In 2015, everything changed.
The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.
The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.
This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.
Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue.
Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus. It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us.
So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through. The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.
Here are some of the things I have been thinking about:
My Latest Reflections
It would be years before I came across that reading again and the reminder of a prayer I lost the hope to pray. A prayer that God answered in a way I could never have imagined. My dear ones had not only made peace, but now laughed together and cared for one another.
If you are like me, the mere suggestion that we might say no to a request, particularly in the church, raises all sorts of objections. “I can’t do that – people are counting on me”, we might say. Yet what if this is but a mask? What if our refusal to say no is keeping us from going deeper in our relationship with the Lord? Like Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, what if Jesus wants us to say no to other demands? What if Jesus is calling people to count on him and not on us?
The questions we ask amid our discouragements are incredibly important. They point us to the where Jesus calls us to a deeper experience of himself. This means that the place of your discouragement, along with the question connected to it, may be a place of dislodging, and a time where you can grow more deeply into the person that Jesus is calling us to be.