience. It is a time for us to make ready the land to receive the rain that we wait patiently for and hope for. Solid faith does not rest on a bundle of gratified experiences, but patient, steadfast, enduring hope that stands beyond the ebbing and waning pull of emotions, and firm in the truth of God’s faithfulness to us.