Growing up as I did on the coastline, I had numerous friends who were into sailing. I would go out with them from time to time and I vividly recall those experiences when there was just no wind available to catch our sails and, novices that we were, we just sat there baking in the South West Florida sun. My more seasoned friends used to call these times the “doldrums.” When we were in the doldrums, either we didn’t move at all, or if we did, everything was sluggish, in slow motion, and required great effort.
I suspect most of us have similar periods in our spiritual lives – a sort of spiritual doldrums – where nothing much seems to be occurring. I am sure that most sincere aspirants have them – those times of spiritual aridity where we feel we are just going through the motions but nothing of substance is happening. Even our cherished quiet time takes great effort and, although we may not be spiritually dead, we may feel that we have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
Have you ever been there? God knows I have. As I said before, I think this is a fairly common occurrence along the spiritual highway. It may not be as distinct or as deep as the “dark night of the soul” that John of the Cross described so well, but sometimes it feels that way. I mention all of this because a few days back, when reviewing a book I have read several times, I ran across a great description of these sorts of spiritual doldrums when our sails seem useless and we experience a lack of God’s presence or sense we are, at best, just drifting with the current. The book I am speaking of is T.M. Moore’s Disciplines of Grace and I would highly recommend this work to anyone interested in spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. All in all, it is a great read. Moore begins the introduction to the book with the following words, which are highly relevant to the topic at hand:
We’ve all known them – those times when the wind seems to go out of the sails of our spiritual lives. Our time in the Word of God is unexciting and unfruitful. Prayer is a struggle. Worship never quite satisfies. Our devotions are either skimpy are even skipped. Our witness is virtually nonexistent. Too many things seem more important than spirituality, and we would not describe ourselves as “currently on the cutting edge of Christian growth.”
Moore’s final phrase is both candid and convicting. I can say without reservation that much of the time I have spent in devotion has had that quality of feeling anything but being on the cutting edge of Christian growth. While it is true that I have experienced an undeniable call upon my life to utilize my God-given gifts of exhortation and teaching toward the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, there have been plenty of times I have felt like the spiritual equivalent of a thirsty elephant trumpeting about the arid banks of a dried up watering hole. Yet in an odd sort of paradox, these times of spiritual dryness and seeming distance from God have often been blessings in disguise and have helped me grow in wisdom and garner a deeper understanding of the fact that God can indeed by trusted, even when appearances seem to indicate otherwise.
Still, I have often found that when I am in the midst of one of these droughts of the spirit, it is easy to lose perspective on spiritual reality. Confusion creeps in through cracks in my faith and a generalized sense of floundering and malaise set in. The only thing that I am certain of during these times is the reality that something is out of kilter. T.M. Moore continues:
Nobody needs to tell us when we are spiritually becalmed, and a lot of navel gazing about why or how we got in this situation would not be particularly helpful. What we want is out, or rather, back on course with the Lord, our spiritual sails filled with the powerful winds of his Spirit once again. We want our devotions to come alive, our worship to flare anew with spiritual fire, the bounce to return to our spiritual step. We want to rediscover the presence of the Lord, to experience his glory and to bask afresh in the certainty and warmth of his mercy and grace. We yearn for the Word to speak clearly and powerfully to us. We long to know the assurance that our prayers are being heard and to experience the filling of God’s Spirit in fresh, new gusts of power and life. We want our hearts to pound with love for our God, and we want to be able to share that love more fervently and consistently to people around us.
Anyone out there relate to the experience Moore’s words describe? I know I surely do and more to the point, my own personal experience has validated those words many times over. The overriding question thus becomes: “How does one get out of this mess?”
Moore takes the approach that the most certain method of gaining freedom from the sort of spiritual malaise described above is through the practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, scripture study, fasting, quiet times and the like. I would tend to agree and I base that agreement once again on my own personal experience.
Moore makes a valid point when he says asserts that the problems with this type of spiritual doldrums lie not so much with the lack of wind, but rather, the condition of our sails.
However we have arrived at the spiritual doldrums, this much is certain: within the disciplines of grace…..lies the key to our recovery. For the Spirit of God is still blowing in those arenas as faithfully and powerfully as ever. The problem is that our sails have become tattered and in need of repair, and frankly, some of them have never been unfurled to catch his life-giving wind.
It doesn’t matter how sincere or even how disciplined we may be in regards to our spiritual formation, the fact is we live in a world that is not conducive to living the kind of life Jesus calls his followers to. As a result, we followers of the Master can get beaten down, damaged, and diseased at both an obvious and at a subtle level. The world where we live, move, and have our being operates with values and principles that are the antithesis of those Christ enumerated in the Sermon on the Mount. It is little wonder that our sails can become damaged.
Then again, there are some of us who have never raised our sails. Either through lack of discipline, laziness, and most insidious of all, faulty teaching, there are those followers of Jesus who have never practiced the spiritual disciples spoken of by Moore. I find it tragic that there are those present in the church that label anyone who either teaches about or engages in the classical spiritual disciplines as heretics. Personally, I find it appalling and even nauseating that anyone living 2000 years after the fact would have the arrogance and audacity to call anyone a heretic. Those that do so cause more damage and heartache to the Body of Christ than any external threat to the faith. And the irony of it all is that they do this without having even the faintest possibility of knowing with any degree of certainty what may indeed constitute an actual heresy. To use scripture to back up their claims is both a cop out and begging the question.
Who knows? It may be that these folks are the real heretics.
The fact is the spiritual disciplines were practiced by Jesus, the disciples, and certainly the early church fathers. All you have to do is read the works of the early Christians to see what sort of practices they engaged in. And it is these very disciples, described so well by T.M. Moore and many other writers, that can help lift us out of those doldrums we have been discussing. This debate has nothing to do with faith versus works, although many try to make it so. Personally, I firmly believe that the whole faith/works controversy has caused more disunity, disharmony, and damage to the church universal than any other conflict. This issue, however, is for another place and time – not this article.
Rufus Jones, a renowned scholar, Quaker writer, mystic, and friend of my grandfather, is often quoted as saying:
The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the sea. If you want to reach the other shore, you have to raise your sail.
My advice to anyone experiencing significant spiritual dryness is to pray for relief and advancement, while at the same time, engaging in a select few of the classical spiritual disciplines. Experiment a bit and see what fits you best. According to T.M. Moore, and I concur completely, the spiritual disciplines are a part of the grace of God and are provided by the Father to help us grow in him.
Granted, there may be periods of struggle and sacrifice as you discipline yourself to practice the spiritual exercises, but it will be time well spent. One thing is certain, it you do nothing, nothing will get done. That, my friend, is a fundamental law of the doldrums.
© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved