Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “In times of dryness and desolation we must be patient . . . putting our trust in the goodness of God. We must animate ourselves by the thought that God is always with us, that He only allows this trial for our greater good, and that we have not necessarily lost His grace because we have lost the taste and feeling of it.”
Those words of wise counsel reflect the reality that every Christian experiences times of spiritual dryness. It is a subjective feeling that God is distant, aloof and even absent. During a time of spiritual dryness, prayers feel empty, hymns are sung without energy, sermons are lifeless and Scripture appears to have no power over daily life. Often called the “dark night of the soul,” it is a time when the absence of God’s presence is greatly and painfully felt.
Even individuals in Scripture experienced moments when clouds of darkness descended on the spirit or God seemed hidden and uncaring. On one occasion Moses shouted at God: “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now” (Nm 11:15). Similarly, Elijah found himself so discouraged and frustrated that he prayed: “I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life.”
And the Psalmist lamented, “Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps 74:1). Although dark, dry times do come, the good news is that by taking some simple steps you can bring a time of spiritual dryness to a speedier end. Here are a dozen ways to get out of a spiritual rut.
1. Shed an old skin.
God may have a design for you that is even better than the life you have been living. A time of darkness may be His signal that you have reached the end of one stage in your life. Be flexible enough to turn over a new page and start the next chapter.
2. See the good, expect the best.
Your mind is a powerful tool. Don’t waste it brooding over what you don’t have, aren’t experiencing, didn’t receive. That kind of negative thinking will only leave you feeling more discouraged, depressed and dissatisfied. A healthier approach is to see the good and expect the best.
Apply to your experience the promise of God spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ ” (Jer 29:11).
3. Always choose faith over understanding.
Sometimes, when an urgent prayer is not answered, darkness descends. If that is the case, always choose faith over understanding. Christian author Catherine Marshall tells of a time when she emerged from six months of spiritual darkness following the death of her second granddaughter, for whom she had prayed that God would heal.
In spite of her fervent prayers, the infant died, plunging Mrs. Marshall into a spiritual black hole. After great depression and much soul searching, insight came. “When life hands up situations we cannot understand, we have one of two choices,” she wrote. “We can wallow in misery, separated from God. Or we can tell Him, ‘I need you and your presence in my life more than I need understanding. I choose you, Lord. I trust you to give me understanding and an answer to all my Why’s — only if and when you choose.’”
4. Name it and claim it.
Remember that you are loved. In spite of how you feel, balance your negative feelings and thoughts with the reality that God is love. Remind yourself that you are loved deeply, permanently, lavishly by the God who created you. Claim for yourself the many statements of Scripture which declare that truth. Some passages include 1 John 3:1 — “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” Isaiah 43:4 — “You are precious and honored in my sight. . .I love you.”
5. Let your gifts and talents lead you.
During a dark time it is difficult to know what to do or which direction to move. Let your God-given gifts and talents provide a cue. Father John Catoir explains: “If you have a beautiful voice, then use it some way for God’s glory, and for your happiness. If you are a good teacher, than presume that God wants you to teach. Put your gifts at the service of others.”
6. Look for the lesson in the darkness.
The saints and mystics of past ages were profoundly aware that some of the most powerful spiritual lessons are gleaned during times of darkness and dryness. Observe, study and analyze your condition, thus gleaning new insights. The anonymous author of the great 14th century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing
, observed his dark night of the soul and learned this lesson:
“Whenever the feeling of grace is withdrawn, pride is the cause. Not necessarily because one has actually yielded to pride, but because, if this grace were not withdrawn from time to time, pride would surely take root. God in his mercy protects the contemplative in this way, though some foolish neophytes will think He has turned enemy to them.”
7. Use the three healing words.
"I forgive you” are three of the most powerful words a person can speak. Ask yourself if your current spiritual situation is connected to feelings of anger, resentment and hostility over someone who has hurt you. If that is the case, consider extending forgiveness.
One good way to do that is by writing a letter to the person who hurt you. Without blame, judgment, hostility or anger, spell out the truth of what happened as you experienced it. Say “I forgive you.” Only mail it if you feel there is a reasonable chance that good would come from the recipient’s reading your words. If the person who caused your pain is deceased or incapable of hearing you, burn the letter. As you watch it become consumed by flames, let your anger symbolically go up with the smoke.
8. Be an angel.
“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve?” declares the writer of Hebrews (1:14). Nothing expands the capacities of the soul as does reaching out and helping another person. Be the individual who stands up for justice when an unjust action or word is committed. When others act cowardly, be the one who responds with courage and conviction. Where there is cruelty and unfairness, be sure to soften those blows with kindness and understanding.
St. Paul urged Christians: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). By being God’s angel you not only help others, but also help yourself feel better about your life.
9. Do the right thing. Many people — including those in highly paid positions and lucrative careers — are bored, frustrated and unfulfilled by their work. Whether or not you are employed, take time for a spiritual career assessment.
Ask yourself: What do I love to do? What am I good at? What activities bring me the greatest spiritual and emotional pleasure? How can I use what I like to do to make a living and a contribution to the world?
10. Utter blessings. Even though you may be experiencing darkness, pray that all those with whom you have contact will experience God’s blessings of peace, power, wisdom, love, joy, prosperity and health.
Privately pray these prayers for your spouse, children, friends, neighbors, employer, employees and even strangers. “Blessings keep our awareness of life’s holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives. . .with each blessing uttered, we extend the boundaries of the sacred and actualize our love of life,” writes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk.
11. Have a listening ear. When you pray, remain still and silent in God’s presence. Maintain a listening ear. God is a friend of silence. It is in solitude and silence that His will is most clearly determined. Be guided by this prayer offered by Dr. Howard Thurman:
“Give me the listening ear. I seek this day the ear that will not shrink from the word that corrects and admonishes — the word that holds up before me the image of myself that causes me to pause and reconsider — the word that challenges me to deeper consecration and higher resolve.”
12. Trust God even if you feel lost. No matter how you feel, continue trusting God for guidance and direction, perseverance and strength. Be encouraged by this prayer from Thomas Merton:
“O my God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. . . .Therefore I will trust you always; though I may seem to be lost I will not fear, for you are always with me, O my dear God.”
REV. PARACHIN writes from Tulsa, Okla.