There are times in most Christians’ lives when God appears remote. How should we navigate these desert experiences, and how should we help others?
Nearly ten years ago I lost my faith. I didn’t lose it on purpose. I didn’t just accidentally misplace it. I didn’t even want to lose it. I desperately wanted to keep hold of it, but it kept slipping away – and I hold God entirely responsible!
Many Christians experience a sudden and unexpected low point in their relationship with God at some stage in their life. This ‘desert experience’ is a common feature of the Christian journey, and has been since Bible times. No two people’s experiences are identical but they may contain similar characteristics. Many Christians hide their true feelings during these times, which is unfortunate because positive results can come out of these painful events. I hope that this review of how we deal with these desert times (which is principally based on my own experience) can make them less destructive, both for ourselves and others.
What a desert experience is
The metaphor of a desert is an accurate description. The desert is a vast empty space, which offers little in the way of food and water. There is a feeling of aloneness, a sense that hope grows less and less each day. In the desert experience, spiritual nourishment dries up. Your relationship with God often becomes characterised by feelings of abandonment and despair. Your well-fed spiritual life may start disappearing in dry winds and endless, unchanging sands. There seem to be no more answered prayers; the feel-good factor of faith disappears; the spiritual life becomes a drag. Trust in God simply starts evaporating. We try in vain to fight this feeling but it becomes harder each day. The words of the Bible no longer offer any help, instead all they offer are more questions and more doubts. Praying becomes difficult and painful. Traditional worship may start to seem ridiculous and pointless and church seems farcical and full of pretence.
Another phrase used to describe these feelings of abandonment, loneliness and desolation is ‘dark night of the soul’ (a phrase first penned by the Spanish poet Saint John of the Cross). The words resonate with lots of people, but what many overlook is that the phrase describes the poet’s journey towards God. In the poem he writes that, “God desires to bring them to the state of union with God. And this latter night is a more obscure and dark and terrible purgation.” According to the poet, God visits this dark and terrible experience on people in order to bring about a closer union.
What a desert experience isn’t
Not every stumble on a journey of faith is a desert experience. Neither is it always helpful to describe depression, burnout, rebellion or loss of faith in this way. They might share some similar features but they are distinct in one important respect: desert experiences in the Bible are almost always part of God’s plan, while depression, burnout, rebellion and loss of faith are not.
Depression: For most people in a desert experience, other areas of life continue to function normally. They may become very down about what is happening with their relationship with God, and some very raw feelings may surface, making them angry, resentful and upset. However, the lethargy and difficulty of undertaking everyday tasks often associated with depression is not generally part of the desert experience.
Burnout: It’s all too easy to experience burnout. Burnout is your body’s way of telling you to slow down. It can (and should) be guarded against: go on retreats; protect your day off; have friends who you can talk to about things other than work. The desert experience is not about stress, or your body telling you to slow down; it is a time of spiritual renewal.
Loss of faith: In a desert experience people often feel abandoned by God. They may grow angry with church, with God and with other Christians. But though God may seem distant, wilfully awkward or even cruel, he may not necessarily seem any less real.
Rebellion: Many people feel far from God due to rebellion or unconfessed sin. In these circumstances the person is responsible for the feelings they experience. But, although it may take time and energy, they are always welcome to come back to God.
The singer, Johnny Cash, found God at the lowest point of his life. High on drugs and feeling suicidal, he crawled into the darkness of the Nickajack caves in Tennessee. Deep in the darkness he lay down to die. Cash wrote about this experience in his autobiography: “At that moment I was as far from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete.” In the darkness of the caves, away from his many distractions – the drugs, his infidelities, his fame, his memories – he came to a point where he had to rely on God. He asked God to help him find a way out. This was a turning point in his life.
I love this story, and it has many of the elements of a desert experience, but Cash’s experience is different because it is selfinflicted. He finds God in his lowest moments, but not because God has taken him there. Cash takes himself to the low place. This is where I believe desert experiences differ, they are not about people rebelling against God or wallowing in sin. Desert experiences are sent by God.
Undoubtedly these other feelings may be a part of our desert experience, but this can be a result of how we handle them. The fear and guilt of the desert experiences may lead to depression, burnout, rebellion or loss of faith but they do not need to. Some churches and individuals seem reluctant or unable to help people through these events, making them feel isolated. Consequently they hide what is happening, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, and so at this point other areas of their lives start to unravel. But if desert experiences are sent by God, and are part of his plan, then surely we have no reason to feel ashamed or guilty.
Desert experiences can be positive. This may seem a strange word to use about the waking nightmare that happens when beliefs go through such a painful shake-up, but when it happened to me it was one of the most positive experiences of my life.
I was working full-time for Warrington Youth For Christ. My work was going well. I was seen as a successful relational youth worker. And then it happened; my faith went into the mixer. I no longer had any answers; instead I was full of doubts and questions. I began to hate God for abandoning me. It took me three years to come out of my desert. Along the way I tried to turn my back on God and the Christian life. But when even this became impossible I was forced to look for an understanding of what was happening. This started a slow process of rebuilding my faith. I was forced to question the status quo and take every aspect of my Christian life out of the box and re-examine it. At the time, this made me feel isolated and misunderstood. While they were happening, my desert experiences felt incredibly destructive; they stripped away all that I had learned to trust.
I came to realise that before my experience of abandonment, my faith had been childlike and untested; my understanding of God was one-sided and hollow and my spiritual life was little more than a hobby. When I finally emerged, I realised how much I had grown as a Christian; I was renewed in my thinking and in my relationship with God.
Desert experiences in the Bible
In the Bible, desert experiences are important times of preparation and deepening of people’s relationship with God.
The Hebrews went through theirs as they wandered round the Sinai desert, Elijah had his in the cave of Horeb and Jesus went through his own desert experience in the wilderness. So what can we learn from these times of testing?
They were times of preparation. Jesus spent time in the wilderness before starting his ministry. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah retreats in despair before hearing the ‘gentle whisper’ of God telling him to anoint two kings and anoint Elisha as his successor. And although traditional Christian thinking tends to regard the Hebrew’s 40 years in the wilderness as a reprimand or a waste of time, many Jewish commentaries regard these years as necessary times of spiritual development preparing them for the Holy Land. In each case the desert experience is a low point that comes before a major change.
God chose the timing. People in the Bible do not choose when the desert experience will take place, they are events which are visited on people by God Even Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:12). God chose when the exodus would happen (Exodus 12 onwards) and God’s angel guided Elijah.
People meet God. In the Bible the desert is a place of temptation, a place of loneliness, a place of despair and a place of struggle, but it is also a place where people meet God.
What to do when it happens to you
Don’t do anything silly. Desert experiences make people feel alone, which makes them vulnerable and afraid. In addition people often feel that they’ve lost God forever. At this point it can be tempting to turn to anything for relief. But if people remember that the desert won’t last forever it’s easier to take a less self-destructive approach.
Don’t blame yourself. Desert experiences make people feel guilty, but they really shouldn’t. These are times of change and renewal, imposed by God and part of his plan, so there is no need for guilt.
Be honest with people. Other people experience them too. Sadly, people are often reluctant to admit what they are going through. Take the lead and others will follow.
Be realistic. I’ve read a few articles suggesting that our response should be to continue to praise God, pray and read the Bible despite our feelings. Although I accept the theology of this, it can be unrealistic. I tried these things at some of my lowest points and they only served to make me angrier with God. Although anger at God is not bad in itself, at this stage of my life it was unhelpful.
Try new forms of worship. One of the things I did find helpful in my years in the desert were some very new and some very old forms of worship. Although these were far from refreshing (nothing was at the time), their very unfamiliarity meant that some small amount of nourishment could get through.
Hold on. Do what you’ve got to do to hold on. If you feel like you’re just holding onto God by your fingertips then at least you are holding on. In my desert experience I railed against God, I wept, I shouted, I accused him, I swore at him, but I didn’t stop speaking to him.
What to do when it happens to other people
When it happens to someone else, avoid the temptation to try and ‘fix’ them. People ultimately have to find their own way through the desert and be supported in this. When people are experiencing these things they need people to listen while they talk.
Fear and confusion about desert experiences (both from those suffering and those trying to help) is unnecessary but all too common. Consequently many people try to conceal what they are going through or attempt to slow down the crisis. They hide their true feelings just when they most need people they can trust and talk to, particularly fellow Christians. People don’t always want to talk about their hard times with God, especially when the reaction of those they go to reflects their own confusion. But perhaps the crisis is necessary because, through it, God is preparing them for a new ministry. If you can be the person to listen without judgement, you may be just the person they need to talk to.
Encouraging their relationship with God isn’t always the best response because it can make them feel that we aren’t taking their experience seriously. Giving someone a copy of Footprints might seem like a good idea; logically, and theologically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with reminding people that God is always with them, but this reminder can seem to belittle the feelings involved.
What can also be a waste of time is trying to argue people back round to God. Often the arguments and discussions people throw out are simply defence mechanisms to avoid anyone seeing the real struggles. The struggles people have in the middle of desert experiences are very painful. But they are not pointless and they are not anyone’s fault. Instead they are part of God’s plan. These are the things I needed to know in my desert experience.
It’s difficult to watch people go through these struggles but some of our more natural responses may actually be working against what God is doing. What people need is someone who will walk alongside them as they cross the great featureless wilderness.
It can be useful to reassure people that these experiences are quite normal, while being careful not to dismiss the person’s own unique experience. If you have been there yourself, talk to them openly about your experiences. Explain to them that good can come out of the experience, but do be honest with them, it might be years before they are able to rebuild their relationship with God. Saint Paul of the Cross, in the 18th century, describes a personal ‘dark night’ lasting for 45 years.
If you haven’t been through the experience personally, reassure them that people have been there before. And even if you haven’t been in a desert experience, everyone has experienced doubt. Christians need to be prepared to share their doubts – not to confuse people, but to show that we all have them. When we don’t admit our doubts we give the false impression that doubt is a sin.
What to do when it happens to your church
There are instances in the Bible of communities experiencing feelings of abandonment together. The disciples in John 14 were feeling deserted and in Deuteronomy 32 the Lord talks of hiding his face from his people. This is also the case in Britain today. Many churches are currently going through desert experiences and it seems that the way we approach them is making them overwhelmingly negative. Despite the desert experience being visited on a community, there is little or no sense of togetherness. People’s fears and confusions sow division rather than support.
Many people currently need time and space to explore and question their faith. If they feel they can do this as a church community – as a body – then positives can come from the experience. Perhaps they are on the cusp of a new ministry, perhaps a new way of worshipping God, perhaps a radical shake-up.
What is happening, though, is that people fear the experience and patch up individual’s fears with short-term fixes. This doesn’t allow for God’s timing, or for God to take the community where he chooses. If we are too busy protecting people from any real exploration then resentment builds. If a startled hush descends when any genuine or raw questions are asked then we’ve created a fake atmosphere of pretend exploration. Too many people feel that they have to turn their back on church before they can properly test their faith. This is wrong. The church should be a place where genuine questioning is allowed without any feelings of shame or embarrassment. It should also be a place which recognises that questions, doubts and fears are just as valuable on people’s spiritual journeys as the certainties and successes. This is a long way from happening, and while we continue to be embarrassed, people will continue to leave the church just when they need it most.
After the fire
I have a terrible confession to make – I think I once caused a bush fire. I was camping in the foothills of the Pyrenees when I took an outside toilet break. Trying to dispose of the loo paper carefully, I set fire to it. Whether a small spark caught in a bush or some paper stayed alight I don’t know. But many hours later, after being at the beach all day, I saw six or seven fire-planes dousing the hillside in water. At least 30 fire engines were rushing around and the police closed off an area of around six square miles. The fire was so big it made the English news. The hillside was black, the area was devastated. I’ll never know for sure if it was my stupid action which caused the fire but I felt terrible. I knew that I could have been responsible.
I felt bad for many months afterwards. But a year later I went back to the same spot. It was a place I’d been visiting for many years and it was always quite desolate. It was beautiful but bleak. It was never a place that could be described as fertile. In many ways it was a wilderness. But after the fire, it was lush. Flowers had bloomed. It was spectacular. Far from being devastating, the fire had actually created the right conditions for the hillside to become bathed in colour and life.
When I was in my desert it was so desperate and painful that I hated God. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve realised just how much I learned in those long, abandoned nights. I’m convinced that my experience was sent by God, and therefore was part of his plan. My experience transformed a reliant, childlike faith into a mature, tested, adult faith.
Many people who go through this experience abandon the church but this should not be the case. The questioners and the doubters need to feel a welcome part of our fellowship. If we are prepared to change how we feel about these experiences then we will change how we respond to them. If we see the positives that can come out of them then we won’t be embarrassed by them. If we see the desert experiences as a very real chance for ourselves or our church communities to grow and develop, then we can approach them in an entirely different way. We need to talk about them honestly and openly and see them as part of our faith journey. If we do, then people will have one less reason to feel abandoned, and in turn abandon the church.