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
Labels are a fickle thing. They do not describe what, or whom, they are intended to describe. Instead, they speak only of preconceptions, assumptions, and judgements. Is anyone truly the label they are associated with? If I’m not progressive enough for the progressives, or evangelical enough for the evangelicals, what does that make me?
Ultimately, my discouragement pointed to my own dethronement; to the fact that I do not reside in the center of things. I do not set the course of stars or schedules. I do not dictate what others will do and when they will do them. And what is more, as a Christian person, I do not decide when I am available to serve and when I am not.
Here is the next recording in my ongoing series of discussions regarding the struggles of the Christian life. In this recording, I chat with author Sarahbeth Caplin about her book “Spinning Crap into Ferlizer: How American Christianity has forgotten the necessity of suffering.” Sarabeth has many insightful things to say about the cross, the prosperity … Continue reading In Conversation: Sarahbeth Caplin