Spiritual Dryness: A Call to Go Deeper

by Francis MacNutt
May/Jun 2009

If you are discouraged in your faith, this is meant to encourage you. You need to know that there is a kind of discouragement that God allows so that you can grow in intimacy with Him. In fact, without it, you will never really grow up as a Christian.

What I want to share with you comes from traditional Christian spirituality and hundreds of years of experience; yet most Christians today haven't ever heard of this wisdom, distilled from generations of dedicated followers of Christ. I think it would help greatly if all Christians knew what our ancestors in the Faith ("the communion of saints") have learned. So here goes.

These times of discouragement are described by such authors as St. John of the Cross, as Dark Nights. They are referred to as dark, not because they are evil, but because during them, we can't see or understand what's going on. We feel spiritually lost. The path is obscure and we have to abandon ourselves to naked faith in order to follow God's leading.

If we have been recently converted and are really trying to lead a decent Christian life, we become confused. Why do I feel so miserable and lost now, when I felt so wonderful about my Christian walk a year ago? I'm going backwards. Then we are tempted to give up or tone down our Christian commitment. It's not enjoyable any more. That's why it's so important for us to understand what is really happening. God is calling us to come deeper into His life. The problem is that just when we are about to move forward in faith, we feel like we are going backward, so we quit.

Traditional spiritual wisdom teaches us that this discouragement is normal. What happens is that we seek God for selfish reasons, because we get an emotional high out of religious services, or out of prayer, or when we are gloriously baptized in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if we are going to grow, God has to wean us from using God in our search for spiritual pleasure. He wants us to seek Him and love Him for Himself alone and not just what He can give us. We must learn to love God and our fellow human beings, even when it leads to suffering and sacrifice.

Without God's transforming power, we tend to seek our own pleasure, whether through food, sex or entertainment. Then when we have a conversion experience, we may think we are totally renewed, but are blind to the fact that our pleasure-seeking is just not as gross or obvious as it used to be. It has simply been elevated to another level; it is still mixed with excessive self-seeking.

In the beginning, most of us feel the joy of conversion or of the Baptism of the Spirit (or of the "Toronto Blessing"); in these we feel great joy and exhilaration. These glorious experiences are like falling in love, a honeymoon experience in which God woos and attracts us. Many evangelistic and healing services emphasize happy feelings: people shout and are filled with incredible joy. And this is good - very good, in fact.

But it is only the beginning. The intense emotional high eventually drops down to an everyday level. The first time you see someone fall over, overcome by the power of the Spirit, you are amazed. But by the time you see the thousandth, you may feel (though you probably won't say it out loud), "So, what's new?"

The danger now is that you may simply seek a greater high in some other church, or through some other ministry. You are tempted to associate the anointing of the Spirit with how you feel at any particular moment. You may scorn non-emotional Christians as God's "frozen Chosen," because you have learned to judge Christianity by how people feel—by an emotional judgment. Unless God jolts you out of that rut, you will remain at the level of seeking your own pleasure.

The reason God allows these desolate spiritual periods—and we all experience them—is simply because, even after our conversion, we tend to be basically selfish, only we don't realize it. So God has to cleanse us, almost in spite of ourselves, so that we can really love Him and not ourselves. In this stage the emotional highs we experience at the beginning of our Christian walk are replaced by dryness and even boredom.

This sense of desolation is the first of three Dark Nights—the Night of the Senses—of the emotions. (Unfortunately, we don't have space in this issue to go into the other two Nights.) The beginning of this deepening movement of God can be frightening. The important thing for us to remember (and we usually need a spiritual director or Christian friends to reassure us) is that, so long as we continue to hold on and continue to be obedient to those things God calls us to do, we are still on the right path. The temptation will be to believe that we have lost our first love—that we are going backwards—that it's no longer worth the effort. The opposite is true: we are moving forwards—we are going deeper into Faith - holding on because we trust God and not our feelings. We simply need to be stripped of self-seeking; as Scripture says over and over, we are like gold that must be refined in the fire to be made vessels fit for the Master's use. But fire hurts, and we shrink back from the heat, much less the anvil!

Traditional Christian wisdom teaches that most people flee the pain necessary for purgation—this cleansing of selfish motivations and dependence on emotional highs that I have been describing—and they just stop growing. Today this is reflected in the hordes of Christians who stop at this first level and wander from church to church looking for spiritual excitement. Unfortunately, most of us never move much beyond that initial stage of spiritual self-seeking by allowing God to strip us of self until we are able to become the loving servants Jesus has called us to be. If we know, though, that daylight alternates with periods of spiritual night and that great joy alternates with times of desolation, we will be able to endure this process of purgation until we become more like Jesus.

Some Practical Things To Consider When Under Trial:

1. Most of our initial religious breakthroughs are accompanied by great joy - or at least comfort.

2. In time this usually fades.

3. Then, because we judge our relationship with God by our good feelings, we believe that we are backsliding when we go through a time of spiritual dryness or desolation.

4. The human tendency then is either to slack off in our prayer life or to try to recapture the early honeymoon stage by wandering around to meetings (churches) that feed our emotional needs and desire for control (the "Health, Wealth and Success Gospel"). We flee from the Cross, just as Peter did.

5. It is very hard for us then to see what is really happening: that God is letting us be stripped of self-seeking so that we may seek and find him alone. We have been using God to achieve pleasurable feelings or selfish goals (even seeking healing can become a somewhat selfish quest) instead of seeking God for himself. We all do this to some extent, it's natural to us; so, in order to grow we have to let God wean us. This feels miserable—as if God doesn't love us anymore. So we may give up. We become like the seed sown by the wayside or among the weeds that is choked off after a good beginning.

6. Ideally, we will have a spiritual director to reassure us and help us discern what God is trying to accomplish in our lives—someone wise in the ways of the Spirit to help us trust enough to go deeper into God.

7. There are a series of trials, Nights like this, each harder than the last—each stripping us of something we had identified with being religious. For instance, your prayer life may become very dry; you may feel that you have no faith or love anymore; you may not enjoy being with other people anymore; you may find religious meetings that used to feed you now seem empty; your ministry may falter. But again, we read about these trials in the lives of all the saints (look at the lives of King David and the Apostle Paul, for example). It is only by holding steady and moving beyond our feelings and what the world defines as success, that we will grow to full maturity as Christians.

8. There are multitudes of Christians who do not realize this (although you see it clearly in the Gospels and Paul's letters) and remain in a perpetual state of spiritual adolescence—especially in religious groups that highlight religious experience as the hallmark of maturity.

9. This is not to say we do not need religious experience and times of great joy (like the "Toronto Blessing"). Very few would ever marry if they did not first fall in love!


Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. May/Jun 2009 Issue