Have you ever gone from feeling on top of the world with God, like he’s walking right beside you, answering your prayers, telling you he loves you with every sunset – and then it’s like he vanishes?
You try to read your favorite Scriptures to get that feeling back. You take beautiful prayer walks. You sing your favorite worship songs. But it’s like your prayers are weighed down by the indifference in the air, and you start to wonder if there really is anyone that you’re actually signing to.
I’ve been there. And I have so many friends that are there right now – friends healing from spiritual abuse and the fallout of believing in a punitive God.
Spiritual abuse emphasizes good deeds over relationship, and conformity to the “ideal disciple” rather than exploring God’s unique image in each of us. As a direct result, it is completely bewildering when it comes time to question the beliefs you have built your life upon. You realize that the God you thought you were following isn’t really the God of the Bible at all.
But, it’s also true that being in a spiritual desert is a necessary season for everyone’s walk with God, at least once in their life, with or without spiritual abuse. The desert is really a gift, meant to refine us at our deepest core. But it is so painful and confusing.
To help anyone currently in a spiritual desert, I have compiled a survival guide of sorts to help get you to the other side. And I promise you, there is another side!
Know That Being in a Desert Doesn’t Mean You Did Anything Wrong
Being in a desert can feel like a punishment or like God abandoned you. Or it can feel like your whole faith is a sham, and you’re better off just admitting that you don’t know anything like the rest of the world.
Although the desert does refine our beliefs, it doesn’t mean that God is punishing you by having you walk through one. You see, the Israelites would have seen their time in the desert with God as a honeymoon period. A time to really know him, just him, when there is nothing else that could save you.
And the most comforting thing about being in a spiritual desert is that it is God doing it on purpose, out of his love. If you’re wrestling and still not getting anywhere, it’s okay. You’re not doing anything wrong. God just has more to teach you about himself in this space.
Peter Scazzero emphasizes this in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone working to undo spiritual abuse or who is in a spiritual desert. He writes of how ancient church heroes such as Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, and St. John of the Cross have mapped out God’s plan for transformation in our lives.
There are different stages of our spiritual journeys, from when we first heard about God to spiritual maturity. And one of these necessary stages is what Scazzero calls “the Wall,” and what St. John of the Cross calls “the Dark Night of the Soul.”
Learn about the Dark Night of the Soul
Learning that there was an ancient work describing exactly what I was feeling with God was so comforting to me. It took me out of a place of desperation to “fix” the situation I was in and instead allowed me to recognize that God was transforming me – if only I would cling to him.
Scazzero puts it this way: “How do we know we are in ‘the dark night’? Our good feelings of God’s presence evaporate. We feel the door of heaven has been shut as we pray… The Christian disciplines that have served us up to this time ‘no longer work.’ We can’t see what God is doing, and we see little visible fruit in our lives. This is God’s way of rewiring and ‘purging our affections and passions’ that we might delight in his love and enter into a richer, fuller communion with him.”
The Dark Night has its own stages. You first lose your senses of God. Next, you lose your intellect, and God or his existence don’t make logical sense anymore. But if you hold to God during these two “nights,” God is able to purge your false ideas of who he is and show you his true nature.
(The actual poem that St. John of the Cross wrote is extremely dense and hard to understand, but you can find helpful summaries like this one: Summary of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross.)
In my own Dark Night of the Soul, I heavily doubted God’s existence. I went over every possible argument for and against his existence, over and over again in my head. It just didn’t make logical sense to me. Or rather, I could see the logical sense in not believing just as much as I could in believing. But as I persevered and clung to God with all I had, God showed up with little “rotem bushes” along the way to get me to the other side.
Keep Your Eyes Open for Rotem Bushes
Unless you’re deeply familiar with Biblical horticulture, this probably sounds very left field. But let me explain. A rotem bush is a small bush that is found in the desert. It is used symbolically in the Bible to represent the idea of “just enough.” It provides “just enough” shade to keep someone on their journey through the desert, “just enough” shade to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
And if you pay attention during your walk through the desert, you will see God giving you “just enough” time and time again.
It could be in a song that comes on at just the right time, reminding you that God is with you. It could be a friend who texts you kind words when you most need it. There are so many ways that God reaches down to love us. And although these moments seem extremely sparse while you’re in the desert, they are there. And they show you that although God might feel far away, he is right there with you.
Learn more about the rotem bush and other desert imagery here.
Embrace a Regular Practice of Sabbath
There is so much to be said about sabbath that I do not have room for here. But what sticks out to me as most relevant about sabbath in the context of a spiritual desert is that sabbaths are completely individualized to what your heart needs.
Sabbath doesn’t just entail resting. It includes playing and doing the things you enjoy, just because you enjoy them. Over time, you’ll start to get to know yourself better through practicing sabbath as you learn what lights your life up. And the more you come to know yourself, you are also getting to know God.
God wants to connect with you through the things you enjoy, not just the things you’re suffering from. So although it might feel like life is meaningless, if you can start to bring a smile to your face by baking, watching old movies, or hiking, you will start to see that God is there with you, providing these joys for you. You will see that his love never really left you as your heart starts to melt.
Treat This as a Mental Health Issue as Well as Spiritual
Many writings have been done on the interconnectedness of depression and the Dark Night of the Soul, and for good reason. The symptoms of helplessness, weariness, instability, and deep sadness absolutely overlap. Our minds, bodies, and souls are so connected. So it isn’t “unspiritual” of you to understand that how you treat your mind during this time will affect your spirituality.
It is extremely distressing for your mind and body to undergo a period of intense spiritual questioning. If your spirituality is central to who you are, it is destabilizing and physically upsetting to then question everything about it.
So treat your mind and your body kindly, especially on the days where God seems the farthest or most uncertain. You will start to see a pattern that when you are feeling mentally off, God also feels off. So take care of your body and mind to give your heart the safe place it needs to question without hurting yourself.
Finally, Keep Fighting the Good Fight
Please, keep fighting. God is there with you, rooting for you, holding your hand. I know that it doesn’t feel like it. But the truest faith is the faith that doesn’t see, but trusts anyway.
It is so helpful to have friends that you can be vulnerable with during this time who can cheer you on when you can’t see God cheering you on. But hold on. Look for the rotem bushes, be kind to yourself, and know that on the other side of the Dark Night of the Soul is a new, fresh, and solid understanding of who God is. Not only who God is, but his immense love for you – love that would walk with you through a desert just to prove that he will get you to the other side.
Photo courtesy: ©Patrick Schneider/Unsplash
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.