We all lose our way with God at some time or other; more honesty in the Christian community would help those who no longer know which way to turn.
Travelling on the road in foggy conditions is a disconcerting and uneasy experience. It is monotonous; the vivid contours of the countryside blanketed out like the colouring book of a clumsy toddler. Deprived of familiar sights and spaces, there is little sense of enjoyment or progress; above all, there is the fear of what lies in the density of fog, just ahead of you, which you are unprepared for and may not be able to respond to in time. It is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for how most people experience their walk with God at some point or other.
There is a subtle interplay between feelings and faith. The former often prompts the latter, as people suffer the intangible spiritual ache to make sense of their lives. Faith in Christ unstops a broken flow of emotion, often resulting in an intoxicating feeling of being in love in a new way. Some may experience this more keenly than others, but most Christians recognise John Wesley’s mood of being ‘strangely warmed’ by the saving presence of God. It is tempting for new Christians, invigorated by new and unexpected emotions, to come to rely on these as a guarantor of salvation; the risk of confusion comes when these feelings dry up like vapour.
Every person has a unique way of relating to God, rooted in their personality and life story. A familiar culture and the shared bond of the Holy Spirit ensure each personal Christian story has a common family identity and, whether we can embrace it or not, part of this experience is to lack a sense of God’s presence and warmth or the assurance of his will at various times. In Psalms 42 and 43, the author’s refrain echoes through the centuries:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
The words demonstrate a familiar self-awareness: the brain asks the brain why it feels the way it does, revealing the difficulty inherent in trying to argue ourselves out of sadness and depression. For some people, this may be a passing phase; for others, a groove which defines a period of their lives. Much guilt is often attendant on such moods. A nagging voice chips away, asking what excuse there is for such gloominess when God has given us a Spirit of joy and hope; when the promise of salvation shall soon be realised; when others suffer so much more. This guilt may be reinforced by the careless remarks of others who lack the empathy, tolerance or theology to accept the fog surrounding us.
Those who have been there ask for signs from God: sometimes these are offered; occasionally they are missed; at other times all that remains is the enveloping fog. These moments, drab as they are, amount to defining experiences of faith every bit as valuable as the marvel of being filled with the Holy Spirit. They are also blown along by disappointment which may cause us to drift away from God imperceptibly, like an inflatable on the summer sea. Like negotiating the fog, accidents may occur when people are unprepared for what lies beyond their line of sight. Most of us recognise this spiritual danger with a shudder.
There is no simplistic blueprint for dealing with spiritual fog, but there are some controls we are advised to use. Pilots of light aircraft are familiar with the risks of fog and are trained to respect their controls rather than their senses. Trusting in the latter rather than the former when flying can be treacherously deceptive; it feels as if the plane is on a safe and level flight path when the pilot may have put it into a lethal corkscrew downwards. There is no way of knowing; human senses must be eschewed in favour of the control panel. In like manner, Christians surrounded by spiritual fog should keep good habits of prayer, Bible reading and fellowship. They may feel as tasteless as food does for someone with a cold, but without them little nourishment is going into the body and the cold must be fed.
The challenge is to keep these habits up when we don’t feel like them or when a sulky mood provokes us to turn away from God. Putting ourselves in the likeliest position for blessing means keeping up fellowship with other Christians, through whom God may touch us first. Human moods are infectious and genuinely change when they encounter a different inflection.
The Psalmist goes on to say:
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
One advantage of living through the fog is that mature reflection on it tells us we shall once again feel like praising God instinctively. One strange corollary is that we tend only to share our sense of barrenness once we have lived through it. Sometimes Christian testimony needs to come from the depths of confusion and despair in order that others may be encouraged that they are not alone.
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