I have just returned to work after three weeks of holiday. Each time I meet someone they ask, ‘How was it?’ My best reply is that it was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t the happiest of times. My lower back was strained on Christmas Eve and its only just come good after a box of anti-inflammatory drugs, physiotherapy and persistent exercises the physiotherapist taught me, so a good deal of the holiday was focused on getting better. The cause of my sore back was carrying shopping bags, but the deeper cause was my body was saying it had had enough. After a busy year and the approaching Christmas demands and church services, it (my back) ‘went’. I painfully worked through the next two Sunday services, including a New Year’s service, and finished off organising things which need to be attended to while I was away and then went on holidays. I should have recognised the signs earlier, but didn’t.
Quite soon after commencing my holidays I drifted into a place which I like to call ‘unfaith’. It is not that I would deny the Creed; it is rather that I lacked the motivation and the heart to affirm it. People who enter this place are indifferent to the things of God. Something had come and taken me captive. My heart, emotions, mind and spirit felt dead. This condition is well known and documented, but rarely spoken of in the church, where a triumphalism underlies much of its life and activities. When called ‘spiritual depression’ as I have heard some call it, it sounds as bad as a catching a cold. It’s not. It’s more like developing influenza and sometimes it has fatal consequences to the Christian taken down by it. It was not that I now blatantly disbelieved in God; it was that he had become remote, even irrelevant. I now found myself in a place where I struggled to believe.
This condition which I call, ‘unfaith’ is not an active unbelief, but a half way house of not being active in my belief in Jesus, the church, miracles, God’s activity in the world and all that stuff. Unfaith is both a feeling and a disposition toward God of indifference in spite of continuing to claim to know something of God. ‘Unfaith’ has a range of expressions and degrees in its condition. At its worst, it’s an indulgence in being passive, waiting for proof by the proud. A milder version is sensed in the testimony of those at church who have had God do some amazing miracle in their lives which provided them with proof of his existence, (or even some mighty deliverance), but now they seem so lifeless in their faith. Their desperate prayer was answered – but now there seems a hollow commitment to a life of pursuing an intimacy with God. The lights have gone out although they continue to go through the motions. I think it strikes those who read questionable theological material which corrodes their faith and leaves them in a place of nowhere, uncertain about anything. Unfaith is probably lurking the in the background as the reason why some leave the institutional church. Due to hurt and pride, they move from being able to say ‘we believe in the holy catholic church’ to ‘we believe that our own individual faith is the only true position’ and leave to search for something which is found beyond the church.
This place of unfaith was not a place I was unfamiliar with however. I had entered this place from time to time in the past, and I had noticed that each time it has been due to exhaustion, be it my mind (from study), my body (from long hours of physical work as a carpenter), my heart and spirituality (from ministry), or my emotions (from draining and difficult pastoral situations). Unfaith is not doubt; doubt is actively questioning, standing outside and judging the truths of Christianity, whereas unfaith is a place where we would like to exercise our faith, but feel dead, weighed down by a shadowy feeling. Unfaith is a place we are taken to and held captive by exhaustion, lethargy; it is a spiritual torpor. It is the place which Elijah experienced under the broom tree (1 Kings 19:4) following a major demonstration of God’s power and answer to prayer. Elijah has a belief in God enough to pray – that his life would be taken, but not enough faith to remember the goodness of God, God’s covenant faithfulness, his call and God’s protection. This malaise of unfaith is often erroneously labelled ‘demonic oppression’ by the overzealous. It is not a lack of mental assent to Christian doctrine, but a condition of the heart whose channels have been well charted by Ignatius of Loyola in his retreat guide: The Spiritual Exercises, in which he notes that we experience alternating periods of desolation and consolation in our relationship with God. In a subsection of The Spiritual Exercises, called “The Rules for Discernment of Spirits”, he notes the symptoms of desolation, the ways of dealing with it when it strikes, the benefits of this condition and how to prepare ourselves for the time when we will enter it for it will surely strike sooner or later.
So at the commencement of my holidays I felt as if I had been led into a wilderness experience: being immersed in a place of barrenness, of silence and feeling remote from day to day life back in civilization. The wilderness was where the children of God spent forty years; it is where Elijah ended up, where Jesus went and countless others throughout history have traversed the dangerous journey through it. We even speak of ‘the political wilderness’ when a leading politician makes a bid for the leadership of their party and fails. They go to the back bench of parliament to lick their wounds and to plot another attempt at getting the numbers.
But unfaith is a normal experience for the Christian that brings with it, some benefits, albeit that it is an unpleasant experience to undergo. It is the place in which we are purged, where we are weaned from our unconscious addiction to adrenalin which is released each time we engage in a ministry situation, even those situations in which both parties are blessed by God. The body’s loss of being regularly flooded with adrenalin sends shockwaves throughout it as withdrawal takes place. Because we do not live as disembodied spirits, our minds, heart, cardio-vascular system and psyche experience a low level shock in response to not having this constant stimulation of adrenalin. (I had to visit the doctor to obtain a new script for my blood pressure tablets and discovered that my blood pressure was about 10 points lower on holidays. I didn’t feel any better, I felt terrible, but my body blood pressure level was saying it was good for me to be away from stress, even good stress and the adrenalin.) It’s good for us physically to withdrawal from this over stimulation or long term health issues will emerge that can remain masked behind a busy and hectic lifestyle. A benefit of this place of unfaith is that we are taught or rather, brought back to earth and brought back to face our humanity again. We are after all, only unworthy servants of our master who are expected to do nothing more and nothing less than what he requires (Lk 17:10), and his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:28-29), although we are inclined to forget this as we undertake projects which are beyond our powers or for causes which we assume are God’s causes. The painful experience of being broken free from our ego driven agendas and programs is experienced as unfaith because we end up in a place waiting around for a new assignment from the Lord. It’s not comfortable waiting in recovery. The terse but poignant reflections by Henri Nouwen of his experience of this place are profoundly beautiful and perhaps the best work he ever produced. (The Inner Voice Of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom”, 1996).
Our experience of unfaith helps reconnect us with the fact that we need to be compassionate toward those broken, exhausted or worn down by life’s struggles and the need to express some compassion toward ourselves as well. In this place of unfaith we relearn again what we have forgotten deep down, that we are saved by grace and not by what we do. It jolts us back into the awareness that we have been given a ministry, not because we are anyone special, or possess superior abilities, intelligence, looks or giftedness, but simply because of God’s love, sovereign choice (election) and grace (1 Cor 1:26-31). This newly recovered awareness helps break the confusion we so often and so easily slip into making between who we are and what we do (our performance), in this place, painful as it is. Due to this experience, the Psalms take on a whole new dimension and we discover that the Bible is not only a faithful record of God’s acts and revelation of his character, but is a faithful record by God’s people of their own responses as they struggle in their faith and trust in God. The Psalms in particular, express the yearnings and disappointments God’s people had with God. In this place of ‘unfaith’ the richness of the Psalms is rediscovered and we are again immersed in the honesty of their authors and touched by their willingness to be so vulnerable, so naked, in their condition and struggle which would be covered up in our modern church. (See for example: Ps 30:1-12; Ps 22:6; Ps 88:15; Ps 119:71 and Ps 77.)
Can we find our way back again out of this deadening condition, to safety, to where God is experienced again? Yes and no. There are a number of things we can do. When lost in the Australian bush, the best thing to do is sit down and wait to be found. Going against all our instincts to find our way home, we must not, but sit and wait. Those who panic and allow fear to take control of them, rush off through the bush and get more lost, over heat and then throw off their clothes to cool down. Searchers just follow the line of cast off clothes from one item to another in order to find them. If they are fortunate, they will be found only suffering from the embarrassment of being lost. The more severe, from hypothermia and dehydration. The best thing to do is wait for God, like the watchman on walls of Jerusalem looking for the first signs in the sky that the dawn was about to break over the horizon (Ps 130:6). We need to wait for our emotions to recover again and not to panic. It is a normal Christian experience as the Psalms testify. It is also good to remember that the deserts are where we begin to hear the voice of God again, not just in the hectic busyness of life and ministry commitments.
Slowly picking up our regular spiritual disciplines are helpful, but without over doing it. Regular everything is good; patterns help re-establish our equilibrium again. Pray a little, but often. Go easy on yourself because you will eventually be brought out into the ‘spacious place’ again (Ps 18:19). The Psalmist is correct in recognising that his deliverance will not come from his own efforts or by whipping himself with guilt or by undertaking a frenzy of religious activities (our natural inclination). It will come from the LORD with whom is constant love and redemption from this place of death and desolation. This place of unfaith is not one I would like to experience again for quite a while, and generally diligence and attention to one’s lifestyle, spiritual disciplines and the number of commitments undertaken are the best protection for being led into this place again, but occasionally its necessary for God himself to take us into this place, if only to discover, that its him alone that we seek and whom we serve.
What did I do on my holidays? Lots of things, from house maintenance, to bogie boarding on the surf; camping, to swimming in a river. The two main things I did work on throughout my holidays was recovering from a sore back which occurred on Christmas Eve; and the other, was to wait for the Lord again, to bring restoration after a demanding year in 2009. My holidays were basically spent in this place of unfaith, recovering. Like the Psalmist of 130, I have also come into the place of hope too – in what God has done and will do in my life this year. The sense of life and communion with God is returning, but it’s taken time and I’m still a work in progress.