Almost every Christian will encounter seasons of spiritual dryness. God seems distant, his love hollow, his fatherly embrace cold, and the joy of salvation non-existent. Instead of a vibrant relationship with God where rivers of living water flow out of your heart, there is the experience of a spiritual drought. You are in the desert, a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. A spiritual lethargy can overtake us that results in a lack of desire to read God’s Word, to pray and worship, or even to be around our church family. Left unchecked, this spiritual sluggishness can last for long periods of time and do significant damage to any Christian life. Possibly as you read these words you are resonating with them and find yourself in just such an inexplicable and unwelcome season.
You are not alone and you are not unusual. The history of the church is full of examples of Christians who have grappled with what the sixteenth century monk Saint John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Even the Bible itself ponders the reality of spiritual gloominess. King David, in the Psalms, frequently gave voice to the seeming absence of God. Consider his cry in Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. (Psalm 22:1-2 NLT) There are a myriad of reasons for the spiritual doldrums, which are often extremely difficult to diagnose. They may include depression, difficult life situations, trouble with relationships, unconfessed sin, disappointment with our finances or our work, the death of a loved one, poor health, or unrealistic spiritual expectations.
The reality of this spiritual malady prompted pastor John Piper to write a book on the subject entitled, When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. Piper quotes the Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter (died in 1691), who reflected on spiritual darkness and desolation that plagued Christians unable to enjoy God. Describing Christians who are spiritually dry, Baxter observed, Delighting in God, and in his Word and ways is the flower of life and true religion. But these that I speak of can delight in nothing—neither God, nor in his Word, nor any duty. Piper’s book is an extended plea to those in a season of the spiritual blahs to fight for joy and a renewed desire for warm intimacy with God. As with many illnesses, the cure for spiritual darkness is neither singular or simple.
So what I offer is a partial cure for the spiritual doldrums through the reading of spiritual biographies. While not a simple fix, spiritual biographies can go a long way in helping us sort though our own dark night of the soul. What we discover when we ponder the lives of famous Christians who have gone before us is that they are a lot like us! They struggled with the same issues of faith and life that plague us. They had the same problems, doubts, disappointments, questions, and seasons of spiritual darkness that we do. When we read spiritual biographies. we make a friend who has fought the fight for faith and, in the process, gives us insight into our own battle. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorites along with some comments:
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Written by Yale historian Roland Bainton, this biography while loaded with historical details, reads much like a fast-paced spy novel. This very readable story of the great sixteenth century German Reformer is full of political intrigue and Luther’s own spiritual despair and guilt. As the young Augustinian monk became disillusioned and despondent over the church of his day, the result was a misunderstanding of the fatherhood of God and how to have a relationship with him. Martin Luther was not enjoying a warm Christian life until he made the great discovery of God’s free grace for his salvation. As Luther is born again and amazed at God’s loving and free gift of salvation, you too will find your heart warmed.
To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson. Author Courtney Anderson takes us on a fascinating journey with Adoniram and Ann Judson, who were newly married and in their early 20s when they became the first missionaries (1812) to leave America. Traveling to Burma to share the gospel in a very hostile environment, we walk with Adoniram as he faces tremendous disappointment in the loss of his first wife (he marries and outlives three wives). Judson’s ministry bore little or no fruit for many years of effort. Furthermore, this earnest missionary endured the humiliation of imprisonment and torture. Judson, deeply disillusioned, ponders, Where is God when we are faithful but things don’t go as we had planned or hoped? Sound familiar? This is a great story of faithful discipleship in the troubling circumstances of the Christian life.
Spurgeon: A New Biography. In this concise biography Arnold Dallimore chronicles the life of Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) who is often referred to as the prince of preachers. Spurgeon preached and pastored in London for 38 years and it is estimated that 10,000,000 people heard his sermons! (No, not by podcast!) There is much in this volume that is spiritually encouraging. What stands out to me, however, is Spurgeon’s life-long struggle with depression and his very candid discussions of his battle. Our mental state can be a huge cause of the spiritual doldrums and it is refreshing to see such a towering figure as Spurgeon find warmth with God in spite of illness.
25 Surprising Marriages: How Great Christians Struggled to Make Their Marriages Work. William Petersen gives us 25 intimate biographical vignettes of well-known Christians and their marital struggles. They are surprising because we often idolize the marriages of famous Christians we don’t know personally. It turns out their marriages are just like ours! Some of the universal issues that most marriages face, such as financial worries, temptation, separation, and personality differences, are addressed. This volume reminds us that spiritual vitality with God is possible even in the midst of marital tensions.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Best-selling author Eric Metaxas takes us on a fascinating journey where we read of Bonhoeffer’s moral and spiritual courage in the face of the monstrous evil of Hitler’s authoritarian rule. Bonhoeffer, who was eventually martyred at age 39, lived in the midst of difficult circumstances and yet remained faithful, trusting in God’s providence. Metaxas shows us the inside story of Bonhoeffer’s heart-wrenching decisions and moral courage.
Born Again. In this autobiography, Charles Colson tells his own story of brokenness and conversion. After serving under President Nixon in 1974, Charles Colson pleaded guilty to Watergate-related offenses and, after a tumultuous investigation, served seven months in prison. The result was that this once arrogant man began his search for meaning and purpose and, in the process, came to faith in Christ and was born again. This amazing memoir shows a man who was at the pinnacle of success and power, and then, paradoxically, meets God through national disgrace and incarceration. This is a great biography for anyone who struggles with pride, which includes all of us.
To be continually and joyously basking in the peace of a warm relationship with Christ does not come easily to sinful and complex people. Realism reminds us that periods of spiritual doldrums will descend on us like unwanted stormy weather. For those of us who have been born again, we need to pray that we would be continually born again, and again, and again…. Not in the sense that we need to be saved again, for we are forever secure as God’s adopted children. Rather, in the sense that our experience of God’s grace and love is fresh, enlivening our spiritual life. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Psalm 90:14