Job also experienced suffering, such that he desired to confront God face-to-face and to prove the injustice of his suffering. But Job’s faith still allowed him to say, “God might kill me, but I have no other hope” (Job 13:15). Such faith is precious to the Lord. There was a point in Jesus’ ministry when difficult teaching caused many of his disciples to turn away and desert him. Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “‘Are you also going to leave?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life’” (John 6:67–68). And, of course, we remember the ultimate example of faithful service of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matt. 26:39).
Thomas à Kempis knew that love and praise for Jesus comes easily when comfort, consolation, and support are being received from him. But when Jesus seems to hide himself and leave the believer for even a brief period, the attitude can turn into complaining and depression. He imagines a conversation between Jesus and one of his followers:
Don’t think that you are totally abandoned if for a time I have sent you some trial or have withdrawn the consolation you sought, for this is the road that leads you to the kingdom of heaven. Doubtless, it is better for you, and for my other servants too, to undergo these trials than to have everything come out just as you desired.1
This would certainly not be our first, natural, human choice, to go through trials rather than have everything come out as we desire. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales writes to an inquirer named Philothea with advice for spiritual formation, touching on the perspective one should maintain when seeking God in the dry seasons:
If it should happen that you find no joy or comfort in meditation, Philothea, I urge you not to be disturbed but to open your heart’s door to words of vocal prayer. . . . After this if you have not received any consolation do not be disturbed, no matter how great the dryness may be, but continue to keep a devout posture before God. How many courtiers go a hundred times a year into the prince’s audience chamber without any hope of speaking to him but merely to be seen by him and do their duty. We too, my dear Philothea, ought to approach holy prayer purely and simply to do our duty and testify to our fidelity.2
Brother Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman in eastern France. After an injury sustained in the Thirty Years War forced him out of the army, he entered a Discalced Carmelite monastery where he remained for the rest of his life. Considering that his primary assignments were working in the kitchen and repairing sandals, we might not naturally look to him for spiritual insights that would benefit others for centuries. But in the midst of these seemingly trivial tasks, Brother Lawrence made the practice of the awareness of the presence of God in all things and at all times the focus of his life. Yet, even he had words of advice to share about those times when God does not seem to be present:
We must find our contentment in the execution of His will, whether He leads us by sufferings or by consolations, so that everything should seem the same to a person who has truly abandoned himself. We must remain faithful in the dry periods by which God proves our love for Him.3
God proves our love for him. That’s an interesting twist on what we would usually say. We may from time to time be bold enough to say we want to prove our love for God, which usually means in our way and in our time. How often do we want God to prove his love for us? Again and again through gifts of health, wealth, and other blessings. Brother Lawrence sees a season in which God proves or refines our love for him. What does this mean? It means dry seasons may be times when our faith in God grows deeper, a time when we may learn to love God for who he is, not for the things he does for us. Isn’t this what we hear in traditional wedding vows? For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. In other words, to love and cherish without condition. Dry periods remind us that God is to be followed because God is God, not because of any benefits we may expect from following him. That, indeed, is a deeper lesson in spiritual maturity.
The Healing Function of Honesty with God
There is a place for candor in our conversations with God. Some people feel uneasy with the thought of any expression of discontent with God, much less anger. “Anger at God often goes unacknowledged or unexpressed. Why are many Christians unable to either acknowledge or express their anger at God? Because many learn from family, church and subcultures that being angry with God is wrong.”4 A submissive/passive view instructs that we should accept what comes as caused or allowed by God, and that to question or complain, as Jeremiah and Job did, would be a lack of faith. We certainly want to be cautious on this point. Disrespect or dishonor of God is not acceptable, but lament is not unbelief and need not be disrespectful. We are permitted to question why and to have the emotions that appropriately accompany that question. Furthermore, a false pretense of unwavering piety carries with it the danger of making it harder for others who are struggling with feelings of abandonment, adding guilt rather than encouragement to their struggle.
Unresolved anger in any relationship creates silence, emotional withdrawal, feelings of distance and disconnection, even alienation. God understands our humanity and invites resolution of our questions. The Psalms extend the invitation to “Pour out your heart to him” (Ps. 62:8). This is an invitation to tell God everything going on within us, including our emotions. After all, God knows our innermost thoughts whether we express them or not. “The laments of Jeremiah, the psalmists, and others who continue to hold fast to God are a reminder that the God who loves us does not desert when summer fades but, when the difficult days arrive, keeps a ready ear open to our cries.”7 When a mother hugs a child with a skinned knee, the knee doesn’t immediately heal, but the hug is comforting nonetheless. The sense that we are heard by God and accepted as children has the potential to be incredibly powerful for building and restoring that relationship; for letting us know and experience the deep warmth that is true to our relationship with God.
We could view dry seasons as a particular form of suffering. As many spiritual teachers have discovered, dry seasons are difficult times, especially because of the sense of abandonment that accompanies them. The divine promises that God is present, that he is sovereign, and that he loves his children with holy love allow the believer to press through these times. Perhaps the Lord intended to deepen one’s prayer life, leading to prayers on God’s terms rather than the predetermined expectations of the believer. If the discipline of the dry season is abandoned, such lessons and the joy of seeing how God responds through such times would be missed. After this life, there will never again be dry seasons from which the child of God may learn.
God’s ways can be difficult to understand, even beyond present understanding. In the writings of Isaiah is found the reminder that “just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so [God’s] ways are higher than your ways and [God’s] thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). This is a call to trust at its deepest level. Trust by its very nature must be put into action. Without this, trust may be present in word but it is not present as a reality that has been annealed by fire. If the desire of God for the spiritual life of the believer is a deeper and deeper level of trust, this can only be accomplished through a deeper and deeper level of growth. Only God, in his wisdom, knows what will strengthen and mature the trust of a follower of Jesus.
Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Casual Conviction to Courageous Faith. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and churches lay hold of an an ever-deepening, courageous faith that flows out of a deep trust in God. Get your copy from our store now.
1. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ in Four Books: A Translation from the Latin, rev. ed., ed. Joseph N. Tylenda (New York: Vintage, 1998), 122.
2. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Image, 1989), 92.
3. Brother Lawrence, Practicing the Presence of God: A Modernized Christian Classic. eds. Robert J. Edmonson and Tony Jones (Brewster: Paraclete, 2007), 45.
4. Andrew D. Lester, “Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me! Anger at God,” Journal of Pastoral Theology, 16, no. 2 (Fall 2006), 53–70, 54.