Fighting Spiritual Drift
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Ah, but God …
“Oh, yeah well … he hasn’t been at church the past couple weeks, and he hasn’t come to hang out with the singles group,” Josh said.
“Wait, seriously? Ben?”
I was used to people missing out on events, but not Ben.
No one had seen or heard from him in weeks. I’d just come back from vacation, and the weeks before that were filled with final exams and Christmas parties. I was trying to get my bearings again and catch up with how people in the small group I led were doing.
He came to church the last Sunday in December. I didn’t get a chance to really talk to him, but he seemed fine. Just some issues he was dealing with. Family problems. I figured it was just the holidays and that he’d be back to normal soon.
That Sunday was the last time I saw him for five months.
He stopped coming to church, to the singles group, to our small group. He stopped returning phone calls. He stopped replying to emails.
* * *
The fall semester before he left I saw Ben almost every day at school. We’d meet in the music lounge — a long room with old furniture and soda machines that only occasionally worked. We’d do things like run around the music building looking for a dark empty room so we could see if Lifesavers really did make sparks if you chomped on them. (They do.)
Ben read voraciously, and I could barely keep up with him. In the music lounge, where most other students were joking about sex and drinking, Ben and I laughed loudly at stupid theological humor. We talked about what we were learning, what we wanted to read. I could always count on him to help with our small group or at church. Ben felt like a brother.
As the semester wore on we saw each other less, but only because we were studying more. And then … he just left. I couldn’t imagine what had happened.
* * *
Ben says it felt like he woke up one morning and didn’t want anything to do with God.
He didn’t want to read his Bible. He didn’t want to go to church. It all felt empty.
I’d find out later that, at the time, Ben was beginning to have doubts, small ones at first, about what our church believed. The doubts grew as he questioned more and more, even questioning God. Then he became distrustful of the people around him, even people trying to help him. He knew what he was supposed to believe but didn’t want to anymore. But he didn’t tell anyone.
His Bible started collecting dust on the shelf. The doubts grew. Sin began to creep in. Then he woke up one day and didn’t want anything to do with God.
Part of me was angry at Ben. I knew that I’d never do that. I thought I couldn’t understand what Ben was going through.
Until it started happening to me.
* * *
It started small, just like with Ben.
I was facing some major life decisions. In the process I got frustrated with God when I felt like He wasn’t giving me answers. And I had a lot of sin to deal with. It was a hard time. I felt disconnected. I knew what I was supposed to do but didn’t feel like it. I knew what I was supposed to think or feel or the Bible verse I was supposed to read, but I didn’t feel like doing it.
I spent less time in God’s Word and more time in my own head. I was trying to figure out all the situations in my life. Subtly I started questioning God’s goodness, His sovereignty, His love. I thought, There’s no way I can bring this up without looking stupid. But I started keeping my thoughts to myself instead of telling those around me.
My Bible started collecting dust on the shelf. My doubts grew. Sin began to creep in.
Then I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t want to have a quiet time.
Usually it was just that I didn’t feel like it or that I was tired. But this was different. I actively didn’t want to spend time with God. I didn’t want to hear from God. I felt lost, confused, upside down. The way Ben had disappeared didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
* * *
Two of my favorite words in Scripture are “But God….”
Paul confessed that we “lived in the passions of our flesh” and that we were “by nature children of wrath…. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). That’s my life. I sin and would keep sinning. But God stops me.
God helped me realize what was happening: I was drifting.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Even though I was a Christian I knew that I was still a sinner. I didn’t want to hear what God had to say. I was wrapped up in myself, and I was giving up God’s truth for lies in my own head, because they were more flattering to me, not as harsh. I saw that I couldn’t trust all my thoughts. I couldn’t assume I was thinking rightly because my sin twists my thoughts from truth to lies.
I realized that the problem was that I was full of subjective and quickly changing feelings instead of being rooted in God’s Word. I’d learned from author C.J. Mahaney that
When we look inward we live by the subjective, the temporal, the ever-changing, the unreliable, the likely-to-be-false. When we look outward, to the gospel, we live by the objective, the never changing, that which is perfectly reliable and always completely true.C.J. Mahaney, p 51, The Cross Centered Life, Multnomah: Sisters, OR 2002.
More than anything, I needed to ground my thoughts in God’s Word to see things the way God saw them, as they really were.
By God’s grace I knew what I most needed. I needed to think rightly about God again.
I needed the Bible I didn’t want to read.
Psalm 119 says that God’s Word keeps us from wandering (10), from sin (11), it strengthens us (28), it “gives light” (130), and “imparts understanding” (130). And God is fully aware of my tendency to drift away from truth. When God gives the law to Israel He tells them to write it on their hearts, to talk of it constantly, to go to extremes to remember God’s words (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). That sounded like the kind of action I needed. So when I was starting to drift, I had to fight.
* * *
Rubbing my eyes with one hand I fumbled for the source of the sound.
The clock read 6:30 a.m.
I found the snooze button, hit it and rolled over.
That’s when the fight started. I knew I could keep hitting the snooze for another hour if I wanted to and still make it to school on time. But that meant I wouldn’t spend time with God that day.
There were days I got up and days I didn’t. Even when I got up I didn’t always feel like reading God’s Word. But I remember more than once rolling out of bed, shaking myself and reading Psalm 119:35-37:
Lead me in the path of your commandments
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain
Turn my eyes from worthless things
and give me life in your ways.
Those verses comforted my soul. Even David needed God to “lead” him, to “incline” his heart, to “turn his eyes.” I just wanted to stay awake and get something out of my time with God. And the amazing thing was that most days, when I begged God to help me, to turn my affections toward Him, He met me.
And He didn’t leave me alone.
I spent time with other Christians. I went to church, to our singles meetings. I hung out with Christians during the week that knew me and would ask me how I was doing spiritually. Funny, how they could so easily see my wrong thinking while I was so blinded. My Christian life was still a fight but a fight I knew I was fighting alongside others.
* * *
I was working on a paper one day about five months after Ben had left when my phone buzzed. Still thumbing through my textbook I grabbed my phone to see who it was.
It was Ben.
The text said that he wanted to meet. I still didn’t realize what was happening as I called him.
Within a few seconds I was sitting at a table by the window across from a guy who hadn’t wanted to talk to me for five months. I didn’t know what to think. But something was different. There were traces of joy on Ben’s face.
Somewhere between tears and joy he described the last five months. After he started drifting he started to become angry and bitter at our church and some of the people in it. His thoughts and emotions consumed him. His joy was gone. He felt horrible for months.
But then, almost against his will, God began drawing him back. He began to want to read his Bible or other Christian books he had. He had no idea why; he’d told himself he was done with that stuff.
Slowly God began to change his heart.
And now, a few weeks later, we sat in the library amazed by God’s goodness.
* * *
A few nights ago I met Ben and another friend from my small group at Chili’s. We shared what’s going on in our lives and encouraged each other. Ben was joyful, the way I remembered him — so loud that he was probably concerning our server.
If you ask him, he says that it’s still a fight. When he gets up in the morning, he has to preach truth to himself; he has to make sure he’s spending time with other believers. He knows his tendency is, like any of ours, to drift away from what he knows is true. But he also knows that with God’s help he can stay anchored to truth.
Ben’s fight is really no different from mine. I need God to help anchor my soul in truth. I need God to help me follow Him when I don’t feel like it. Still, there’s good news:
Copyright 2008 Ricky Alcantar. All rights reserved.