In my last blog post, “The Path of the Pilgrim,” I wrote about the path of spiritual growth over the long haul. I noted, among other things, that I’ve traversed a long season in which it felt as if God had withdrawn from me. One comment on that blog came from Ben, who wrote:
This sounds exactly like what I’ve gone through for the last four years. While I know feelings are subjective, I don’t see how I can just ignore or ‘relinquish’ the change in experience. If God is supposed to be personal, there’s nothing personal about my experience and I’d think I was living a lie by continuing to believe simply because I don’t know what else to do, or am afraid of trying anything else …
Experiences like these are hard to talk about, and I suspect there may be many Christians struggling in the way Ben described. So I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk more about how we press on when our experience of God’s nearness evaporates.
First, and this is of utter importance, we must acknowledge that there is deep mystery here. Why we may grow for years in experiencing God’s surpassing peace (Philippians 4:7) and one day awaken to find that it’s inexplicably inaccessible is a mystery. Personally, I was bewildered by my experience of suddenly feeling as if I was in the spiritual wilderness. To this day I do not know why it happened or what God might have been trying to accomplish through it. Admitting that has been important in terms of letting go my desire to have answers to these questions.
Next, the experience of what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” is utterly disorienting. Because of that, talking with trusted friends and family is crucial. I had a long stretch in which I poured my heart out to a mentor every day. I also leaned heavily on my parents and several close friends, talking with them frequently about the intensely confusing nature of what I was experiencing. Those relationships offered a lifeline that kept me from collapsing into further isolation.
Looking back, I can also see that my anxiety about God’s apparent absence became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feared sitting down to pray or read His Word because I was anxious I’d just have another experience that confirmed that He had left me. In my head, theologically speaking, I knew that wasn’t true. But it sure felt true. Especially in the first year or so, praying and spending time with Him were both difficult. Still, I tried to keep willing myself to go to Him, choosing to believe in faith that He had not abandoned me. For many months, those feelings of isolation were the only offering I felt I had to give Him. I would come to Him and say, “Lord, I choose to believe that You care for me in this time, even if I can’t feel or perceive You in my heart at all. Please help me.”
Amid this struggle, I became aware that many other believers have had similar experiences. In his book I Talk Back to the Devil, A.W. Tozer writes,
All those old saints and the fathers of whom I have read taught that you must believe God by a naked, cold intent of your will and then the other things follow along. A naked intent unto God — those old saints were practical men. They have exhorted us to press on in faith whether we feel like it or not. They have exhorted us to pray — when we feel like it and when we don’t. They never taught that we would always be emotionally lifted to the heights. They knew that there are times when your spiritual progress must be by a naked intent unto God.
In an age in which so much emphasis is placed on how we feel, Tozer’s counsel seems almost ruthless. But I think he’s right, and that the steady process of exercising a “naked intent unto God” shapes our souls, even if the growth process is imperceptible in these shadowy seasons.
A couple of years ago, I learned about Mother Teresa’s nearly lifelong struggle in this area. After her passing, some of her correspondences were published in the book Come Be My Light. While the world knew her as a tireless champion for the poor in India, Mother Teresa fought a battle against spiritual darkness that lasted 50 years. One letter of confession to a priest she corresponded with said in part,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of Your love — and now become as the most hated one — the one You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. … The darkness is so dark — and I am alone. — Unwanted, forsaken. … I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
Though Mother Teresa’s spiritual pilgrimage was a harrowing one, I nevertheless take courage from stories such as hers, seeing that even those we perceive as the most “spiritual” may face deep, hidden struggles in their own experience of God.
A final note: Early on in my struggle, I sunk into a deep depression that was exacerbated by horrible panic attacks. Eventually, I realized (with the help of friends and family) that I needed to get professional help before I was completely incapacitated. In some cases, I believe a sense of God’s absence may be related to mental illnesses such as these, and we may need to seek out medical help in the process of finding our spiritual and emotional balance again.
Copyright 2012 Adam Holz. All rights reserved.