The song ends, the lights come on and the swaying mass drop their arms and settle into chairs. The pastor crosses the stage and starts his sermon: “One out of every two of you will fall away. In two, five, 10 years from now, half of you will stop believing. Your lives will look no different than anyone else’s.”
I remember it well. And there was a time not that long ago when maybe I would have said: “I’ve fallen away. I never thought I’d be this far from God. This cynical. This hard-hearted.” I was ashamed and all I wanted was to get back to the spiritual fervor of that earlier time … but I seriously doubted it would ever happen.
If asked, any of us would readily admit the spiritual life is one of highs and lows, valleys and mountaintops. And yet, if pressed further, many of us would also admit to having despaired during a low time—to having given up on ever seeing a mountain peak again.
So how are you supposed to carry on your faith during a low time? How do you survive and come out still believing?
The post-graduation slump
Though the cycle of spiritual peaks and valleys will go on indefinitely throughout life, for many, that first big drop happens right after college.
There are a few people who are called into full-time ministry, but the vast majority leave college and start careers in the secular workforce. And that time—the first years in a new job and maybe a new city—can be extremely taxing on spiritual lives. Starting a career demands a time and dedication that college jobs and homework rarely ever do. And, of course, in our mid-20s many of us get married and start families. Suddenly, it’s three years after college and a spiritual life has taken a backseat to so many other concerns. After such a rich time of community and spiritual growth, the inevitable valley is that much more devastating. The questions that come along with it can truly rock your faith: Why does God seem so distant? Why is it so hard for me to connect with Him? Am I even still a Christian? Was any of what I experienced back then real? Why can’t I find a church as alive as my community in college?
Grasping at straws
The knee-jerk reaction to such questions is to try and figure out how to get back to those spiritual highs. And, as with so many things in life, the tangible and measurable are the easiest to remember: the hour-long daily quiet times, the Bible reading, the journaling, the every-other-day prayer meetings, the small groups.
It’s easy to look back at the good times and feel like it was the forms—the activities—that made those times what they were and want to reengage them. According to Josh Loveless, pastor of STATUS Church in Orlando, Fla., such a pursuit is a dangerous one. “You have to stop trying to recreate what worked last year,” he says. “Stop playing that worship CD that ‘did it for you’ three years ago.
“The danger is that your relationship with God can move into a relationship with religion rather than God,” Loveless continues. “You feel like you found a way to connect with God, but maybe you need to ask if there are other ways that God wants to meet with you.”
To try and recreate the spiritual high by recreating the activities of that time can lead to frustration, burnout and legalism—ultimately decaying your relationship with God.
It’s easy to forget it was because of God’s grace and His Spirit moving in your life that those spiritual forms and activities helped you connect with Him in the past. Those activities flowed from an intimacy and relationship with God … not the other way around.
Only the real deal
Of course, there is an opposite extreme to be wary of. In the avoidance of empty forms, it’s easy to simply do nothing. For many in our generation, the pursuit of authenticity has trumped all other pursuits. Above all else, we desire to be real. We relentlessly question our motives and the motives of others, testing them for any sign of falseness, for any indication of forced affectation. We don’t want to make ourselves do anything—we want to want to do it.
It’s a legitimate concern, of course, and one that can lead people to seek ways to connect with God during dry times that are outside of the box and the prescribed means of finding God. Growing is never an easy thing, and the Christian call is one that requires living unselfishly—which means sometimes you really do have to do things you don’t want to right in that moment.
“There’s a sloppy thinking that starts when you realize there are some false motivations in your life,” says Curt Harlow, the west coast area director for Chi Alpha Campus Ministries. “You go from, ‘This is not the right reason for doing it,’ to, ‘OK, then I am not going to do it,’ instead of asking: ‘What is the right way to do it? And how can I rediscover it?’
“So a lot of times we abandon the standard because we realize we have been doing it for the wrong reason. The right response is not to abandon the standard, but to have the standard birthed out of something more correct, more true, more authentic, more sustainable.”
It’s a both/and … and then some
So what to do? How do we discover these new ways of renewing our intimacy with the Lord?
“You start by caring about the relationship,” Loveless says. “If you don’t care about your relationship with God eroding, then there’s nothing you can do to kick-start spiritual practices. If you care, then you need to embrace the instruments of spontaneity and structure—side-by-side. The sustainability of spiritual practices in our life hinges on the harmony of these two perspectives.”
Loveless also encourages a holistic perspective on spiritual formation—one that does not limit your relationship with God to only spiritual disciplines.
“Instead we have to begin to look at our physical life, emotional life, financial life, relational life, gifts and talents, and spiritual practices as equally valuable when it comes to our daily invitation to the Holy Spirit,” he says.
When we recognize God is part of—and working in—every area of our life, we rely on Him more and seek Him more often, not waiting until or relying on those prescribed forms of connecting. Nor are we so quick to think we’re failing in our relationship because we haven’t had a good “quiet time” in months.
Harlow recommends various practices for connecting to the Lord in new ways—and reminds Christians to recognize who they are and what types of methods work for their temperament. Harlow suggests mixing it up by listening to the Bible in audio form, going through the Stations of the Cross and meditating on the Passion of the Christ, and reading spiritual commentaries and apologetic pieces.
Even if you try new methods of connecting with God, it’s important to always remember why you are seeking God. Base your actions in gratitude—remembering God’s love and His sacrifice. It’s about the relationship.
“Prayer is the one practice you can’t move away from when you’re in a season like this,” Loveless says. “Prayer is like the ocean, and all the other spiritual practices are ways you get to sail or fish or surf and experience all the ocean has to offer. You can lay aside some of the other practices for certain seasons, but the speaking and listening to the voice of God is like walking away from the ocean altogether. Prayer is our lifeline to relationship.”
The journey is the destination
By even asking these questions of high times and low times, we seem to be admitting one is better than the other. There’s a desire to “get through” the low times in order to “get back” to the high times. But what if both times are equally good? And not just in a clichéd way that says the low times are pruning and prepping us for the bigger, better times … but in a way that embraces the low times as some of our most precious times with God.
“Are we comparing this and that instead of embracing that they both are what they’re supposed to be?” Austin asks. “And that might be the challenge we face—that we look at the dry times as a negative, instead of part of His journey with us.”
The Psalms and Prophets are filled with praises and laments. The Israelites journeyed from the wilderness to the Promised Land to captivity and back again. Theirs was not a straight path, but it was characterized by their relationship with God. They never lost sight of their story as connected in covenant with the Almighty. The same must be true for us.
Don’t look back at that last high season, and don’t lament your current dry season. Anticipate the next season God has for you, but engage with this season you’re in right now. Understand that it will change you and it will change your faith. You cannot go back. But you can move forward—tested and purified