I’d love to travel on a sailboat. To hang out over the railing, the wind whipping the rigging, flying fast and free over the foamy blue. Sun, salt, and sea-spray lightening the red of my hair, utterly unbridled joy and excitement. This water-daughter has lived most her life by the sea, and would love to sail upon it, to reach glorious lands yet unknown (at least to me).
And in a way, that’s what I’d like my spiritual journey to be like too. To fly along blown by God’s Spirit, utter and complete joy in everything, each day bringing a new cresting wave of truth and knowledge.
But sometimes the wind stops. The sails droop. And you’re caught in the doldrums—the place feared by sailors of old, where the wind disappears for days, even weeks, and only oars can take you anywhere. It’s a stifling hot still, where everything is numb and the same. You can row and row, but each pull is agonizingly hard and there’s not a glimmer of change on the horizon.
And sometimes, we can get into spiritual doldrums too. Bible reading just doesn’t excite us as it did anymore. You don’t feel overwhelmed by God’s greatness in worship. Prayer seems like a chore, not a privilege. The wind of excitement seems to have completely disappeared, and you’re wondering what happened. You keep rowing, keep on going, but there seems to be no change, and you’re tempted to throw the oars overboard in defeat.
But there’s some things we need to remember when we get caught in the doldrums of life.
Feelings Aren’t Reality
Often, when we get into these places, we’re tempted to stop all our spiritual disciplines, saying “I just don’t feel like it, I’m just not getting anything out of it.” But our emotional response is not actual reality.
Our emotions are there to help us see and understand life, yes. Anger helps us to realize that something is wrong, fear is to keep us from danger, and happiness is to tell us that everything is right around us. But they don’t always match up with the truth. I may feel like I’m hurting myself when I exercise, (I turn red and sweat and have difficulty breathing. All signs of an allergic reaction. So obviously…) but the truth is that I am making myself stronger. I may feel like another bowl of ice cream will help my tiredness, but really I’m just giving myself a sugar crash at 7 that night. I can be angry when I am truly in the wrong, fearful of truly nothing, or happy with false hope.
Just because we don’t feel close to God doesn’t mean He’s not there.
We Can’t Control Our Feelings, But Rather Our Response
Feelings are fleeting, fickle things that we have little control over. We feel frustrated or upset because we had a hard day at work, or someone cut us off in traffic, or we have low blood sugar. We might feel delighted simply because of the sun, or dreary just because of the clouds. There are a thousand little synapses and chemicals blipping about in our brains that we can’t control, at most we can only encourage a few of them.
But we can control our responses. We can control our actions. I may feel dreary because the morning is overcast, but I can still restrain myself from finding fault with everything. I may feel exuberant from the adrenaline of a loud game night with friends, but I can still chose to be quiet when I return home so I won’t wake the baby. I may have a hundred little factors of annoyances and distractions that day, but still chose to come to God’s Word and throne and worship Him.
God doesn’t blame us for the emotions of our minds. So many times David came to Him in sadness or anger or frustration. There are several Psalms where he says that God feels out of reach, like He doesn’t see. That doesn’t phase God. He wasn’t upset. Ultimately, He cares about the posture of our hearts.
“Rend your hearts and not your garments,” Joel 2:12 quotes, and David says that the sacrifices that the Lord desires aren’t big showy ones, but one of “a contrite heart.”
Our Feelings Follow Faith
When we chose to do what we know is right, we are choosing what our heart loves. C. S. Lewis says of loving our neighbor:
“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
This is true of loving God as well. One of the curious things about faith is that feeling often follows the action. Our emotions will eventually come around. Just as athletes end up craving that runner’s high, just as musicians go to the piano to relax, so the more you do something, the more you train your feelings to crave it. When we continue to go to God every day, our emotions will eventually come back in line. So many of those Psalms that start asking God if He is even there end with the psalmist worshiping in God’s presence and peace.
And that’s not to say it’ll happen immediately. Physical habits take 21 days just to stick, how much more spiritual ones? There will be days when your rowing seems useless, where the words of scripture feel just like ink on the paper and your prayers feel like they bounce off the ceiling. But they’re not really.
So keep on. Not because you’ll muster enough stubbornness to pull yourself up by your boot-straps, not because you’ll find the strength within–but because He is within.
We’re Not Fighting On Our Own
You’re not doing this on your own. This isn’t a one-sided attempt. We come to the Word because we have a God who has promised to reveal Himself through it. We’re not trying to reach up to God, He has come down to us. He doesn’t watch impassively as we attempt to scale to Him.
He’s given us the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26). We have His promise, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:2). When we come to Him, He’s like the father in the story of the Prodigal, running to meet us. We know that as we press on to become closer to God, that He is actively both coming close and drawing us close Himself. Despite what we might sometime feel, we’re not doing this alone.
He calls us to come. When that is what we desire to do, when that is what we attempt to do, regardless of what our emotions might say, He is pleased.
Yes, we might feel stuck in the doldrums of faith right now. But keep on rowing. Every stroke takes us closer to the land where we shall dwell in His presence forever. We shall be changed, and our emotions will match the reality of Him who is our fullness of joy. Then we shall sail in flying freedom, exploring the endless waves of His eternal glory and grace.