(originally posted July 14, 2016)
It snowed early that year, before Thanksgiving even. Every morning the skies were bleak and cold, and the trees had long given up any pretense of fall. Those frozen mornings when the sun didn’t have the will to shine brightly enough through the thick gauze of gray were reflected in the pages of my journal. My internal landscape seemed a mirror image of the early morning views out of the windows of my home. The bitter emptiness robbed the trees of leaves, the skies of blue, and my heart of hope.
I’d just purchased a new journal, and the first few entries were as downtrodden and tear-soaked as the entirety of the previous book. I read through the recycled words about waiting and felt still hopeless about my circumstances, and I couldn’t make sense of the person I had become. I belonged to Christ. Where was joy? I’d been taught well enough to know that joy didn’t equal happiness all the time, but it also didn’t equal hopelessness. For two years I’d been waking at 6:15 and dragging myself to the pink couch that I borrowed from my aunt’s attic when I was in college and needed furniture for my apartment. Being poor ministry folks, my husband and I proudly held on to the ugly thing when we got married because we were too naive to know that pink couches with teal accents weren’t considered as chic in 2003 as they were in 1986 when my aunt and uncle bought the couch. But you get used to what you get used to, and now I may never part with this confection of upholstery because some of the deepest moments of spiritual growth in my life have taken place on its slightly shimmery surface.
Coffee in hand, of course, I’d curl up under a blanket while the morning went from dark to sort of light the way it does when winter is subtly making its way onto the scene, as if the sun has a filter that only allows it to shine weakly at best. I’d open my Bible to where I left off the day before and read, feeling little imprint from the words on the pages. Every morning I did this. For months. For a year. Winter gave way to spring, then summer and fall, until the mornings were once again as still and cold, and unbroken by sunlight as they were the winter before. Long nights of restlessness followed by bleary-eyed attempts at obedience are what characterized my life during that time. Sometimes with a spark of hope, sometimes with the brittle edge of cynicism, but mostly with a frayed sense of apathy.
But past experience had taught me that dry spells are just that—spells. Seasons. They may feel long, and they may actually be long, but they won’t last forever. Many mornings I longed to go back to sleep, but I was coping with an unnamed illness that kept me in such pain at night that by the time the sun began its daily ascent, I was relieved to do something other than feigning sleep. It looked like dull drudgery, but it was something the Lord was drawing out of me, wringing out me actually.
It was perseverance. And it was driven by desperation for something, anything. I needed the Lord to speak to me and give me hope, so I daily fought the pull to disbelieve Him. But it was God who patiently met me in the mornings whether I was aware of Him or not. He repeated the words of old as my eyes flicked over them on the pages. And one morning, after months and months of scraping the surface, the words that I thought hadn’t penetrated the chunk of ice in my chest suddenly began to warm and thaw me out.
I remember when it happened. It wasn’t magical or formulaic. But I had decided that day to read the Word with God’s character as my focal point instead of me as the focal point. Too much self-focus was part of my problem, and it certainly didn’t lead to joy. I knew enough about myself and all the ways I felt discontent. I’d spent a year listing the way life had failed me, tried to hold on to threads of hope that seemed to be loosely woven through Scripture. There was no joy in it.
Joy had to come from the God I claimed to love but wasn’t sure loved me like I needed Him to. Perseverance kept me in the Word, but the Spirit did the work of defrosting the listlessness of my heart. The words I’d read with my circumstances wrapped around them had seemed distant and difficult to apply. But when my focus shifted from my story to God’s story, everything changed. When I no longer took the role as protagonist, the real Hero of the story took center stage on every page. And He was bigger than I had ever imagined. He was good, He was kind, He was patient, He was loyal, He was gracious, merciful, truthful, just, near, present. The Bible I’d plodded through for a year was suddenly a stream of water I couldn’t swallow fast enough.
The Word was the same, but the reader was different.
The frosty mornings of that winter became the setting for joy I’d not been able to find in years past. I look back to those days with fondness, and not just because now we’re in the height of summer with all its thick humidity and hovering mosquitoes. I look back with thankfulness because the plodding was hard and it lasted a long time, but it was not for nothing. The Lord taught me to persevere in it. To keep plodding without really knowing why. He gently led me to trust Him when all seemed dark. He was beside me on that wretched pink couch, seemingly silent, but near. In the year of silence, He was still speaking to me. The words I read may have seemed dry and ineffective, but they weren’t without purpose and they did their work in the way they needed to do it in that stretch of time. We want to be people who persevere, but perseverance isn’t learned in times of fullness and fruitfulness. It’s learned in hardship, in barrenness, in desperation, in dullness. The beauty of the spiritual dry spell is that it doesn’t have to be wasted. Though it seems thick with ice or desperately parched with dryness, in reality it is fertile ground for the cultivation of perseverance which cannot be learned in the soul’s springtime.
Maybe this summer your heart feels dead in your chest. Maybe it’s more like drought than ice. Maybe it’s been summer for a real long time, and your heart is so numb to anything of God that you’d even welcome a strong negative feeling if only to feel something. Or maybe you diligently open the Word, scour it for hope but struggle to find it. I promise you it is there, but sometimes our hearts are too weighted with indifference to see it.
If that’s you, here are my words to you:
This is where perseverance gets to grow and do its work, so that you can eventually be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:4) Perseverance isn’t planted in the times of richness and bounty. By definition it comes from plodding on, steadily persistent when there are obstacles and discouragement, when the day is long and the nights longer still. This is when it matters the most that you keep plodding. Eventually, the Lord will say, “enough,” and your heart will become soft again to the Word He’s given you. And on the other side of it, you have the hard-learned gift of perseverance in your pocket that will serve you well in days of future suffering.
Keep plodding, friends. Turn the story on its head. Step out of the leading role, and read the story with its rightful Protagonist in place. The Bible is about God. Focus on Him and who He says He is. When you can’t muster up anything to say to Him for all the apathy that’s deep down in you, just read it all back to Him. Remind Him who He is. Not because He forgets, but because we do.
One day the dry spell will end, and when the Lord perseveres you through it by helping you plod on daily, you will sit on the other side of it in amazement that the same Word you mucked your way through can suddenly be so alive, so active, so useful, so fierce in the intense display of God’s goodness.
The Word is the same, but the reader can be different.
This is post #6 in the series “Knowing God in His Own Words.”