Sunday, March 26, 2023

Retraining for Godliness

Before anything was even announced, but with certain awareness it was coming, he leapt to the heart of the ring with his arms raised and began to dance in celebration. The bell had rung for the seventh round, and he was ready to go if he had to, but his opponent – the heavyweight boxing champion of the world – had spat out his mouth guard, signaling his forfeit. It was the twenty-fifth of February 1964, and by a technical knock-out, the 8-to-1 underdog Cassius Clay – soon to publicly change his name to Muhammad Ali – had just defeated the unbeatable Sonny Liston, claiming the championship title to shake up the world from that ring in Miami Beach.

But how'd he get there? Ten years earlier, Cassius had been a somewhat scrawny 12-year-old kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, when in October 1954, his brand-new bicycle got stolen. Overwhelmed with indignant rage, Cassius ran across the street to the community center and, told there was a police officer in the basement gym, he went down to report the crime, unable to hold his tongue from making threats against the unknown thief.  Officer Joe Martin – who happened to run a boxing program – encouraged him to sign up to put some skill behind that passion.1 Later, Cassius saw Martin's program featured on local TV, and – eager for televised fame – Cassius joined. Just 85 pounds, he was loud, obnoxious, unruly, and arrogant.2 Martin himself, looking back, said that little Cassius was “just ordinary,” but that he was quick and “easily the hardest worker of any kid I ever taught..., willing to make the sacrifices to achieve something worthwhile.”3 Soon, Cassius started training under both Martin and also with Fred Stoner at a different community center across town, “six days a week.”4 The routine was grueling, with young Cassius running miles each day (sometimes backwards, in army boots, while shadow boxing), doing sit-ups until he felt he'd fall apart, strengthening his midsection with a medicine ball, jumping rope until his legs were exhausted, not to mention the usual boxing exercises. Replacing his soda habit with garlic water, he'd even challenge his own school bus to a race each morning, running alongside it.5

Building on his existing speed and adding muscle and finesse, often training until midnight, Cassius pushed himself through a transformation. It didn't take long until he was winning amateur fights, boxing in the Golden Gloves, and by 1960 he was ready to go to the Summer Olympics in Rome – though his severe fear of flying nearly kept him at bay. There, as Joe Martin observed, “he'd go up to people and shake hands with them, but he had his mind on training. … When I watched him train, he was one of the hardest trainers I'd ever seen.”6 Once he took home the gold medal, he felt ready to go pro. His new set of wealthy backers decided he needed an elite trainer, so they sent him to a boxing camp in California run by former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore. Cassius didn't thrive there, thinking he needed something faster-paced and more social,7 while Archie felt “the boy needed a good spanking, but I wasn't sure who could give it to him.”8 So in December 1960, 18-year-old Cassius moved to Florida to train with Angelo Dundee. Even when observers thought Cassius was all bark and no bite, Angelo felt that Cassius' fervor would overcome his flaws, given time. “Training him was a whole different ballgame from most fighters,” Angelo said. “You didn't have to push. It was like jet propulsion. … I directed him, and made him feel that he was the innovator.”9 A few years later, Cassius was poised to face Sonny Liston, but even then, Cassius trained for endurance with sparring matches lasting a full fifteen rounds, and also studied footage of all Liston's fights, assessing him for weaknesses. Only then was Cassius ready.

It was through immense training that, in his own style and building on his natural drives, Cassius went from a 12-year-old kid complaining about a bike to a 22-year-old heavyweight champion, a legend of boxing – a sport that's been around for thousands of years. And while the Apostle Paul seems to favor running more than boxing as his go-to sport, he uses them both to explain the Christian life. “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). To be a Christian, in Paul's eyes, is to be a spiritual athlete. And that means St. Paul approached the spiritual life in much the same way Cassius Clay approached boxing – and Paul suggests we do the same, because we're on the track, we're in the ring, whether we like it or not.

Paul mentions that, just like an athletic competition, the spiritual life has rules: “An athlete isn't crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). And Paul really emphasizes the importance of training. “Train yourself for godliness,” Paul tells Timothy (1 Timothy 4:7). The word for 'train' Paul uses there is the word for working out in a gym. One modern philosopher writing on athletics explains how “athletic training... allows the athlete to become more fully his or her body, and to become habituated to the appropriate athletic skills.”10 And in much the same way, Paul might say, a Christian needs a training process to become more fully his or her whole soul, and to become habituated to the appropriate soul-skills, or habits.

When I talk about 'habits' here, I'm not just talking about patterns of behavior. I'm talking about inner principles that make those patterns of behavior easier and more natural, and which can be created, shaped, or hindered by patterns of behavior. Habits are these principles that form inside us as ways for our experiences and choices to give shape to our raw potential.11 When Cassius Clay worked on his jab, he was habituating his muscles away from certain ways they were used to moving, in order to habituate them to new ways of moving, so that it'd be easier and more feasible to do that when it counted. Much the same, we're all already habituated to a lot of ways of moving, inside and out. When we have an opinion, that's our mind being habituated to think about that thing a certain way – that's a habit. When we usually have certain emotional responses to certain triggers – say, getting really mad when someone cuts you off in traffic – that shows a habit's at work. Habits give shape to the powers that are in us. When a habit improves a power in us, making it work deftly and reasonably, than we say that habit is a continent or even a virtuous one; while when a habit corrupts a power in us, making it work poorly and unreasonably, then we say that habit is an incontinent or even a vicious one.12

We've been talking all this year about what we were made for, which is to complete our great human journey by reaching the heavenly vision whereby, seeing God as he truly is, we can become like him by sharing his blessed life. Since no power that's naturally in us is up to the task, God has to perfect our nature by grace, making us born again. And when God gives us grace, that forms habits in the soul. God installs theological virtues like faith, hope, and love, and moral virtues like prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit – all of which are habits, inner principles that dispose us to acting in certain ways but don't force us to act those ways. God empowers us and disposes us to believe, hope, love, and act virtuously through what he gives us, right from the very start, and he invites us to actively cooperate in such a way that he roots those habits more deeply and broadly in our lives, so that it changes the way we behave until we're living his life in us.

The trouble is, even when we're saved, it doesn't just dynamite all the good and bad habits we already had. We have plenty of habits, some of which – the bad ones – are at war in us with the habits God created by grace. So God gives you a habit of faith that disposes you to believe in his truth, but you might have already had a habit to doubt, and that's still there. God gives you a habit of temperance that disposes you to shepherd your desires reasonably toward true good, but you might have already had a habit of intemperance that aims your desires less reasonably toward a lesser good, say, a stronger taste for cheese than is healthy for you. God gives you a habit of justice that disposes you to do right by everybody, but you might have already had a habit of injustice that disposes you to favor yourself by a selfish double standard. And the thing is, our bad habits usually feel pretty good to us – so natural, we might identify with them and wonder if we could really be ourselves without them.13

You see how this can be a problem! Vicious or incontinent habits, and the behaviors they lead to, can actually be a real problem for a Christian – and not just because they might discredit your witness. Paul talks about making a shipwreck of your faith (1 Timothy 1:19). Paul talks about his own diligent concern not to “be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Peter says that God has “called us to his own glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3) – that's what we're being called to. If our goal is nothing less than to be transformed to be like God, who has revealed himself in Christ, and if the Bible has a lot to say about the kind of person who can see God, then if we go through life saying we believe but failing to let Jesus actually make us that kind of person – that's risky business. If we remain content to keep bad habits and act out of them, then we might end up losing the fight. Jesus says that only when a disciple is “fully trained” can he be just like his teacher (Luke 6:40).

The author of Hebrews tells us that, for the race we're to run, we have to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). Paul says that “the grace of God has appeared..., training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12). God's grace showed up to take those weights of bad habits off of you, to train you how to renounce them, how to give them up – give up that habit of doubt, that habit of selfishness, that habit of self-justification, that habit of intemperance, and so on, and so on, giving up every habit that doesn't make you a better person, a more Christ-like person. Paul says that, just as “every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25), so “the grace of God has appeared..., training us... to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Peter adds: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love – for if these things are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. … Be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these things, you will never fail, for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8, 10-11).

So what we need to do is let the grace of God train us in self-control and godliness, the things that flower fully in love. We need to let God's grace and our every effort work together to make our virtues full and our vices gone, and in that way find entrance to the eternal kingdom where we can see God as he is. That means we need to train our lives, like Cassius Clay as he sought to remake himself into a heavyweight champion. We need to recover from the bad habits that corrupt our inward powers and dispose us toward acting in ungodly and unfruitful ways, and increase good habits that improve our inward powers and dispose us toward acting in godly and fruitful ways. But as any new year's resolution has taught us, sheer willpower doesn't cut muster for this.14

First, we've got to figure out what current unfruitful behavior we want to change, what bad habit might be operating in us – and that's not always easy, because it's hard to look at ourselves, and a lot of us may find we're comfortable in our weaknesses and corruptions, we're scared to change.15 But when you know you need change and you've figured out what needs to change, give some thought to what might usually trigger the behavior you need to stop. For instance, if the behavior is lashing out defensively when you get criticized, what might be going on behind that, and what conditions prompt that?16 Third, when you meet those same cues in those same contexts, what new behavior do you want to do instead, and what kind of habit would make it come more naturally?17 Instead of self-justifying or angry lashing out, what do you want to do instead when you face criticism? Hopefully, something humble, peaceable, fair-minded – and that means working on the virtuous habit of fortitude. Fourth, decide what would help you feel a sense of reward as you begin to do that new behavior. It's best if it's an intrinsic reward, like a sense of satisfaction and happiness when you're good to others, but if it's got to be an extrinsic reward – say, a favorite cookie every time you take criticism in stride – that's at least a good idea to start with.18 From this, lay out a reasonable and flexible plan, picture yourself succeeding and believe in that hope, and get started with the simplest first step you can to practice.19

After taking the first step toward crowding out the old habit by strengthening the good habit God's grace put in you, the next thing to do is build endurance. Hebrews says to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), and Paul says, “I pummel my body and enslave it” for the sake of his self-control and endurance (1 Corinthians 9:27). Stick with it, don't lose resolve. Cassius Clay had to build stamina in and out of the ring, with 15-round sparring matches before facing Sonny Liston; and the same is true for us when we're working on training our lives and souls. Build endurance in virtue. Invest time and energy in seeking virtue.

You'll also want to build skillfulness in deliberately pursuing virtue. “I do not run aimlessly,” says Paul, and “I do not box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). Running aimlessly and boxing the air are activities, sure, but don't demand the finesse of actually staying on course, actually landing the punch. Take it from Cassius Clay, take it from Paul: those things take skill. So do all good habits. The more you do good, the more kinds of good you do, the stronger your inclination toward goodness grows.20 The more often you forgive, the more kinds of things you practice forgiving, you get better at forgiving, find it easier to forgive, find yourself able to forgive bigger and bigger things – and so your forgiveness comes to look more like God's forgiveness, your goodness comes to look more like God's goodness, your love comes to look more like God's love.

On the way to that, it's best to have mentorship and friendship. Jesus emphasized that “everyone, when he is fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40) – which presumes that, to become fully trained, you'll need a teacher! If Cassius Clay had come up with his own training regimen at home, but never gotten input from Joe Martin or Fred Stoner or Archie Moore or Angelo Dundee, I doubt he would've ever become a champion. And if we come up with our own spiritual regimen but have no soul-trainer, we're likely to fall short. Obviously, Christ and the Holy Spirit are our ultimate teachers and trainers – but God gives us many other models of excellence, as well as people still living on earth who can mentor us and direct us. Just the same, you're going to need friends to encourage you, assist you, and challenge you. Cassius Clay had to spar against Joe Martin's other students, then other amateurs, then other professionals, as an essential part of his training. And we need a cheering crowd and sparring partners of the soul. Hebrews tells us that past champions of the life of faith make up a “great cloud of witnesses” watching our contest, cheering us on and helping from the sidelines (Hebrews 12:1). And here on earth, we have other Christians to co-train with. That spiritual friendship is essential.21 So as you go, as you train, as you fight the good fight, remember that you're not alone. And not only do you have those mentors and friends, but – to paraphrase one early Christian – it may be you who's got to throw the punch, but it's Christ who lands the punch.22 Ultimately, it's “God who gives us the victory” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Finally, keep your eyes on the prize. From the very outset, Cassius Clay knew he wanted the champion title – he pictured himself getting it, even when he was barely a beginner. Why should we have any less focus on our prize, which is the richness of holiness, which is eternal life, which is beholding God? “Bodily training is of some value,” Paul says – all the work Cassius Clay put in was of some value – “but godliness is of value in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8). Physical athletes exercise, train, and compete for “a perishable wreath,” a title and trophy that don't last, but those who train in the godliness of holy love and the other virtues are competing for an “imperishable” prize (1 Corinthians 9:25). That's why godliness “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Consider the prize we're after – it's no participation trophy; it's for victors, for champs, be you heavyweight or flyweight – “so run that you may obtain it!” (1 Corinthians 9:24).

That's what Lent is all about, with this extra prayer and fasting and almsgiving being a chance to disrupt old bad habits and remind us to pursue the prize while there's still time, and to take seriously the fight we're in for, “for to this end we toil and strive” (1 Timothy 4:10). One of Cassius Clay's early sparring partners, who also went on to become a heavyweight champion, said of him in those early days: “He wanted to box, and he wanted to be great, and that's what his life was all about.”23 May it be said to each of us, in the end: “You wanted to love, and you wanted to be godly and virtuous and holy, and that's what your life was all about.” In Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Cloak of Darkness

She was in her late forties when it all seemed to start crumbling within. Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Macedonia, she'd had first a fascination, then a burning passion, to serve God as a missionary, bringing his hope and love to those who needed to meet Jesus in a concrete way. And now, here she was, a quarter of the way around the world, pouring out her life for God in the service of his poor and ill. Not only had she gone into this radical surrender to service, but her mission had gathered others as well, all looking to her as their spiritual example. “If only they knew,” she thought to herself. She certainly didn't feel inwardly like a role model.

Once, God had seemed real enough to reach out and touch. She'd heard his voice. She'd called him her friend. Now she called him her 'Absent One.' “There is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God,” she wrote.1 “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no one on whom I can cling, no, not one. … Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”2 “In my soul, I just feel that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”3 “Heaven from every side is closed.”4 “Darkness is such that I really do not see … The place of God in my soul is blank.”5

Those were not the words of a failure or a spiritual drop-out. They were the words of Mother Teresa, not just for a season, but prolonged over years and years. And while we Evangelicals might be tempted to instinctively judge her – or anyone who feels that emptiness inside – as not the saint she's reputed to be, there's the thorny complication that the psalmists in our own Bible say things that sound just like that. “How long, O God?” asks one of them. “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Don't reject us forever! Why do you hide your face?” (Psalm 44:23-24). “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). Show any one of those psalmists the writings of Mother Teresa, and they nod with a real understanding of that pain of loss, of separation, of perplexing absence and emptiness. The psalmists hadn't asked those pained questions on a lark. They asked God why he was hidden because they couldn't sense him. They asked why their soul had been cast aside because they felt abandoned and forgotten in the dark.

These past few Lenten Sundays, we've been taking a look at some of the ways in which our spiritual lives might meet a real struggle – obstacles presented to our spiritual activities, like a sense of dryness, like distraction, and so on. But now we come to the granddaddy of spiritual struggles. What if you've just lost your sense of God? What if he seems nowhere to be found? Or what if, when you pray, it feels like you're throwing words up in the air and watching them smack the ceiling and come crashing back down? What if praying feels like talking to yourself with extra steps? The appearance of God's absence, the darkness and emptiness, the temptation to doubt whether he's available to you or even real at all – now that would lend itself to a spiritual struggle.

And, okay, maybe that's not you. Maybe that's never been you. Maybe God has always been completely there, totally obvious, to the eyes and ears of your heart. Maybe you just can't identify with this. That's great. But for others, and maybe some of you here this morning, it isn't so. Maybe you wrestle with those doubts, maybe you can't find and perceive God, maybe your spiritual activities go unconsoled. Maybe you know what the psalmist meant when he said, “Darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:18). I know I've been there. When I read those psalms, when I hear Mother Teresa, I've known those doubts and questions and fears and pains, I've known that emptiness and that darkness and that crushing absence. If you've been there, you are far, far from alone.6

Before we get to explaining that experience, there's a reminder I want to give you first. In times like the ones we're talking about, it may be tempting to doubt that there is a God, to have a sneaking suspicion that above us is an empty sky. But, irrespective of what you may feel or not feel, hear or not hear, see or not see, there is a God. It's just that he isn't one of the things inside the universe. He's over and above the creation he made, and under it, too, at its roots, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). It's in him that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Everything you see around you is something that could have not existed. There's a difference between what it is and that it is. But in God, what he is and that he is are the exact same thing. God is Infinite Existence, the one who essentially just is Existence. “I Am That I Am,” is how he defined himself at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). And since God is Infinite Existence, everything else that exists does so by borrowing existence from God, by sharing what he generously shares with it.7 That's why, as Paul said, “he is actually not far from each one of us,” no matter who or what we are (Acts 17:27). Get to the root of your very existence, and God is there, closer to you than you are. Once we understand, then we know God exists and isn't absent. How do you know? You exist, and existing means borrowing existence from God, who is present at the root of you. He carries you around, sustaining you above the abyss of non-being, and that's an act of love. It's his love that wills you into existence at every moment, that chooses to share existence with you. God's reality and God's love are, in that sense, the most obvious facts about the universe or your life.8

With that assurance in mind, there are at least nine possible explanations for why you sometimes might feel like God is absent, why you might not be able to perceive him when you pray or read your Bible or come to church or just go about your daily life. The first of those reasons could be unrepented sin. Isaiah says to some people in his day, “Your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). If we're carrying a burden of sin that we haven't set down, then it can act as logs in our eyes and plugs in our ears. Spiritually, it can mess with our perception, and block God from view. Micah says something similar, that “they will cry to the LORD, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil” (Micah 3:4). If our actions set us at odds with God, he might himself choose to veil himself from our perception. In either case, the obvious solution is to repent.

A similar second reason why God might seem absent would be approaching with a wrong attitude. In Proverbs, it's said: “Because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof..., they will seek me diligently, but will not find me” (Proverbs 1:25, 28). Hosea wrote that “with their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them” (Hosea 5:6). And Jesus himself gave thanks to his Father for having “hidden these things from the 'wise and understanding'” (Luke 10:21). Suppose there's a person who's looking for God, but coming with a mistrustful heart, or an angry heart. Suppose there's a person who's determined to judge any encounter with God by his or her own standard. Well, God's goal isn't just to make himself known. His goal is to turn us into people of pure love. And it's possible that, if we found God with the wrong attitude, we'd become less loving, not more. Where that's the case, it would make sense, in light of his goal, for him to withdraw from view.9 The same is true if we're prone to take God for granted. If we are, then his silence could be a wake-up call for our own good, to break our pride or our complacency.10

Those first two reasons are, admittedly, things where it's sort of our fault if God seems absent. But they aren't all like that. There's a third reason God might seem absent, and that has to do with our body, our brain. Don't forget, we aren't just spiritual people, we're physical people, and the two are all tangled up together. There are areas in our brains that seem connected to religious experience. Experiments have been done with it, to see if those can be triggered artificially. So, if something gets in the way of those brain areas functioning well, then unless a miracle occurs to bypass that faulty system, our soul might have trouble recognizing God. Maybe this happens sometimes in depression.11 It can certainly happen in dementia. I once read a memoir by a pastor who got diagnosed with Alzheimer's, who wrote: “This personal and tender relationship that I had with the Lord was no longer there. … O God, I cannot see you through the darkness that fills my mind and so terrorizes me, but please see me and take care of me in my absolute confusion.”12 Such brain issues can artificially obscure him from view, though he's there.

In that, I'm reminded of the story of Bartimaeus from the Gospels. He was that blind beggar at Jericho, sitting roadside, when he caught a rumor that Jesus would soon be passing by (Mark 10:46-47). Now, Bartimaeus couldn't see Jesus. To him, looking toward Jesus and looking away from Jesus were indistinguishable. But in spite of the darkness, Bartimaeus was convinced Jesus must be there, or at least might be there, even though the impairment in his body obscured Jesus from his senses. So he kept crying out (Mark 10:47-48). When Jesus got close, it wasn't even his voice that Bartimaeus heard; it was the disciples, telling him Jesus was speaking, even when Bartimaeus couldn't hear it (Mark 10:49). Believing, Bartimaeus leapt into what to him was a blank void, groping his way until he reached Jesus (Mark 10:50-51). But until a miracle happened, Bartimaeus' body kept him from perceiving the Lord who really was present to him, attentive to him. So it can be for us.

But apart from brain conditions, a fourth explanation enters play when we consider other kinds of interference. People today aren't the same as they used to be even a few centuries ago. Before the modern era, people looked in the mirror and saw fuzzy boundaries between self and world; they looked to nature and saw acts of God, looked at their kingdoms and saw organic realities rooted in higher purpose, looked around at a world obviously charged with invisible powers – and this all made sense, especially with no major alternative story telling them they could be fulfilled in a godless universe. But in the past five centuries, all that has changed. People look in the mirror and see a self sharply bounded from the disenchanted world outside. Our education teaches nature as if it were a machine system. Our society looks like a human undertaking, however noble its principles. And we can't forget there's a popular alternative story that claims to fulfill human life without God.13 Growing up in this world, we can imagine what it'd be like to disbelieve, so even when we do believe, it feels more vulnerable, because it's a conscious effort where once it wasn't.14 To add to that, we've become increasingly reliant on technologies that promise control of the world – so we see the world as that which, in principle, we can observe and manipulate. This might make us to understand 'reality' in ways that obstruct our perceiving God as real.15

So all those influences can interfere with our spiritual perception when we pray. But we're also so designed that even without any particular neurological, psychological, cultural, or environmental blocks to perceiving God, it's still something that often asks skill from us. Put a cuneiform tablet from ancient Babylon in front of me, and if I didn't recognize it, I might not even understand that it was writing, let alone know what it means. But if I study and practice, then one day I might see the same tablet and see the meaning right on its surface. Just like that, learning to perceive God is something we might need to practice, maybe through consistency in prayer, and meditating on God, and practicing spiritual disciplines of the type we aim to discuss next Sunday.16 The point here is that this fifth possible explanation for why you might pray and not detect God there is that it might call for some disciplined practice before you can learn how to recognize him, notice him, perceive him.

Then, there's a sixth reason: maybe God deliberately makes himself appear absent for the purpose of training us in patient faith. Isaiah says how God is “a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15), so that Isaiah personally had to declare, “I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face..., and I will hope in him” (Isaiah 8:17). Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), and Peter praises those who don't let their imperception get in the way of believing and loving Jesus: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice...” (1 Peter 1:8). Faith in the darkness is learning to rely on what God has already done, and celebrate it as sufficient to outlast this season of unseeing.17 And the point of this is to help us strengthen our faith and our patience – it's something good for us, and that benefit is why God may hide from view a lot of the time.18 Mary and Martha couldn't understand Jesus' absence when Lazarus was dying, why Jesus hid himself far away – but it was to work a greater miracle, a greater gift.19

There's a seventh explanation that might come into play when God seems absent to you, and that's that God has chosen to meet you in the dark for your own protection, for the sake of a kind of special intimacy. When Moses went up the mountain, he was confronted there by “the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Then, when the tabernacle was ready, “the LORD descended in a cloud and stood with him there” (Exodus 34:5). Even Aaron, as high priest, was warned not to barge in, “for I will appear in a cloud over the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2). And when Solomon dedicated the First Temple, what happened? “A cloud filled the House of the LORD (1 Kings 8:10), which Solomon explained by saying: “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:12). Hey, do you see a pattern? “He made darkness his covering” (Psalm 18:11), perhaps because, as he told Moses, “man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Sometimes, God wants to do intimate work on us, and just like a surgeon might sedate you or at least anesthetize you and put up a curtain so you can't see him at work, so God makes our spiritual senses fail and meets us, spiritually, in a cloud of thick darkness, like an intimate night. Entering the dark cloud is then actually getting closer to God, not farther away. “One who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and... believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.”20

But then, after Moses spent time in the thick darkness, he came down and, without even knowing it, his face was shining brilliant light (Exodus 34:29), to the point where his own brother Aaron was scared (Exodus 34:30). The darkness Moses saw was, in reality, making him shine, because the apparent darkness was brightness. And this is our eighth explanation. Sometimes, a light can be so intense that it blinds us and makes things seem dark – or a sound can be so intense that it deafens us and makes things seem quiet. Just so, when God opens himself in ways that press the limits of our ability to receive, the eyes of our heart see his brightest light as a darkness, the ears of our heart hear his loudest voice as a silence. So if God seems absent or distant, it may be that he's actually gotten so close that you're overwhelmed, left to hold on in faith while your spiritual senses adjust.21

Now we're in a realm of paradox, and the last explanation strikes us as even weirder. It may be that God's own Infinite Existence is why we think we can't see or hear God. God is so dynamic that it looks to us like he's just static, standing still, because, in fact, infinite motion is perceptually identical to zero motion. That silence you think is God's absence? It might be the purest expression of God's voice, uttering an infinite number of 'I love yous' so infinitely fast and unceasingly that, to your ears, they're the background noise of the universe, that which Elijah heard simply as a “sound of fine silence” (1 Kings 19:12). That dark void you think is God's absence? It might be the direct sight of God's unveiled face, so vast that in it's bottomless we've never seen anything else – what one spiritual master called “the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.”22 That emptiness you feel inside? It might be the intimacy of the cross fixed in God's heart.23

Mother Teresa, praying for hours alone in the streets when she didn't think she was praying, eventually came to say: “For the first time in this eleven years, I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is part – a very, very small part – of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth. … More than ever, I surrender myself to him.”24 “I am not alone. I have his darkness. I have his pain. … I know I have Jesus in that unbroken union...”25 She came to recognize the darkness, not as God's absence, but as his mysterious holy presence, the presence of a crucified Christ who is Infinite Existence unimaginably made flesh. Of course, she knew – and we know – that when at last we reach heaven, we'll “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), see him more vibrantly than our present awareness of anything around or within us. But until then, this cloak of darkness, or even God's own dark face and silent voice, may sometimes distress us with fears of his distance, absence, even falsity or unreality. But he's never even so much as an atom's width away. One day you'll see. Until then, we can only heed the counsel of the Apostle Peter, to “believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9), in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Scattered Like Ashes

Three years earlier, the Holy Spirit had led him out of the river, straight to the desert. For forty days he fasted. And, I have to think, for forty days he prayed. How could he not? Surely, in the desert, he prayed. Surely, in the desert, he recited scripture he'd memorized, scriptures from Israel in the desert no doubt. But into this intruded the devil, bringing with him at least the three temptations recorded in the Gospels. What was Jesus doing when the devil made himself known? Perhaps the devil interrupted Jesus' prayers (Mark 1:12-13).

That was three years ago. Now, Jesus led his disciples, not into a sunny desert, but into a dark garden, an olive grove. Along the way, as their hymn drew to its end, he warned them of the sharp crisis coming upon them so shortly, that they'd fall away and scatter when he was stricken, but that he'd be raised up and meet them again (Mark 14:26-27). Reaching Gethsemane, he bade most disciples sit guard and wait, as he brought just three deeper with him, urging them to keep vigil into the dead of night, praying as a greater darkness fell (Mark 14:32-35). But their vigil fell short. Their bodies and brains were worn out. Their minds wandered from the central need at hand. Distracted, they drifted off, and Jesus found them, again and again, asleep in his hour of greatest need (Mark 14:37-38, 40-41). Meanwhile, if the desert had seen Jesus' prayer assailed by temptation, the garden saw it faced with disturbance. As he neared the place of prayer, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). His soul was so sad, it was a terminal condition all on its own (Mark 14:34).

The rest of the story, we know. As his disciples scattered in terror, Jesus was taken to the cross, with human cruelty ultimately being harnessed to fulfill his Father's will, by this lethal means to bring salvation by sacrifice. Rising from the dead on the third day, the Lord Jesus met his disciples just as he'd promised. From their day onward, the Church continued to face persecution, but in between and afterwards, some Christians were desperate for greater closeness with God in prayer, yearning to walk with Jesus in his fasting, to kneel with him in the garden. So one here, one there, moved to the fringes of civilization, devoting themselves to spiritual activities at the expense of all we'd call ordinary life. They started just at the edge of town, but then moved deeper and deeper into the desert, to make all of life a Lent. There they experimented with how far the pursuit of pure spirituality could go – and they studied and spoke on all the obstacles a serious Christian could face.

Among these 'Desert Fathers,' there was Anthony, one of the first to press deliberately beyond the edge of his Egyptian village into a true no-man's-land. When he first committed himself to a life of full-time prayer, his mind was assailed recurrently with all sorts of other thoughts – wistfulness, worry, desire. As neither distraction nor temptation dissuaded him, as he persisted in prayer, the devil finally resorted to attacking Anthony in more audible and visible ways – all of which Anthony fended off. Then, and only then, did Anthony pierce the depths of the desert.1 Years went by, and among the disciples and visitors who approached him was a teenage boy from Palestine named Hilarion. For two months, Hilarion observed Anthony's spiritual life. Hilarion resolved to imitate him. But even he, now and then, found his mind “distracted from prayer by some thought or other.”2

Far north, in Turkey, a young man named Basil, wealthy grandson of a martyred grandpa, was baptized not long after Anthony died. After a world tour to meet people like Hilarion, Basil went home to imitate that life of self-denial there. Basil was so enthusiastic about how blessed it'd be to “imitate on earth the choirs of angels: hastening at break of day to pray, to glorify the Creator with hymns and songs, and, when the sun is brightly shining and we turn to our tasks, to accompany them everywhere with prayer.”3 In this way, “we become in a special manner temples of God when earthly thoughts cease to interrupt our continual remembrance of him.”4 But from the outset, Basil mourned that “although I've left the distractions of the city..., I haven't yet succeeded in forsaking myself. … Since we carry around with us our innate passions, we're everywhere subject to the same disturbances; therefore, we have not profited much from this solitude.”5

Meanwhile, back in the Egyptian desert, the movement Anthony inspired was swelling with many who devoted themselves to full-time prayer and fasting. There was Macarius, who tried to keep his mind totally on God for five days straight. Locking his door, he began to contemplate God so intensely that a demon burned up his room in outrage. But “in the end,” Macarius said, “I desisted on the third day, without having succeeded in making my mind undistracted.”6 And then there was Agathon, who even from his youth gained a reputation for his spirituality. Yet in his old age, when his disciples asked him what part of the Christian life was hardest, Agathon answered: “I reckon there is no exertion like praying to God without distraction … Prayer requires struggle until the last breath.”7 That same sentiment was echoed by Evagrius. Ordained by Basil, he became a disciple of Macarius. In his short book on the joys and trials of prayer, he wrote honestly about the “concerns and considerations that come” to “trouble and disturb you so as to slacken your intensity.”8

Now, you and I probably don't need to keep vigil in a garden, or move out to the desert, to find that Anthony, Hilarion, Basil, Agathon, Macarius, Evagrius, and those who followed were right about some of this stuff. This Lent, we've started looking at some of the obstacles that crop up as we try to begin or persist in a spiritual activity – prayer, reading Scripture, worshipping in church, and so on. Last week, our focus was on dryness. But this week, we face new obstacles. One of those is when disturbance enters the soul. You try something spiritual, but you just feel troubled, restless, fidgety.9 Another obstacle is temptation. You try to do something spiritual, but you find yourself pulled toward other activities, sinful or not, as a way of putting off spiritual activities for another time.10 And finally, there's this third obstacle, distraction. Thoughts and feelings intrude and interrupt your spiritual activities, or your mind wanders, loses focus, in ways that steal your savor. “To say we're distracted,” it's been said, “is to admit that... something we value less is diverting our efforts from something we value more (or should),” or else we find ourselves “waylaid by dissipated consciousness.”11

Now, sometimes these obstacles come from our circumstances or environment. John Climacus, a later desert monks, wrote that even “a minor concern interferes with stillness.”12 And ain't that the truth! If there's a lot of noise around you, it's harder to pray, read Scripture, worship, etc. The same's true if you've got noise inside, as from personal trials. Any of those can disrupt or derail the refreshment you're hoping to find. These obstacles can also come from what one monk called “the weakness of the body.”13 That's what happened to the disciples in Gethsemane, “for their eyes were heavy” (Matthew 26:43). The spirit may have been willing, but the flesh was so drowsy as to overcome their spiritual effort (Mark 14:38). Other times, it's not the natural impulses of the body but of the mind that throw up the obstacles. Evagrius pointed out that “the mind has a strong natural tendency to be plundered by the memory at the time of prayer.”14 “The human mind is unable to remain aloft for long,” so that “while praying..., suddenly it wanders off through weakness.”15

Life circumstances, environment, natural weakness of body and mind... and as if that weren't enough, we have spiritual enemies. Evagrius warned that “if you cultivate the practice of prayer, be prepared for the incursions of demons.”16 Anthony warned of “evil spirits tempting us out of envy and seeking to divert those who attempt to sanctify themselves.”17 Evagrius explained that “the demon is very jealous of the person at prayer and uses every trick to frustrate his purpose... so he can impede his excellent course and his setting out towards God.”18

So, whether the origin is natural or spiritual, you probably know what some of this feels like. Maybe when you try to sit down and read the Bible, you find yourself mentally disengaging from what God is saying in the text. Maybe when you kneel to pray, you're overcome with difficult or distracting thoughts amidst the prayer. Maybe when you lay out a plan for your spiritual growth, you face sudden onsets of temptations, or it becomes so easy to think of things you'd rather do or feel like you have to get done first before you can pray. Maybe you want to come to church, but Sunday mornings it's even harder to get out of bed than on other days for some reason. Or you do come to church, but you find yourself nodding off during the sermon, or checking your watch, or thinking mainly about lunch. These are the sorts of distractions and temptations that hinder spiritual activities. And John Climacus warns that our spiritual activities may be “tarnished when we stand before God, our minds seething with irrelevancies.”19 It's not good for us to surrender to these disturbances, temptations, distractions.

Instead of surrendering, though, God means for us to face these obstacles. And that begins before they begin. For starters, resist temptations, especially the sinful ones, right off the bat. They get weaker when they go unfed. Don't make a habit of sin, or of easily chasing distractions, because doing so makes it harder to stay engaged with God. Then there are those other natural factors of weakness. You can try to minimize their interference. Macarius once tried to conquer his urges to sleep, but admitted that if he'd continued, “my brain would've been so dessicated that eventually I'd have been driven to distraction.”20 One pastor I know of is fond of the phrase “Sunday morning church is a Saturday night decision.” Try to be well-rested before you get here.

Before you start a spiritual activity, try to calm yourself and clear your mind first. John Cassian explained that “because of the workings of memory, whatever has preoccupied our mind before the time of prayer must of necessity intrude on our actual prayers.”21 So Evagrius suggested: “Strive to have your mind stand deaf and dumb at the time of prayer, and you will be able to pray.”22 Then, center yourself on God at the outset of your spiritual activity, and set aside other preoccupations as far as possible.23 John Climacus warned that “someone who is occupied with some task and continues with it at the hour of prayer is being fooled by the demons.”24 As you proceed, try to keep cultivating that attentiveness to God's active involvement. When someone asked Basil how to reach undistracted prayer, he said: “Through being fully persuaded that God is before one's eyes.”25

As you go, likely you'll notice your focus begin to slip, or other thoughts intrude, or your mind wander. When you do, first of all, with an admission that what we're facing is normal, not some glaring hole in our heart. One old monk said that “not being distracted... belongs only to those who have purified senses, whereas we are still weak.”26 “Even holy men sometimes suffer from a wandering of the mind when they pray.”27 It happens. But as you notice it, nip it in the bud – “prick yourself when you notice this temptation arising.”28 Then, whatever the case, ask God for help. Evagrius suggested to “pray first to be purified from the passions; second, to be delivered from ignorance and forgetfulness; and third, from all temptation and abandonment.”29

If your attention wavers, breathe deep and know that even an inattentive spiritual act isn't totally fruitless, only reduced – it's still worth showing up, still worth going on, even if you're not fully in it.30 And understand that pressing forward in perseverance is part of what Jesus meant when he said to carry your cross and follow him. “If a person would gain spiritual freedom and not be continually troubled, let him begin by not being afraid of the cross, and he will find that the Lord will help him bear it.”31 Pushing forward, try to steer yourself back to attentiveness. The old monks said that “if you are praying to God and become distracted, struggle until you begin praying without distraction.32” For “the soul must be restrained from all meandering... so that it may rise bit by bit to the contemplation of God.”33 “Stability cannot be obtained except by a continuous effort.”34

Where possible, you might break down your spiritual activities into smaller bites. Evagrius recommended that “in times of temptations..., use a short and intense prayer.”35 John Cassian explained that “the reason why our prayers ought to be frequent and brief is in case the enemy, who is out to trap us, should slip a distraction to us if ever we are long-drawn-out.”36 And where possible, you might mix up your spiritual activities. Basil said that “we consider it a help when there is diversity and variety in the prayers and psalms at the assigned hours, because somehow, when there is monotony, the soul wearies more readily and becomes a prey to distraction, but when there is change and variety..., its desire is refreshed and its vigilance restored.”37

As you press on, meditate on the live possibility that your challenges are spiritual warfare. If you can't refocus out of sheer desire for God, do it out of stubborn spite at the devil. Anthony said that “the more evil spirits do such things, the more we should intensify our... exercises against them.”38 And meditate on how you don't go to war alone. After Jesus faced temptation in the desert, “the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13). After Jesus endured disturbance in the garden, “an angel from heaven” was “strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). And Evagrius taught that the same happens, unseen, to you in spiritual activities: “The holy angels encourage us in prayer and stand present with us, at the same time rejoicing and praying on our behalf. If, then, we grow careless and admit contrary thoughts, we vex them greatly, because they struggle so hard on our behalf...”39

Finally, as you finish your spiritual activity – prayer, Bible reading, church, or something else – and you know that you couldn't stay as fully engaged as would've been best for you, you can balance it out by turning to God for mercy on your lapses. “Since we are weak, persist to the end of your prayer, then prick your heart and say with compunction: 'Lord, have mercy on me and forgive all of my offenses.'”40 And so, calling your mind back to God, “run toward the mercy of God, for he is compassionate and awaits us like that prodigal son.”41 But take heart that, even when you feel like you're just too burdened and distracted to keep focused, your mind can be implicitly on God when you live well and do what's right, “for having a commandment and spending time to keep it constitute both obedience and remembrance of God.”42

Disturbance, temptation, and distraction are real challenges you and I face when we try to seek God, whether in prayer, scripture, church, or other spiritual activities. These things should annoy us, because while they might be normal, they do rob us of the refreshment and progress God ultimately wants us to have – and if we give in to them, we might slow down or stop our progress. But with God's grace and a wise game-plan, we can pursue a course that rises above these obstacles and presses onward on this great human journey toward the face of God. I'll give Evagrius the last word here: “Blessed is the mind which prays without distraction and acquires an ever greater longing for God.”43 May we come closer and closer to such minds and hearts, in Jesus' name.

Almightily merciful God and Father, from eternity you chose our creation, from eternity you willed our redemption, in your eternity you think of us and love us, for if for even a millisecond you paid us no attention, we would cease to exist.  If your eye is on the sparrow, certainly not one hair on our heads escapes your thoughtful notice.  Yet we confess that we find it hard to think of you, pray to you, meditate on you, do actions that directly connect us to you, even a fraction so much as you think of us.  Cure us of these weaknesses, deliver us from temptations, shield us from disturbances and distractions, so that we may indeed live on earth like angels, doing your will here as in heaven above, and keep our praying and reading and singing and serving fixated purely and gloriously on you.  Have mercy on us and bear with us in our lapses of attention, Lord.  Favor us with your all-surpassing kindness, and guide your minds, hearts, and souls to your contemplation so that we may practice heaven even now in all our spiritual acts and attitudes.  In this way, raise us into truer disciples who imitate Jesus, in whose name we plead for this grace.  Amen.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Parched and Aimless

It sure gets dry out in the desert. The children of Israel learned that the hard way, with the sun beating down on them with a maddening ferocity. Through those hot days, through those cold nights, one thing was a constant: it was dry. Before and after Sinai, we read again and again how “there was no water” (Exodus 17:2; Numbers 20:2). Looking back, Moses described “the great and terrifying desert, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and the thirsty ground where there was no water” (Deuteronomy 8:15). It's dry and dangerous in that desert.

Centuries later, Jesus would symbolically step back into Israel's old shoes, returning to the “great and terrifying desert” so as to rewrite history. Just as Israel lived in that desert for forty years, so Jesus spent forty days and forty nights depriving himself in a dry place, bringing a water supply no doubt but perhaps having to ration it carefully, or only periodically venturing to a water source. Likely, there wasn't all that much to look at, either. Aesthetically pleasing in its simplicity at first, the desert can become dull, especially in its loneliness and its emphatic sameness. I don't doubt that the desert was itself a trial. Each Lent, we have the opportunity to join our Lord in his desert, sharing in his bodily self-denial in even just a token way, with our own light fasting.

But sometimes, in our lives, we find that the desert isn't simply 'out there.' Sometimes, it's 'in here.' Sometimes we find that we're in a spiritual desert – a dry place in life, lonely and dull and dry. Job experienced it himself, when he pictured how “if God withholds the waters, they dry up” (Job 12:15), and people having to “wander in a trackless waste” (Job 12:24). Job meditated on “that which is tasteless,” for which he'd lost his appetite (Job 6:6-7). Dry, tasteless, trackless – the sands blowing over your own footprints to keep everything so unchanged that you can't even orient yourself by distinguishing where you've been and where you're headed.

This year, we've been discussing our 'great human journey,' as we've called it – the quest every human is born to be on, which is to grow in such a way as to achieve the vision of God as he is, which changes us to be like him somehow. That journey's only possible under supernatural power as given by grace. And since that journey is fundamentally about developing a relationship with God, some indispensable steps on the journey are taken by spiritual activities – activities that directly relate to your relationship with God. That includes things like prayer (which is talking to God), reading or hearing his word (which is listening to God), coming to church to worship (which is spending a special kind of time with God), and so forth. Carrying out spiritual activities like these is a necessary way of advancing on the great human journey. And in some cases, we can tell. We feel ourselves being drawn closer to God. We have a sense of his presence. We feel ourselves lifted upward, feel our souls swell, feel a sense of refreshment and pleasure in him. We come to look forward to these activities, to crave them, to consider them some of our essential joys in life. We experience them as nourishing and consoling.

Sometimes. Sometimes that's how it is. But other times, spiritual activities might seem like a spiritual desert – dry, dull, lonely, tasteless, trackless. It's possible that you could pray, that you could open the Bible, that you could come to church, and your experience would be one in which you feel parched and aimless. There may be seasons in your life – maybe more than a season – where you find it hard to muster up an interest in spiritual activities, or energy for them, because your soul feels so parched and aimless that you can't imagine that they'd bring it a needed refreshment, and you can't seem to motivate yourself to peer over that dune in quest of an oasis again. In these seasons, even when you do pray or read your Bible or come to church, you might be bored of it, tired of it, find it a slog to push through, like trudging through the dry sands of the desert – barely making headway, unsure where you're going, unable to even look back and find evidence of progress.

Today and the next few Sundays of Lent, we're going to be talking about some of the struggles you might face in your spiritual life – things that might interfere with spiritual activities, and therefore with progress on your great human journey. And one of those struggles – a pretty common one – is this desert-like dryness. Dry prayer, dry reading, dry churchgoing, dry this, dry that – has that ever been you? Have you ever found it difficult to motivate yourself because of how dry you were finding it, how weak you felt from the desert?

If so, you're not alone – even if you worry that you are. There are actually a lot of factors that can cause these kinds of spiritual dryness, all of which might make it much more difficult to progress through spiritual activities in the way we're supposed to. This morning, let's talk about a few causes of dryness and how to deal with them.

So, let's say that you're finding yourself in one of those dry seasons – prayer, church, Bible: none of them feel so desirable, none of them refresh much, all of them feel dry to you. Well, before we even look at other causes for dryness in spiritual activities, there's one cause worth investigating first, before any of the others: sin. Maybe you've done something you shouldn't, embraced attitudes you shouldn't. Maybe you stole, you lied, you cheated on someone or something, and it weighs on your conscience – or, what's worse, you can't feel your conscience anymore. Maybe you were wronged but refuse to forgive. Maybe you cling to some anger or prejudice. Maybe you indulge your greed, or live by your pride.1 Stubbornly, whatever your vice, whatever your sin, you refuse to resolve it. If that's a real part of your life, then obviously it wouldn't be surprising if you'd experience spiritual activities as dry, would it? If you don't want to work on yourself, then it makes sense you'd develop an inward aversion to the Bible, which can be pretty pointed on the issue of sin. It makes sense you'd feel a sense of discomfort in church, or find it hard to motivate yourself to prayer.

Last Sunday, we devoted ourselves to the practices of self-examination and confession. Put to use here what you learned there about how to do that. Ask God's help, pick a thorough rubric like the ten commandments or the seven deadly sins, and take careful stock of your life. If there are any tender spots you shy away from, fix those first by confession and repentance from your sins. That might just be what lifts the dryness.

Or it might not. There are other reasons for feeling spiritually dry besides sin. We like to pretend our spiritual lives and our physical lives are two fundamentally separate things. But they aren't. God made us as whole beings, with body and soul thoroughly and radically intertwined into each other. Untangling them can't be done – nor should it. That's how we're made to be. This means that our physical health and emotional health and spiritual health have a tendency to get tangled up in each other too. So let's say you aren't sleeping well, or you're sick or feeling just 'off.' Or let's say you've been depressed, or you're under a lot of stress. Any of those things can mess with your desire to do spiritual activities, or lower your estimate of how capable you feel of spiritual activities, or change how you feel when you try to do spiritual activities. Bodily trouble can produce a sense of spiritual dryness. This shouldn't shock us, but sometimes we're pretty good at missing the obvious.

Now, if that's the case, then if you're trying to pray or read the Bible or worship in church, and things seem dull or dry or difficult to you, and reflection isn't turning up any obvious sins that might be getting in the way, it's possible that you just need to take care of yourself better – a good night's sleep, some exercise, a change in diet, time outdoors, a conversation with a friend, a recharge through a refreshing hobby. Do that, and then you might come back to the spiritual activity and have a very different experience of it as healthful and life-giving.2 In the meantime, here's something else to remember: a dry and tired prayer, offered faithfully, is no less valued by God than your most lively, energetic, well-focused, natural prayer. In fact, in some cases, the praying or churchgoing or Bible-reading you do when you're exhausted or depressed – though it feels dry and useless in the moment – is exactly what you need. And it's also what God wants. The Lord wants to hear your sleepy mumblings, your sickened groans. He wants to spend time with you in your dried-out weakness. Hence the cross.

Okay, now suppose it isn't an issue of sin in your life, and suppose you're in decent physical and mental and emotional health. Might you still find yourself parched and aimless in the desert? Absolutely you might. There are other causes to consider in those cases. Have your habits changed? If you've disrupted your routine, then you might not be able to get yourself in the right mindset or posture to pray, read your Bible, go to church, etc.3 Maybe you're freshest first thing in the morning, so if you dive into other things first, don't be surprised if your spiritual life doesn't thrive the way it used to. Or, if you skip church for a couple weeks, don't be surprised if it feels less familiar, or if it feels harder to wring spiritual sweetness out of it when you go back.

So what's the solution here? Consistency. Do what you can to keep a consistent rhythm in your spiritual life. If you take up a routine of prayer or Bible or church or other spiritual activities, stick to it, or only modify it for spiritual reasons, where possible. If you've drifted from a rhythm that was working better for your soul, do what you can to get back, even when it's costly in other areas. Make sure not to neglect what makes spiritual sweetness easier to come by, or what you otherwise know is spiritually beneficial for you.

Alright, but then suppose you're dealing with dryness, and you don't think it's a sin issue, you don't think that it's a problem in your physical or mental or emotional health, and you haven't changed your spiritual routines, but here comes that dryness anyway. Are there any other explanations? Of course there are. Sometimes, if you get bored reading the Bible, it's understandably because you don't understand what you're reading. Who here hasn't had the experience of a daily Bible reading plan that broke down somewhere in Leviticus? When you're in a part you neither understand nor appreciate, it's no surprise if you set down your Bible and wonder what you got out of it. The same's true in prayer: if you don't understand what you're saying, if you don't really 'get' what prayer's about, if you have misconceptions about what to expect in prayer, then you might find it drier than you would if you did understand, if you did appreciate. Coming to church is the same. When I lived in Greece, the first church service I went to there, I was unable to even guess when the service started or ended, unable to understand a word, unable to recognize anything... well, that hour or two was dry as dry could be for me.

For new believers, once the thrill of conversion wears off, this can be among the most common sources of that dry desert in their spiritual life, as they're still trying to grasp basics of prayer, Bible, church. And while those of us with more time-cards punched might feel sheepish to acknowledge it, we're often in need of a better understanding and appreciation too. Often, without realizing what we were doing, we hit a point in the past where we assumed we had a grasp on it. But our grasp can always get firmer. And maybe, at your stage in life, the dryness is a sign it needs to. Learn more about church, learn more about the Bible, learn more about prayer, and then when you pray and read and go to church, you'll be better equipped to find spiritual sweetness.4

Okay, okay, but suppose you're dealing with dryness, and it's not sin, not a physical or mental or emotional issue plaguing you, it's not a lapse in routine, and it's not a need for better understanding. What then? Well, the next question you might ask yourself is whether there's something you've been holding back in yourself, unwilling to share it with God. Maybe there's a dimension of your personality, a feeling you've had, an event in your life, that you've kept secret, or at least segregated from your spiritual life. Maybe it angers or embarrasses or scares or hurts too much to think about, so you don't even bring it up when you're praying, or you find ways to talk about it without saying it clearly. Or maybe it's something you just never even thought to mention to God.

Well, God may want that to come out. Obviously, he already knows your secret – knows it better than you do – but he also knows it'd ultimately be healing for you to willingly share it with him, to unveil your hidden wounds to him. So long as you withhold your wound, he might withhold the waters to let the dryness prompt you to share. So if you reflect on it and realize there's this issue in your life that you've never brought up in prayer, that's your solution. Open up about it. Be more honest with God, and see what that does to the dryness.5

Now, by this point, odds are pretty decent that if you've worked through this list so far, you've made advances in handling the dryness that interferes with your pursuit or enjoyment of spiritual activities. But maybe none of these explanations fit. Maybe there remains this dryness, a lack of energy to even begin or a lack of passion in the doing. Or maybe spiritual activities just make you sadder, leaving you feeling more and more defeated each time. And you fear your relationship with God is on the rocks, and you just don't understand why. Well, there's one more factor that could be at work: spiritual warfare. For remember: you and your relationship with God have an enemy. And that enemy will resort to whatever tactics it takes to sabotage its sweetness.6

When you're facing spiritual dryness, a common fear is that it's a deeply shameful thing, a mark of failure, a sign of spiritual immaturity, even counter-evidence to your salvation. That's a common fear in our Evangelical circles, born partly of the idea that certain feelings or sensations are inevitable consequences of salvation, and that they should be uninterrupted in a healthy Christian life. What do we sing? “Now I'm hap-hap-happy all the day.” An inevitable corollary is for a decline in happiness or energy or fervor to be taken as a problem in our relationship with God. When we buy this perspective, then the measure of the value of spiritual activity comes to be whether it makes us feel certain things – if it does, it was worth doing; if it doesn't, then not. Staple that to a consumeristic mindset, and it's no surprise people judge churches by how they feel when they visit, and that they hop from church to church, or fad to fad, chasing the next fix of spiritual sensations or emotions.

After living in this for decades, let me tell you: there is almost nothing the devil would rather have you believe than that the measure of your relationship with God is how you feel – how much energy you can muster, how much happiness a spiritual act gives you, or what your baseline mood is that day. Why would the devil want you to think that? I'll tell you why. See, the devil is powerless to get directly at your relationship with God. He's got no power over God, and you've got that pesky free will. But the devil's more than capable of getting at your feelings. He has all kinds of tricks for that. Now, if you can readily tell the two apart, then the devil can annoy you plenty, but that's all. But if the devil can get you to identify your feelings and your relationship with God, then he's got a target within his reach that can stand proxy for the one he can't reach.

The other week, I watched this video re-enacting a famous experiment – well, almost as much a party trick as an experiment – called the rubber hand illusion. If you've never seen it, they take one of your arms and put it behind some cardboard so you can't see it; and on your side of the wall, they put a rubber hand or arm with a sleeve that looks like it runs to your shoulder. Your real hand and this rubber hand are just barely separated by the wall. Now, as you watch, the experimenter gently brushes the fingers on your real hand in the same way at the same time as you see him or her doing it on the rubber hand. You feel the sensation on your real hand, you see the apparent cause on the rubber hand, and in less than a couple minutes, if all goes right, that tricks your brain into expecting the rubber hand to be your real hand. Then, when the experimenter slams a hammer onto the rubber hand – well, obviously you feel no pain, since it has no nerve endings, but your brain is so convinced that there must be pain, must be harm, that it reacts momentarily as if there was. Lots of times, this ends with the person panicking as the hammer hits the rubber hand, even though their reason tells them that it isn't them. In many cases, they yell and jerk their real hand away from the blow, which actually has no chance of hitting it.

The devil works by similar illusions. With your real relationship with God behind the cardboard, all he has to do is persuade you that the rubber hand – your energy levels, your passion, your feelings and sensations – are the same thing. Because he can bash on that rubber hand all he wants, and get you to react as if your real relationship with God is what's been hurt. When the devil pulls that trick, what really causes harm is you yanking your soul away from the illusory pain, away from the spiritual practices you'd otherwise persevere in. Yes, if he can convince you that the dry experience he conjures up is hitting you where it actually hurts, then his threats to the rubber can get you to move your relationship with God just how the devil wants it to move.

That, at least, is the devil's plan. Now, there's good news about the rubber hand illusion. The more accustomed you are to keeping track of your limbs – like, say, if you're a professional musician – the less well it works on you. The same's true if you're just a less suggestible person by disposition.7 Likewise for the devil's illusions. If you resist his suggestions, and if you can keep track of your relationship with God in ways that don't rely on what you perceive in your limited field of vision, then the devil's illusions lose some of their potency on you.

Be forewarned that these illusions will come – I don't doubt he tries it on every believer from time to time. But when they show up, identify them, as soon as they arrive, for what they are: the devil's tactics, meant to get you to do his job for him. And then reject the illusions, refuse to live according to them. That is, don't back down from your spiritual rhythms. Trust that God's got better stamina than the devil. The devil may tell you the dryness is forever, but the father of lies is a bluffing blowhard. And trust that God permits these challenges to come your way for the sake of the rewards he aims to bring you by overcoming them.

Amidst all this, whatever the source of the spiritual dryness you face, the best news of all is that Jesus is a Lord who knows the desert inside and out. He let himself grow hungry and thirsty there. He let the minutes tick by like an eternity there. He fasted in the desert for you in your desert. There, in the spiritual activities you find the absolute driest, he's there for you. Mirages may conceal him from view, but he'll keep you company with his thirst. And knowing that is good news itself, as it's written: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). Thanks be to a God of good news for the parched and the aimless!  Amen.

Gracious God, you are Lord of the desert no less than the garden. You are rivers of living water, and you are the consuming fire. Though all sweet and all refreshing in yourself, sometimes your sweetness is veiled from our souls. Sometimes it's by our own estranging sin. Sometimes it's by our infirmities of body, mind, and heart. Sometimes it's by our negligence for the care of our soul. Sometimes it's by our unappreciative misunderstandings. Sometimes it's by our withholding of our full self from you. Sometimes it's by the dry mirages of the sly serpent, the devil. But rather than shame us, you call us to turn to you, to rely on you in the dryness, to reawaken our thirst; you invite us to grow in the desert, to fight and conquer there, and you bless and benefit us for faithfulness in a dry and tasteless and trackless place. For however long the experience lasts, for however long we are bored and depleted, passionless and perplexed, parched and aimless, you are with us, O Sweetness-Beyond-Our-Tasting. Sustain us and refresh us, we pray, in your time, through Jesus Christ, Champion of the desert trial, in whose name we pray. Amen.