There have been numerous times in my spiritual walk when my soul felt like it was in a lush oasis of God’s presence. There have been other times I’ve been so full of doubts I thought I had wandered off into a spiritual desert and wouldn’t be found until days later, face down in the sand, disoriented, and on the verge of spiritual death. During those times I’ve felt abandoned, confused, angry, and worst of all—without hope.
I think the word desert is a perfect description of a Christian’s experience of God’s absence. When desert is used in the New Testament, it is a translation of the Greek word erěmos, which means “solitary” or “abandoned.” This is exactly how I feel when I am experiencing intense doubt. I feel abandoned by God, utterly alone. I feel spiritually lethargic, like I’m lying face down in the sand, dehydrated. During these times of doubt, I have no passion left for participating in church, reading the Bible, prayer, or anything related to God. All I feel is emptiness, as if a large presence just left a room.
Yet the Bible attests that sometimes our greatest spiritual transformations occur in the desert. For the children of Israel, their forty-year wandering in the desert changed them as a people. Fasting forty days and nights in the desert at the beginning of his ministry marked Jesus. Galatians 1:17 tells us that after the apostle Paul was first converted, he immediately went to Arabia. We’re not told how long he was there or what he did, but we do know that he came back a changed person. Spending time in a spiritual desert can foster some of our greatest moments of spiritual growth.
What specifically does God’s absence do in our lives?
Burning Up Bad Spiritual Fuel
One thing God’s absence does is “burn up” any remaining bad spiritual fuel that we’ve been using for our souls. There are two components to bad fuel. The first is our unhealthy motivation for becoming Christians in the first place. It is important to acknowledge that none of us becomes a Christian out of pure, uninhibited love for God. We usually have ulterior motives. Some of mine? I wanted to avoid Hell, I wanted to get fixed emotionally, I wanted to find a Christian wife, and I wanted to please my parents. All of these factors played very heavily into my decision to become a Christian. When difficult times arrived, I discovered these motivations weren’t nearly powerful enough to sustain my dedication to Christ. The cost of remaining a Christian outweighed my original motivation for becoming one, and I was faced with a choice: find a new motivation or walk away.
The second component of bad spiritual fuel is living only for the aftereffects of our relationship with God, rather than for God himself. As new Christians we experience a rush of feelings: peace, joy, happiness, warmth, excitement, contentment, and a host of others. Over time we inadvertently become dependent upon these feelings to sustain our spiritual well-being. We begin pursuing the feelings we receive from God rather than pursuing God himself. This is dangerous because, as Simone Weil once remarked, “There is a great danger in loving God as the gambler loves his game.” We can become spiritual-experience junkies, pursuing one spiritual fix after another just to get through the day.
What God’s absence does is usher us into a state of complete emptiness, where all these feelings are taken away. During these stretches our impure motivations for becoming a Christian no longer sustain us. All feelings of contentment and peace leave us, and we’re forced to learn to love God simply for the sake of loving God and not for what we can get from him. It’s as if God says to us during these parched moments, “It’s easy to love me when you feel close to me. How about when my peace and warmth are gone; will you love me then? I’ll leave the room for a while, and we’ll find out.”
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