Symptoms of Spiritual Dryness
It can be safely said that joy is the most elementary and most natural expression of a life lived in close fellowship with the living God. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). In Psalm 84:2, the Psalmist cries out, “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
However, all of us know that there are days or even weeks and months when we cannot echo honestly what the Psalmist says. Our heart does not “sing for joy,” let alone, our flesh. In fact, any joyful feeling seems far away and all our efforts to bring about such a feeling fail.
The “living God” seems dead. We read the Bible, but its words do not speak to us. Our devotional life becomes an empty habit. We have no desire to pray. The Bible study leaves us indifferent. Christian virtues strike us as dull and unattractive. Our conscience becomes insensitive and blunt.
Verses like: “How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psa. 119:103) strike us almost as mockery. On the contrary, we are tempted to say God’s Word tastes insipid or even bitter. We could say with David, “My years are spent with sighing” (Psa. 31:10).
Such periods of spiritual dryness cause a tremendous amount of suffering in the life of a Christian. He tortures himself with the question: “Why am I not able to love God as I did before?” He endures deep conflicts, especially when he has to act as if he loved God, while inwardly everything is dead in him. If at least he could be silent during such periods! But the world around him needs and expects his love. The sick and the dying want to be comforted. Hurt and lonely people want to be understood. His family, students, congregation and fellow Christians want to be ministered to and strengthened. Nobody really knows what desperation is who has never faced another human being craving help when inside he feels completely empty and dry.
Religious reasoning rather than one’s emotions being all-important would probably say that the problem of “spiritual dryness” is entirely unimportant. It does not matter whether we feel joyful in our encounter with God. In fact, our “feeling” is entirely irrelevant to faith. What counts is that we believe in God’s Word and its promises even if we do not feel anything of His power. The lack of feeling even challenges the greatness of our faith.
This argument is not altogether wrong. It may well be that when everything is dead in me, I can only cling to the fact of God’s promise that I am and remain His child whether I feel like it or not.
Nevertheless, we should not conclude that this state of faith without feeling should always remain and that this is the normal situation for a Christian. Such dryness and barrenness is not normal, and we should endeavor to overcome it.
But to overcome spiritual dryness we have to first understand the causes. I would venture to give five possible reasons.
Causes of Spiritual Dryness
Sometimes a definite transgression of God’s commandments, a conscious action against His will, which a person refuses to admit and to uncover puts him into a state of dryness: “When I kept silent about my sin, … my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer” (Psa. 32:3-4).
However, my experience in counseling has taught me that people who suffer from spiritual dryness are often very conscientious, sincere Christians who long for the nearness of the Lord and who are most careful to follow His will. Their problem is that in spite of this longing and carefulness and without being conscious of guilt, they feel remote from God and cannot help themselves.
2. Undernourishment and inertia.
It is a spiritual law: “The one who gives out much must also take in much.” The transgression of this law leads to spiritual dryness. The question which comes up here is the order of our daily prayer time and personal Bible study. It is not enough for a Christian to study the Bible only for a special purpose – in order to prepare a sermon, a Bible study or a message for a specific occasion. The daily quiet time where he allows his Heavenly Father to address him personally is as important for his spiritual health as his daily meals are for his physical health. If he gives out continuously without taking in, he will run dry.
However, in the spiritual realm, undernourishment can be caused not only by not taking in enough, but also by not passing on enough. The one who takes in much must also give out much – otherwise he may lose what he has.
Spiritual dryness may well be the result of an undernourishment which is caused by not feeding others. Many Christians are not inactive because they ran “dry,” but they ran “dry” because they are inactive. Their inertia (lack of involvement in evangelizing the spiritually lost and building up Christians spiritually) is not the effect of their dryness, but rather its cause.
3. Overfeeding and over-strain.
I have observed that we are often afflicted with spiritual dryness after religious highlight experiences. After a Christian retreat or Bible conference, especially if it was fruitful, when we have been blessed by the richness of God’s Word, we may suddenly fall into dryness.
Therefore, we have to recognize that there is not only the possibility of a spiritual undernourishment, but of a spiritual overfeeding as well.
There are Christians who are able to take in an unlimited amount of spiritual food. They may belong to three different weekly Bible study groups or prayer circles and seem not to suffer any harm.
However, we have to realize that there are other Christians, just as sincere, whose spiritual condition is more sensitive and whose capacity to take in spiritual food is therefore limited. Overfeeding may damage their spiritual life and put them into a state of uttermost dryness.
There is also the possibility of spiritual overstrain. After a heavy week of evangelizing, following up new Christians, leading Bible studies, and preaching sermons, Christian leaders may feel dead in their hearts on weekends.
Such spiritual overstrain can even affect a person over a longer period of time. A forced religious education in childhood – an overfeeding with joyless, routine family devotions – may result in an adult dried-up state of indifference concerning spiritual matters. The mere mention of Bible study may cause antagonistic feelings.
4. Disregard of our body.
Another cause of spiritual dryness is hinted at in Psalm 31:9: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also.” Just as joy affects heart and flesh (Psa. 84:2), distress affects soul and body.
It is an accepted fact today that body and soul are a unity and that a sick mind can be the cause for a sick body. “When I kept silent … my body wasted away … My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer” (Psa. 32:3-4). Here illness of the soul causes physical illness.
However, we have to learn that it can also work the other way around: Disregard of our physical life may affect our psychological health and cause spiritual illness.
We Christians usually tend to overemphasize the spiritual side of life and underestimate the importance of biological facts – body chemistry, atmospheric pressure, weather, water and air pollution. We tear body and soul apart. What is said about husband and wife in marriage may well have application also for body and soul: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6).
It is true, a good pianist may be able to play on an old instrument. But even the best pianist cannot give full expression to the music he would like to play if the piano is out of tune.
Disregard of the physical aspect of life may cause spiritual dryness.
5. Loss of balance.
Our conversion to Jesus Christ does not relieve us from observing the order of the creation of which we are a part. God’s creation is built upon the balance between work and rest. “The seventh day God rested from all His work which He had done in creation” (Gen. 2:3).
In this respect, our lives are often hopelessly out of balance. We are overworked and are even proud of it. But if we neglect this rhythm between work and rest and despise the balance which God has put into His creation, we pay for it by the loss of our creative spiritual forces and again the condition of spiritual dryness results.
Therapy for Spiritual Dryness
Help for those who suffer from spiritual dryness has to be determined according to the cause.
Confession and renewed assurance of forgiveness is the only help if a definite sin has been committed and is recognized as cause. However, as mentioned above, seldom should sin be automatically assumed. A gentle feeler in this direction may not hurt, but the counselor should be careful not to make the mistake of Job’s friends who insisted that sin must be the cause of sickness. It can even be harmful for a person paralyzed by dryness to be exposed to moral judgments.
2. Discipline and responsibility.
If undernourishment is the cause, practical help for a new discipline in personal prayer and Bible reading is indispensable. The more practical, the better.
We depend too much on secondhand sermons and Christian literature. Learning from others is good and necessary, but it alone is not enough. What we need to learn is to live more by firsthand experience – to dig out our spiritual food ourselves through personal Bible study.
Many need to be challenged by someone else in order to submit to a certain order of life. Order is not legalism. Legalism kills; order revives our spiritual life. Once a person has committed himself to a certain order and discipline, he feels almost momentarily refreshed. There is no life without order – also no spiritual life.
In this respect it is good to make a decision about the best time for daily Bible reading and prayer. Although the morning hour is ideal, it is not always possible. The recommendation of a Bible reading guide and suggestions for prayer may be helpful.
You need to be willing to take on a certain responsibility in God’s kingdom (e.g., evangelism, teaching a Bible study, etc.). The fulfillment of a task, even if it may be very small, will have healing effects on an undernourishment which is caused by inertia (lack of involvement in other people’s lives).
3. Religious fasting.
The cause of spiritual overfeeding demands the greatest courage of the counselor. In this case it could make things worse to tell such a person to pray more, study the Bible longer and attend more church meetings. This would be the same as advising a diabetic to eat more sweets and sugar.
It is probably much more helpful to prescribe to such a person a period of spiritual fasting, to advise him to limit his Bible studying to a minimum, to pray only shortly, to abstain from the reading of religious books and to step back from church activities for a while – until the appetite for spiritual food is aroused again.
As I said, it certainly takes courage to give such advice and the one who does it will be exposed to severe criticism by dear, pious people who need habits – even if they are empty – in order to feel “secure” and who give in this way proof of their deep-seated insecurity.
4. Diet and exercise.
Sleep and rest is the first answer in cases where a neglect of the physical aspect of our life is indicated. Also the diet is important. Does it, for example, include enough vitamins? More fruits and vegetables should be recommended and hiking and swimming encouraged. Then too, clean skin and air, good digestion and sunshine may sometimes do more good to our spiritual health than soul massage or hell-fire and brimstone sermons.
5. Playful serenity.
A new balance of life may be more difficult to achieve than many think. It may demand a complete rearrangement of one’s work and schedule and a change in the general style of life. Yet, spiritually, it may be very important. Do I take time out to relax, to celebrate, to play games? Do I sometimes do something without a purpose, allow myself to be completely absorbed by a hobby?
A playful serenity achieved in this way may be a greater testimony for our Lord than pious seriousness. At the same time, such serenity may revive in us new creative forces and open the gates to new spiritual depths.
“This illness is not unto death.” (John 11:4)
One final point has to be made: We should not consider spiritual dryness as only a calamity.
First of all, it should deeply comfort us that the Bible knows about such suffering and understands us as the above-quoted passages show. People in the Bible who walked close to God have had the same experience as we have: “My tongue cleaves to my jaws; And You lay me in the dust of death” (Psa. 22:15).
In fact, all those who have lived an intensive religious life – I think of Luther, Pascal, Kierkegaard – had to struggle through periods of spiritual dryness sometimes to the point of desperation. Often the intensity of such suffering may be in direct relationship to the intensity of a person’s life with God, just as deep valleys show up only in the face of high mountains.
Therefore, we do not need to be ashamed of “dryness”; we can give up our attempts to hide it behind an ever-ready “Christian” smile, pretending to be joyful when we are not.
I have always been deeply comforted by the thought that suffering because God seems far away is only possible because, at other times, I have experienced His nearness. If we look at it in this way, then the suffering because of spiritual dryness may be a sign that the Holy Spirit is present in us, and it may contain the promise of new spiritual health.
We should, therefore, learn to consider spiritual dryness not only as a sickness, but rather as a wholesome fever, a symptom of recovery. We can think of those who suffer from it as the ones who are already sick among those who are not yet sick. It may be God’s way of knocking at the door to announce that He wants to enter into fresh fellowship.
Someone may ask: “Why does God have to come to us again and again? Is He not always there – always near to us?” Did He not say: “Behold, I am with you always”? He did. He is with us and yet He has to come. This is the mystery of our Christian life.
Seen from God’s point of view, He is always equally near to us, closer than our own skin, whether or not we feel Him. His relationship to us is an uninterrupted line.
Looking at it from our side, our relationship to God is often an interrupted line. Sometimes we feel closer to Him, sometimes farther away. As day and night, heat and frost, summer and winter reign in God’s creation, our spiritual life too is submitted to change and has its dry and rainy seasons.
Again and again we have to struggle through the empty stretches between the dashes of the interrupted line. Again and again God wants to come. Every desert contains the promise of a new advent:
“He changes a wilderness into a pool of water, and a dry land into springs of water. And there He makes the hungry to dwell, so that they may be an inhabited city, and sow fields and plant vineyards, and gather a fruitful harvest” (Psa. 107:35-37).
This Bible study was given at several conferences for African pastors and missionaries. It is based on an article published in Das Missionarische Wort No.7, 1952, written by Prof. Adolf Koeberle, Germany, to whom grateful acknowledgement is made.
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