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.

1  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 123.

2  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 14, 19.

3  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 117-118.

4  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 112-113.

5  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), 138-139.

6  Timothy Gallagher, Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies (Sophia Institute Press, 2022), chapters 11-13.

7  See, e.g., Jennifer Ouellette, “Study Finds That the Popular Rubber Hand Illusion Could Be Used to Treat OCD,” Ars Technica, 20 January 2020. <>.

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