Finding God in Desert Places
When I was 18, God took me on an incredible adventure. I had just moved to Nelspruit with my family, and in that space where I had no friends to keep me company God showed Himself to me. I was filled with His Spirit in such a special way, I spent my days singing praises, and I was always looking for new ways to serve Him. I was bouncing off the walls with joy all day, every day.
But then, only a few weeks into that experience, it slowly ended. I felt dry, I felt alone, and I was completely confused. What do you do when God feels far away?
“God, are you avoiding me? Where are you when I need you?” (Psalm 10:1 MSG) Have you ever felt like this?
I was reading an article, and here is how one person describes what it’s like, maybe you can relate: “I go to church every Sunday and I’m a very active member at church. But for the past month, I’ve been feeling so apathetic towards Christianity… I try praying, doing devotionals and I really WANT to know God and have passion for him but I am feeling really dry. I feel empty. I feel nothing... Is this normal? Or a sign that I am not fit to be a Christian?”
Does that describe something you’ve been through before? No doubt it does. Maybe it describes where you are now. You know that you should be feeling alive, and you ought to be rejoicing, always thankful, always at perfect peace because of what Christ has done for you.
But at the same time, you just don’t.
And often times there’s so much pressure to be spiritually energetic, spiritually moving, that when the times of dryness comes we might begin to question our relationship with God – “am I really His child?” Or if I don’t feel close to God, and I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong, maybe there is no God to feel close to. But that’s wrong for a Christian to say, right?
I would call this one of the Big Christian Secrets.
We want unbelievers to know that we have it all tied up neatly with a bow, our doctrine is water-tight, our practice can be shaky at times but we’re still growing, and our Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship – which means that we not only know our God intellectually but we feel Him relationally.
But what happens when we don’t feel Him relationally? Well that shakes us…
I want to talk to you tonight about seasons of spiritual dryness and how to find God in them. You know what I’m talking about, maybe you have a different name for it. Some call it the wilderness time, one prominent preacher calls it ‘bleakness of spirit’. But it all comes down to this sense that either God is not there, or I am not His.
I’m going to start by asking what causes spiritual dryness. I want to talk to you about five that I’ve found, though there are many more.
Causes of dryness
A High Dependence on Emotions "Who else has held the oceans in his hand? Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers? Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale? … Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust." - Isaiah 40:12, 15
My big spiritual growth time took place during my gap year in Nelspruit. It was an incredible time when I had a full year of relative freedom and I was able to pour that time into my Church life. It was a lively and growing charismatic Church, which is great!
One of the things I learnt through that experience is that a lot of people pin their spiritual lives on their emotions. Doctrine is right or wrong depending on feelings, spiritual disciplines will happen or not happen depending on feelings, and I will go here or there depending on how I feel God is leading me, whether or not He may be leading me.
I find that that mindset is not exclusive to a charismatic Church in Nelspruit. The mass majority of what is called the Church today is swimming and drowning in those waters. Homosexuality is right or wrong depending on my feelings about God’s will, I will pray or read my Bible or tithe depending on feelings, and God exists or doesn’t exist depending on my feelings about the existence of God.
Can we just acknowledge that our feelings do not determine truth? Truth is truth, whether we feel it to be or not. God exists, it doesn’t matter how we feel about that. That passage we read before shows just how big and majestic God is – do you think if you feel far from God that He simply ceases to exist? Not at all. He’s still here, regardless of how we feel. He’s still calling to us, regardless of how we feel.
So one reason we sometimes have spiritually dry times is because we’re depending on our emotions to tell us what is true, instead of depending on God’s Word to tell us what is true. Another reason we sometimes go through spiritual droughts is because of unconfessed sin.
Unconfessed Sin Psalms 68:6 “God makes a home for the lonely; He leads out the prisoners into prosperity, Only the rebellious dwell in a parched land.”
Another real cause sometimes of spiritual dryness can be unconfessed sin. 1 John 1:7 says “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”
Have you ever tried to keep a secret sin from your spouse or your best friend? It kind of eats at you all day long, doesn’t it? You’re always on high-alert, watching what you say, trying not to accidentally let it slip that you messed up.
So we start to think, maybe if I can keep it silent long enough it’ll just go away.
Maybe it does start to feel like it’s going away, but your relationship with that special person in your life has been forever tarnished, because it hasn’t been dealt with it’s just been buried.
The Bible shows us that it works that way with God. You know, God has called us marvellously into deep relationship with Him, but that won’t happen as long as we are trying to hide stuff from Him. Why are we hiding it – because we don’t trust Him with it? And how can we have a relationship with someone we don’t trust.
Listen to what the psalmist says: Psalms 32:3-4 “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away Through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.”
God wants us to walk with Him openly and honestly. That’s God’s desire, but we can’t have that with sin in our lives, because as 1 John points out: God is light, and He has no darkness in Him. That’s why He sent Jesus. And when we sin, all God requires from us is to bring that sin to Him and confess it – we don’t need to fix it or ourselves, He’ll do that.
So one reason we go through seasons of spiritual dryness may be because we’re too dependent on our emotions, and secondly it could be caused by unconfessed sin. Thirdly, it could be a purely practical reason, maybe it’s simply because you’re tired.
Physical or Emotional Tiredness We had an incredible week during Kids Holiday Club, and one of my favourite parts about the week was our Church campout. Most of our leaders slept here for the week. The mornings started at 5 am, and some of our teens are just not morning people. Not at all. At all. Not even a little bit. Not morning people. One of those not-morning-people is the person I’m planning to marry. Oh boy… She actually found a verse and sent it to me. It comes from Proverbs and it says, “Whoever blesses his friend early in the morning with a loud voice – his blessing is considered a curse.” Can you believe it – that’s in the Bible. It’s a Bible verse specifically for morning-haters.
I can’t imagine what my relationship with Sarah would be like if it was based solely on those early mornings. If all I ever saw of her was this bleak unresponsiveness, we’d have very little relationship. I need to see her full of life and eager to speak as well. To be honest, if our relationship was based solely on my early morning peppiness…well, non-morning-people hate morning people.
We can’t have healthy relationships with people founded on physical and emotional exhaustion.
When you started dating your husband- or wife-to-be you gave them your first and best. Then you got married and maybe you give your first and best to work and you’ve got nothing left when you get home and you wonder why your marriage is struggling. And if you give your first and best to your job, and then you give your best that you can to your family, and then you throw up a prayer to God as you fall asleep, and then you may wonder why you feel spiritually distant from God – why do you think?!
I’m just talking on a practical level here, and you can take it where you want, but if you’re not taking time to rest, you can’t properly interact with people. That’s true with your family, and that’s true with God.
So we’ve looked at dependence on emotions for truth as a reason for feelings of spiritual dryness, we’ve spoken about unconfessed sin and physical or emotional tiredness. The next cause is another very practical one that I’ve found to be true in my own life, when we don’t give God enough time with us.
Not Giving God Enough Time I have found many times that real intimacy with God comes just through giving Him more time.
If you were to just think about it. Often our times with God will be super-early in the morning or perhaps super-late when we’re too tired to do anything else, and we give that to God. We can’t do it for long because either we’re too distracted about all that needs to happen in the day that we need to get started with, or else we’re simply too tired and give up and go to sleep.
But imagine giving God not 3 quick minutes but 3 long hours, a time where we can confess our areas of known rebellion against Him and ask Him to point out any that we don’t know…and then wait until He answers; a time where we can read His Word and let our minds wander through what God might be saying to me in this, and to study a little more about it; a time when we can worship God freely without feeling like we’re wasting time; a time when we can honestly share our little and big anxieties with God and ask Him to walk with us in them.
Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Alright Mr Preacher Man. That’s easy for you to say, you only work one day a week – you don’t even have a family. You have 100 hours a week to sit and meditate, in fact that’s what we pay you for.’
But no, no, no. Don’t you realise it can be just as hard for me to give God 3 hours as it is for you? I can fill my time with ministry preparation, reading books, visiting people, fixing and washing my car, ironing my clothes. It is not easier to give God time just because I’m in ministry – I wish it was!
I’m not going to make light of this. I know there are families in our Church who wake up at 4am every day to get to work, get home after dark, and what little time they have before bed is spent with family. Weekends are spent grocery shopping, family time, resting. But we can’t forever use busyness as a wall to hide behind when it comes to God’s loud invitation to draw near to Him.
Having a healthy and growing spiritual life is not an intellectual matter, it is a relational matter. Being right with God is not an intellectual matter, it is a relational matter. That means spending time, real quality time.
We’ve looked so far at four possible causes of spiritual dryness. Maybe it’s because we’ve been depending too much on our emotions; maybe it’s because there’s areas of unconfessed sin in our lives; maybe it’s simply that we’re too tired physically and emotionally to invest in the relationship, or maybe it’s because we’re not investing enough time in the relationship. But sometimes it’s not entirely because of what we do, but rather what God does in response to what we’re not doing.
God’s Providential Dealings With You and Me Amos 8:11 "Behold, days are coming," declares the Lord GOD, "When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.”
We’ve also got to realise that sometimes God allows it and has a purpose and plan in it.
Throughout Biblical history, God’s hope and plan for the His people the Israelites was that they wouldn’t just do the sacrifices and keep the festivals and forget Him; God makes it clear that His real desire was that their hearts would seek after Him.
Many times it would seem that the Israelites would get into these slumps where they would do what they considered the bare-minimum lip service for God hoping they could pursue all their sinful pleasures on the side without God getting too angry. They would sacrifice to God as He required, but then also sacrifice to other gods, and break the Sabbath and other commandments. But God knew that it wasn’t the sacrifices that would satisfy their hearts, nor the feasts, nor the other gods – He alone could.
And so when He saw that His people were becoming a little complacent, He would remove the life of His Word from them until they would become truly hungry for Him and Him alone.
That’s where we get God’s word to His people through Amos – “I will send you a famine of My word, and you will hunger in your starving for it.”
Sometimes when we get hungry for God’s presence, where we starve and thirst for it, maybe that’s not God being very distant from us, but rather God calling us more loudly than ever. Don’t ignore that call.
Tips for dealing with spiritual dryness
I want to close tonight by giving you a few practical tips for dealing with spiritual dryness:
Don’t give up! Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Put emotions where they belong – If you haven’t already, soon you’ll find out there’s so much more than the emotional component of your faith. Emotions are important: God created us with emotions for a reason. But don’t be thrown off course when you don’t feel a certain way, remind yourself of what’s true: “God is there”, “God is calling me”. Take care of your physical and emotional wellbeing – There’s no advantage, and a whole lot of disadvantage to being physically and emotionally spent. Eating well, doing regular exercise, speaking to a counsellor, reading a good book; maintaining your physical and emotional vitality goes a long way in helping your pursuit of God’s calling. If you’re tired or stressed, it can be hard to have a fresh quiet time. Take an adventure with God – If you’re not putting into practice what God is teaching you, your spiritual life is bound to grow stale. One of the best ways to grow closer to someone is to go on an adventure with him or her – go hiking or camping or whatever, where your character and your will is tested. For many of us, we don’t take God at His Word, and so we miss out on the adventure He’s calling us to. If God tells you to go plant a Church, or move to another country as a missionary, or speak to your neighbour across the street about His love – if God tells you to go and do those things and you throw up your hands in the air and say, “Fine, God, I’ll do it. But You need to do it with me!” What a great way to go on adventure with God that will draw you together so deeply.