I had a worrysome encounter on Twitter, and I thought it ought to go public. I’m following (and being followed by) a large assortment of people, one of whom speculated aloud that some folks probably leave church disappointed because they’re resisting God. I replied with a question about how many people leave church disappointed because God is hiding from them.
The person to whom I’d replied asked me to explain, and I said that sometimes God will appear to withdraw from us a bit because that silence makes us stronger and effects change in our hearts. While we might be used to feeling joy or consolation when we pray, suddenly it vanishes, and it’s not our fault. It’s because God has pulled back.
Catholics call this “The Dark Night of the Soul,” or more popularly, “the dry spell.” It’s a known phenomenon, in other words, and it’s expected. At times, God will play hide-and-seek in order to deepen our commitment.
This person wrote back and said that Protestants experience this too, but they call it “backsliding” or “growing cold.”
Cue my horror.
Backsliding is absolutely a different breed of bird from the dry spell. One backslides when one stops putting effort into prayer and stops caring about God. We grow cold when we stop investing in a relationship. It’s a failure in us to pursue God.
A dry spell, by contrast, is God’s decision not to respond to us when we come to him. One of the hallmarks of a dry spell is that you continue investing in the relationship, continue putting in the effort, and you feel no results. You haven’t gone cold: God’s taken the wood off the fire. You haven’t backslidden at all. In fact, you’re probably moving forward because you’re operating totally on faith rather than on reward.
That’s why I’m horrified: because in a state of dryness, we need the community around us to keep us in place, reassure us, and support us with confidence. Whereas if you feel your community is going to blame you for God’s self-imposed silence, where can you turn?
I replied to this person that a dry spell is a good thing. A painful thing, but a good thing. If God is depriving us of the sensory reward for relating to him, then we’re staying in place through obedience. And yes, “going through the motions” has its true value in this time, when we don’t feel like doing it but we do it anyhow. I’ve been told a dry spell usually presages a time of great spiritual growth.
Having said that, now, I may get a divine smackdown while God makes me put my money where my words are. I don’t know. But if it does happen, God is still there. Quiet, maybe. Hiding. But there, and as in any game of hide-and-seek, he wants us to keep looking.
There’s a very valuable discussion of dry spells at Conversion Diary. Make sure to read the CS Lewis quote in the comments, because it’s a perfect encapsulation of what a dry spell is and why God causes them.
Dry spells are definitely different than backsliding or growing cold. I think of it like any other parent child relationship. Most simply, I think of it as “Mommy isn’t answering my ‘Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama.’ right now because she’s in a conversation with someone else and is trying to teach me to be patient and wait my turn.” vs “Mommy is calling me to come back to her and I know I should but I’m going to keep running down the store aisle away from her because it’s fun.” Oversimplified and flawed analogies, but there you go.
That’s a good way to put it. It’s not responsible parenting to always dole out to your kids what they want the instant they want it. We’re not the center of the universe and we can’t put God on a command performance, no matter how much we want to.
Going back to your opening paragraph, about being disappointed because they’re resisting God. I can relate to that. I’m disappointed in my diet because I’m not working at it. I’m disappointed in my progress on my novel because I keep procrastinating — with most of the usual complex reasons for procrastinating.
When you learn any skill, there are plateaus, where you don’t seem to improve. My singing teacher warned me about them. There’s usually a big jump in ability with the first few lessons, then you plateau or even move backwards, get discouraged, enjoy practicing less, practice less, and make even less progress. Part of growing up is learning to identify and accept plateaus and work through them. Some people muscle through them, some ease off a bit and concentrate on enjoying what they can do, some have other ways — but everyone who learns goes through them.
I wonder if dry spells might be God has assigned you a new piece to learn, or thinks you’re good at the 5k run and it’s time for the 7k — he’s waiting at the finish line. Or maybe He’s just taken out the pace car for a bit.
On a more spiritual level, I know exactly why I’ve hit a brick wall in my relationship with God, summed up in the word “Agnostic”, with a hint of “Sounds too easy” and “Doing that would mean I need to get off my butt and find another place to volunteer, and tighten the budget.” He hasn’t moved the finish line lately, I’m just stuck examining all the different routes.
That’s an interesting thought, the spiritual plateau. Ivy discussed with me once something called the local plateau, where you are at the peak of where you think you can be because everywhere around you is down. But you don’t realize that beyond this valley, there’s an even taller mountain.
So maybe the dry spell is God kicking us off the mountain top so we can climb that taller mountain we didn’t even know existed.
Your agnosticism, by the way, is a very searching, open agnosticism. I’ve always been impressed by your willingness to ask questions and process the answers (no matter where they come from) and weigh them.
I can’t say I’ve ever discussed or ever blogged about God’s personal choice to deliberately “turn away” so to speak. It’s an interesting concept. I could see your point and why it would affect us toward further spiritual growth. I think it falls under a very similar question that is often asked “Why does God sometimes not answer prayer?” It’s a question we can only speculate an answer for. God knows. Overall though, I think you very clearly explained the difference between backslidden vs. Dry Spell. Very well said.
Maybe it’s just to make us make a more active decision to move toward him, rather than just be pulled along?
Slugging through the dark night of the soul is a testament to our faith as Mother Teresa well proves in her postmortem correspondence. Glad I’m Catholic. The RC’s interpretation of the dark night is much more forgiving, it seems.
“I’ve been told a dry spell usually presages a time of great spiritual growth.”
Can I hold you to this, Jane?
I’m not God. I can only repeat what I’ve been told, but, sure. 🙂
Think of it like the way a dry spell in the weather forces a tree to put its roots deeper. I would hope it’s the same way in our souls.
Hmmm. I’ve never heard of this concept before. I will have to think about it, but my first impression is that it’s hard to believe God would pull Himself away. I understand if I retreat from God, He may not follow in pursuit. It’s my choice how close I get to Him. I also know that through salvation, His arms will always be open to me whenever I return. Hmmmm.