I had a worrysome encounter on Twitter, and I thought it ought to go public. I’m following (and being followed by) a large assortment of people, one of whom speculated aloud that some folks probably leave church disappointed because they’re resisting God. I replied with a question about how many people leave church disappointed because God is hiding from them.
The person to whom I’d replied asked me to explain, and I said that sometimes God will appear to withdraw from us a bit because that silence makes us stronger and effects change in our hearts. While we might be used to feeling joy or consolation when we pray, suddenly it vanishes, and it’s not our fault. It’s because God has pulled back.
Catholics call this “The Dark Night of the Soul,” or more popularly, “the dry spell.” It’s a known phenomenon, in other words, and it’s expected. At times, God will play hide-and-seek in order to deepen our commitment.
This person wrote back and said that Protestants experience this too, but they call it “backsliding” or “growing cold.”
Cue my horror.
Backsliding is absolutely a different breed of bird from the dry spell. One backslides when one stops putting effort into prayer and stops caring about God. We grow cold when we stop investing in a relationship. It’s a failure in us to pursue God.
A dry spell, by contrast, is God’s decision not to respond to us when we come to him. One of the hallmarks of a dry spell is that you continue investing in the relationship, continue putting in the effort, and you feel no results. You haven’t gone cold: God’s taken the wood off the fire. You haven’t backslidden at all. In fact, you’re probably moving forward because you’re operating totally on faith rather than on reward.
That’s why I’m horrified: because in a state of dryness, we need the community around us to keep us in place, reassure us, and support us with confidence. Whereas if you feel your community is going to blame you for God’s self-imposed silence, where can you turn?
I replied to this person that a dry spell is a good thing. A painful thing, but a good thing. If God is depriving us of the sensory reward for relating to him, then we’re staying in place through obedience. And yes, “going through the motions” has its true value in this time, when we don’t feel like doing it but we do it anyhow. I’ve been told a dry spell usually presages a time of great spiritual growth.
Having said that, now, I may get a divine smackdown while God makes me put my money where my words are. I don’t know. But if it does happen, God is still there. Quiet, maybe. Hiding. But there, and as in any game of hide-and-seek, he wants us to keep looking.
There’s a very valuable discussion of dry spells at Conversion Diary. Make sure to read the CS Lewis quote in the comments, because it’s a perfect encapsulation of what a dry spell is and why God causes them.