It was September—the morning of my 27th birthday. I was in the middle of teaching a classroom full of high school students when I received the phone call no one wants to hear.
My mother had died.
In front of me sat a cake. My sixth period students had brought it to celebrate the day and endearingly distract me from any real instruction, but I had to go. I had to catch a flight home. I still remember, seared in my mind, the image of that cake sitting on top of a half-graded stack of vocabulary homework. “Happy birthday, Mrs. McPhers–,” it read. A careless thumb had somehow smudged the last two letters. And as I looked at it, I remember thinking, I will never know what ‘happy’ means again.
My mother’s death came only four days before my first wedding anniversary, only six weeks after I began my first full-time teaching position, and only nine months after I made an agonizing 1,058-mile move from the blue bonnet hills of Waco, Texas to the dry deserts of Phoenix, Arizona. It had only been a year since she had been diagnosed with the horrific Lou Gehrig’s disease, better known as ALS.
That day, if I’m being honest, was not the start of a grief journey. Rather, it was the culmination of a perfect storm of a hundred big and small hardships: financial struggles, physical issues, relational misunderstandings, rejection, disappointment, uprootedness, emotional upheaval. These altogether produced a kind of soul trauma in me. I was living in the literal desert of Phoenix, but I had entered a spiritual desert too.
As a pastor’s daughter, I had done all the right things growing up. I had lived the ‘right’ kind of life as best as I knew how. And because of that, when hardship came, I felt betrayed by God. I felt abandoned, stripped of what mattered most.
How could a loving God do this to me?
A DESERT SEASON OF THE SOUL
A spiritual desert season is often called a crisis of faith or a dark night of the soul. It’s a time of deep, painful spiritual questioning, a time when you feel like all the certainties and securities of life are being stripped away, and what is left is just not enough to keep you going.
In my desert season, I felt spiritually dry. Drier than I’d ever felt before. I also felt alone, even in a room full of family and friends. I spent my days feeling broken, weak, and grieving. And I was angry. Angry at God. Angry that He had taken my mother. Angry that He could allow such excruciating pain to come, especially after I had dedicated so much of my life to following Him.
As I look back now, I can see that God had a purpose for my pain. He always does. He never wastes our suffering; rather, He uses it to teach us lessons we would never learn otherwise. Does God want us to suffer? No, not one bit. But He’s not afraid of pain in the way we are. And He doesn’t go out of His way to keep us from seasons of struggling because He knows and can see the greater good to come. He also knows that the lessons we need to learn and the person He wants us to become sometimes requires walking down a difficult desert path to get there.
It’s humbling to say this now, but I spent years stumbling around in my own spiritual desert. It took years, in fact, until my hunger and thirst for real spiritual answers grew to the point where it overtook my anger. It took years until I was so dehydrated spiritually, so hungry for God that I was willing to lay down the belief that God had betrayed me. I had to choose to seek Him again. I began to go to God with my anger and ask Him my thousands of ‘why’ questions.
And He began to answer me.
Walking out of my spiritual desert actually started with the concept of heaven. I began to read near-death experience books like “Heaven is For Real” by Todd Burpo, and all the books on heaven I could find. Then, I buried myself in God’s Word. I poured over the gospels of Jesus, the book of Genesis, the Psalms. They came alive to me, and I began to discover at a deeper level who God is.
What I discovered surprised me. God is more loving, more compassionate, more patient than I’d ever thought He could be. He’s also stronger, wiser, and ever faithful even when we are faithless. We don’t have to perform for Him, and He doesn’t expect us to measure up to some arbitrary religious standard. He doesn’t care at all about that ‘good girl‘ image; He just wants us. He wants each one of us to come to Him just as we are, and let Him talk to us, walk with us, and help us through whatever we are facing.
In my journey, God’s Living Water finally did flow. Drip by tiny drip at first, because like the physical desert I was incredibly dry. But each drop nourished me just enough. Each dribble of peace quenched me for just that day, and for that day’s circumstances.
I did not ‘feel’ spiritually full during that season, but I somehow knew God was filling me. I did not feel very close to Him either, but I began to believe He was still near.
Has God answered all my “why” questions in my spiritual journey? No. But He’s continuing to draw me toward answers. Do I feel His presence with me every moment of every day? Again, no. But I’ve learned my feelings are fickle, and often unreliable. Whether or not I feel Him, I’ve come to accept He is present. His grace is sufficient. He is faithful and He is working in ways that I can and cannot see. In Isaiah 43:19 God promises, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” And that’s just what He did for me.
God has been cultivating in me a passion to share the lessons He taught me along the way to help and encourage others when they find themselves in their own spiritual desert place. I’d like to share two with you here.
First, it’s okay to not be okay.
If you are in the midst of a desert season, the most helpful and pressure-relieving thing you can do is to be honest about it. Be honest about how much it hurts. Acknowledge the pain and the spiritual dryness. Take your emotions honestly to the Lord, even if you are angry, fearful, weak, disappointed, bitter, or feel betrayed.
In the desert, there is a plant that grows called the brittlebush. Its name comes from the ease at which its branches break when brushed up against or touched. But few realize that at the brittlebush’s core, a resin runs through it. The resin makes it incredibly strong, dependable, and resilient. Ancient tribes, in fact, would use brittlebush resin to waterproof their pottery and build their shelters. They would fashion tools by adhering stone blades to wooden handles with brittlebush glue.
If you find yourself in a spiritual desert feeling brittle and not okay, God still has you. He’s holding you together in the way He held the Israelites together in the deserts of Sinai and in the way He held David together when he ran into the wilderness to escape from Saul who was trying to kill him.
God will hold you together like brittlebush resin. Jesus will be the resin inside of you.
Second, God will always provide, but His provision will come bit by bit.
If you are struggling to find your way through the desert right now, I want to reassure you God will provide. What He rarely does, however, is miraculously remove us from the desert experience we are in and instantly fix all our difficult circumstances. Instead, He leads us through them by providing what we need.
He gives strength for one single day at a time.
In the arid regions of Israel, many herds of sheep roam. They survive and even thrive because each shepherd leads them across rugged hillsides by the sound of his voice. The shepherd sings and the sheep follow. The shepherd guides them to the places where small tufts of grass and nourishment can be found.
To the sheep, they probably feel like they’re wandering aimlessly, going nowhere. They probably crave surplus, a barn full of hay or wheat. But the shepherd has a much higher vantage point and a much bigger plan. He knows that leading each ewe and lamb, tuft by tuft, is the best way. It’s the only way for them to grow strong, the only way they will learn to really listen. And it’s the only way they will fully depend upon him.
Last September, for my birthday, I decided to make my own cake. It was double-chocolate, chocolate chip, and the most decadent and delicious cake I have ever tasted. I baked it with care all by myself, and as I sat down to slowly eat a big gooey slice, I felt genuinely happy.
I thought about my mother. I thought about the journey I’ve been on and the hardships I’ve faced. And then I chose to thank God for them. It was a step of faith, to be sure, but I took it, nonetheless. I thanked Him because He’s the One who has authored a faith in me. He has been perfecting my faith day by day—a much deeper faith than I ever would have had if my mother hadn’t have died.
I also thanked Him for the spiritual fruit I’ve begun to see coming from my desert journey, fruit that has only grown because God made my roots go deep. I still struggle with having to go through life, my journey of motherhood, and the experience of being a pastor’s wife without my mother to lean on. And yet, the drops of Living Water that God has graciously poured into me have begun to spring forth and seep out like from a cracked vase. They’ve begun to quench others who are also thirsty.
For that, I can easily say I am grateful.
And of course, I’m grateful for chocolate cake too.
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Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your desert journey. So faith building!
Barb, I’m so glad these words encouraged you!
This is encouraging and much needed. Thank you for sharing your heart and what the Lord is doing in your life!
Celia, thank you for reading these words. I’m so glad they have encouraged you in your spiritual journey! Blessings to you!
Lovely and so inspiring! Thank you for sharing. Your mom would be proud!
I am struggling right now and came across your post. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m a pastor’s daughter, too, and lost my parents to cancer 10 and 12 years ago. Lately I feel like I am going through a spiritual desert. Your words encouraged me.
It means so much to me that you would share a little of your story here, Cynthia. These desert seasons we walk are so very difficult. They’re long and lonely and painful, but hang on to Jesus (even if you can’t “feel” His presence all the time). He will get you through this and will give you such a wealth of compassion and a deeper understanding of grace, so much so, your life will be an incredible blessing to others beyond what you can see now. I’m saying a prayer for God to fill you with peace, His greater understanding, and hope right now! Blessings, friend.
Thank you for this beautiful explanation of “The dark night of the soul”. I am preparing to speak on this subject with missionaries at a contemplative prayer retreat, and you have so beautifully and succinctly articulated the concept. Thank you! I will probably borrow a few phrases, bur will give you credit. I would love for all of them to read this well written piece in it’s entirety! Thank you for your vulnerability…your story is compelling…your takeaways are eternal!