Dried up?

Desert experience

Marion* felt all dried up!  

Has God abandoned me?  I feel like God is very far away or maybe not even there at all?  I still go to church but it’s hard and I feel guilty about my lack of faith.  When I go to mission conferences, all the other ex-cross-cultural workers seem so together.  Am I the only one in such a state?

I don’t feel like praying myself.  Sometimes my husband prays for me instead.  Prior to serving overseas, I had a strong faith.  I loved serving at church and studying at Bible College.    

Whilst living overseas, I really missed understanding the sermons and Bible studies due to my lack of language.  I started feeling dry then but expected it to get better when I got back home.  However, it got even worse after I returned.  People at church seemed so legalistic and petty.  I just couldn’t see God’s Spirit at work anywhere.

My non-Christian psychiatrist, treating me for depression and anxiety, suggested that I ditch my faith, since it seemed to be connected with my guilt.  But when I considered this option, I just couldn’t imagine myself not a Christian.

Will my relationship with God ever get better or is it lost forever?”  

Marion was talking to Liz*, her Member Care Worker (MCW).  Marion, her husband John, and their four children had just returned to Australia, after living in various rural locations in East Africa, including one situation of political unrest.    

What would you say or do?

Analysis

Spiritual Desert

Experiences similar to Marion’s have been described for centuries.  Matthew the Poor, or El-Meskeen (2003), identifies two types of spiritual desert experiences: spiritual aridity and spiritual languor.  Spiritual aridity is a dry spiritual experience during which prayer continues, while spiritual languor is a greater struggle and affects the will to pray.  It is associated with extreme grief and misery because of the soul’s condition. He describes spiritual languor eloquently:

If man tries to plumb the depths of his soul, he finds himself at a loss, for its depths are beyond his reach. It is as if his spiritual footing has been lost, alienating him from the essence of his life. If he tries to examine his faith and secretly measure it in his heart, he finds that it has died, gone. If he knocks at the door of hope, if he clings to the promises of God he had once cherished and lived by, he finds in what he used to find hope has now turned to ice. Hope is stuck in the cold present and not willing to move beyond it. 

The enemy seizes this opportunity, striking with all his firepower. He launches an offensive – to convince man of his failure, of the ruin of all his struggle and effort. The enemy tries to persuade man that his whole spiritual life was not true or real, that it was nothing but fanciful illusions and emotions. He clamps down on man’s mind that he might once and for all deny the spiritual life. 

Yet, amidst all these crushing inner battles, the soul somehow has an intuition that all these doubts are untrue and that something must exist on the other side of the darkness. It also feels that, in spite of itself, it is still bound to the God who has forsaken it.

El-Meskeen, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way (2003, p241-2)

Is Marion experiencing spiritual languor?  Does Marion have a relationship with God anymore or is God is holding onto Marion? 

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.  

J I Packer, Knowing God (1993, p275)

As El-Meskeen writes:

…behind spiritual languor there exists a relationship with God that, though inactive, is real and still very strong, stronger than all the whispers of the devil.  Yet until the decisive moment of danger, this relationship sleeps.  This relationship remains hidden from the soul… For in this tribulation, the soul is called to stand alone. 

The soul remains within the sphere of God’s dominion. Although unaware, it is still making progress and on the right path. It is still led by an invisible hand and carried by an unfelt power.   The tangible proof for all this is the extreme, constant grief of the soul over its fall from its former activity, zeal, and prominent effort into its present state.

El-Meskeen (2003, p242)

Is there any silver lining? 

As well as the challenges, there may be benefits associated with spiritual desert experiences. El-Meskeen (2003) argues that spiritual languor is profitable for the soul, since it provides protection from spiritual pride and can strengthen our faith, such that evil is no longer feared.

Just as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can lead to post-traumatic growth (PTG), so too, can people become stronger through a spiritual desert experience.  The experience can lead to a more resilient faith (Collier, 2016). 

Not everything about trauma is negative. Indeed, it has become common to refer to the positive changes that can take place after trauma as post-traumatic growth. Changes may take place in how we see ourselves in our relationships, and how we understand God, the world, or life’s purpose and meaning. Often people who have been through trauma feel they are more understanding of others, less judgemental and more accepting, perhaps more compassionate and empathetic. 

Horshall T. and Hawker D., Resilience in Life and Faith (2019, 77)

People have 4 needs – physical, relational, emotional and spiritual 

It is important to maintain one’s spiritual health, relational health, emotional health and physical health.

Were any aspects of Marion’s relationship with God weak prior to serving cross-culturally? Would these have left her particularly vulnerable to spiritual dryness?

Typically our relationship with God has three components: intellectual, emotional and experiential.    Maybe Marion’s sending church community focused on the intellectual aspect of their relationship with God, neglecting the experiential and emotional aspects?  

A pilot study, involving ministers and ex-cross-cultural workers, suggests that six months of spiritual direction significantly increased the participant’s reported intimacy or relationship with God (Bickerton). 

The process of spiritual direction refers to help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her. The focus of these sessions was thus described to participants as “identifying, paying attention and responding to God’s personal communication with you (however that is experienced), seeking to grow in intimacy with God, and living out the consequences of that relationship. 

Bickerton, 2014

Other spiritual practices and tools which may be helpful include: 

  • Thankfulness – thanking God for ~10 gifts each day in a journal or in prayer
  • Ignatius Examen⁠1 (Calhoun, 2015) – Facilitates reflection on how God has interacted with you that day and includes the practice of thankfulness.
  • Journaling in the round⁠2 (Boyd, 2013) – a journaling reflection on the day
  • Christian mindfulness (Thompson, 2018)
  • Lectio Divina, a slow and thoughtful Scripture reading (Calhoun, 2015)
  • Reading Psalms or liturgical prayers (eg. Anglican Prayer Book – daily prayers)
  • The book ‘The Praying Life’ by Paul Miller
  • Read the Bible in a Year App (eg. BiOY)

On top of the spiritual grief Marion is experiencing, she is also returning to her home country after cross-cultural service, which is challenging in itself!

Re-entry is challenging!

After some years overseas, Marion is unfamiliar with her ‘home’ culture.  Criticism of your own culture, in this case Marion’s experience in her local church community in Australia, is typical during  re-entry⁠3.  This will be adding to the difficulty of her situation.  Marion’s re-entry may also be more challenging than usual for a variety of reasons: 

  • Has Marion got (PTSD) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
  • Has she experienced compounded grief from many moves?

Those war veterans who suffer long term injuries due to their service for their country, are referred to as those with honourable wounds.  Foyle (1987) argues that some cross-cultural workers may carry honourable wounds as a result of their cross-cultural experience.  

Let’s now reflect on a similar story in the Bible.

A story to consider

Elijah had just routed the prophets of Baal on the top of Mt Carmel…

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

I Kings 19:1-18

After Elijah’s amazing experience of God’s power on Mt Carmel, things start to go pear-shaped.  Elijah’s hopes of Israel turning back to God are dashed and on top of that, he receives a death threat from Jezebel.  In response, Elijah runs away into the wilderness, which in Hebrew, means a place of devastation, describing Elijah’s physical and emotional state at the time.  Instead of feeling victorious, he felt alone, afraid and hopeless.  

Elijah, a prophet, a Biblical hero, who had demonstrated great faith, was seriously depressed!  He had to be encouraged to get up to eat and drink. 

God met and ministered to Elijah in the midst of his struggle.  We see in this story that God has provided for Elijah’s physical needs, relational needs, emotional needs and spiritual needs.  First of all, Elijah poured out his despair to God.  God provided Elijah with rest, food and water to meet his physical needs, strengthening him for the journey to Mt Horeb.   Next, God gave Elijah an experience of his presence in the still small whisper meeting his spiritual needs.  Lastly, God gave Elijah, a successor, Elisha, providing companionship, to meet Elijah’s relational and emotional needs.  God provided a succession plan and some new work to do, the anointing a couple of kings, as well as encouragement that others had been faithful.   Elijah wasn’t the only prophet left as he had thought!

How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?

Just as God provided for Elijah’s needs: physical, relational, emotional and spiritual, so too can Liz, Marion’s MCW, seek to facilitate Marion’s needs being met.

Marion needs space and time to rest and recover, just as Elijah did during the journey to Mt Horeb.  Liz, and others, can listen to Marion, providing companionship, meeting some of her relational and emotional needs.  [Liz may also pray for Marion if that is wanted.]

Normalisation⁠4 is a powerful pastoral tool, and could well reduce Marion’s sense of failure.  El-Meskeen’s (2003) descriptions of desert experiences as a normal part of the Christian life, in Chapters 14 and 15, could be shared.  Elijah’s story might also provide some normalisation.  

The possibility of benefits emerging after spiritual desert experiences (El-Meskeen, 2003), may also be an encouragement.   If opportunity presents itself, Liz could mention that desert experiences can lead to a stronger and more resilient faith, just as those who experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can exhibit Post Traumatic Growth (Collier, 2016; Horshall T. And Hawker, 2019).  

Since the experiential aspect of Marion’s relationship with God has been very weak r, spiritual direction could be recommended.  Other spiritual habits might also assist with improving Marion’s experiential relationship with God including Ignatius Examen, thankfulness and others mentioned earlier.

What happened? 

Some years after her return to Australia, Marion reported that practicing thankfulness, Ignatius Examen and serving others were particularly helpful practices for her.  Marion couldn’t source a spiritual director in her location but her emergence from the desert had begun!

Marion started to see the Holy Spirit work in the church community.  This experience of God kick started her spiritual revitalisation. Upon reflection, Marion remembered that she had been converted after seeing evidence of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives.  The experiential aspect of her relationship God seems significant for Marion.

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity. 

El-Meskeen, M. (2003) Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

References

Amalraj, K.J. (2018) ‘What Shapes Our Spirituality in Missions?’, in Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library (Globalization of Mission Series).

Bickerton, G. et al. (2020) ‘Well-Being in Ministry Results Overview’. University of Western Sydney. Available at: https://www.buv.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Well-Being-in-Ministry-Study-overiew-and-results.pdf.

Boyd, A. (2013) ‘Journaling in the Round’, Intervarsity: Women in the Academy and Professions, January. Available at: https://thewell.intervarsity.org/spiritual-formation/journaling-round.

Calhoun, A.A. (2015) Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Collier, L. (2016) ‘Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught?’, American Psychological Association, November. Available at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma.

Foyle, M.F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Horshall, T. and Hawker, D. (2019) Resilience in Life and Faith: Finding your strength in God. Abingdon, UK: The Bible Reading Fellowship.

How Can I Pray? (no date) IgnatiousSpirituality.com. Available at: https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/.

Miller, P.E. (2009) A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

The Prophet Elijah was Depressed (2020) International Bipolar Foundation. Available at: https://ibpf.org/the-prophet-elijah-was-depressed/.

Thompson, K. (2018) Christ Centered Mindfulness: Connection to self and God. Sydney, Australia: Acorn Press.

anImage_14.tiff

1 https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray/

2 https://thewell.intervarsity.org/spiritual-formation/journaling-round

3 Read more about re-entry in the Good Grief blogpost, https://membercaring.org/2020/11/04/good-grief/

4 Read more about normalisation in The New Normal blogpost, https://membercaring.org/2019/09/11/the-new-normal/

3 thoughts on “Dried up?

  1. Hi Christine,

    Thanks for all the work you put into this latest blogpost! I love that story of Elijah: what a gracious God we have that he tended to Elijah’s very human creaturely needs. I think we often forget that we’re “creatures before we’re Christians” (Graham Cole quote).

    It’s left me thinking about connectedness: to ourselves (our thoughts, emotions, body), to the Lord, to a loving community (often scattered friends) and to a church family. Times of transition can challenge, erode or break those connections; as can this long, long lockdown. But, as you’ve written, growth and opportunities can also come from that.

    Thanks!

    Claire

    Claire Livingstone
    St Andrew’s Hall – CMS Australia
    190 The Avenue
    Parkville 3052
    Australia
    clivingstone@cms.org.au
    +61 (0)481 367423
    [signature_2134622784]

    From: Member Carers
    Reply to: Member Carers
    Date: Friday, 24 September 2021 at 12:36 pm
    To: Claire Livingstone
    Subject: [New post] Dried up?

    christineheatherbird posted: ” Desert experience Marion felt all dried up! “Has God abandoned me? I feel like God is very far away or maybe not even there at all? I still go to church but it’s hard and I feel guilty about my lack of faith. When I go to missio”

    Like

  2. Pingback: Betwixt and Between | Member Caring

  3. Pingback: Culture shock – it’s real! | Member Caring

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s