One of the most beautiful truths for us as Christians is that God is our Shepherd. He is a Shepherd that knows us and leads us to where we need to be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Psalm 23:1 tells us that, “He makes us lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” The moments in life when we find ourselves in pleasant places like this are the ones when our hearts are nearest to God’s presence.
But, if you are like me, it does not take long before I find myself wandering off into the wilderness. Sometimes, I wander off because of circumstances that are tempting me to leave God’s presence. Other times it’s just downright sin. Typically though, I wander because I become bored with God. I’m just not as impressed with Him like I was when He first brought me to those pleasant places.
The danger of wandering though, is that sometimes we wander too far. We break the spiritual treeline and head straight into the desert. Being full with the rest we received when we were beside the still waters, we keep on wandering. Then, at some point along the way, the heat from our circumstances and the fatigue from walking catches up with us. We become thirsty and then reality hits us—we’ve gone too far.
Now we find ourselves in the middle of the desert with no water and no strength to make it back. Our heart’s desire is to be back in the pleasant places of God’s presence, but because of the sin or circumstances that drove us to the desert, we are too weak to return. We are stuck in a spiritual desert.
Being stuck in a spiritual desert is when your heart longs for God’s presence, but you don’t know how to find it. It’s when you have a prolonged season of sitting down to read God’s Word—wanting to hear from Him—but the words feel lifeless. It’s when you are with God’s people Sunday after Sunday and you want to worship, but the songs or the sermon just don’t move you. It’s when you consistently participate in the things of God but rarely experience His life giving presence.
What do you do when you are in a spiritual desert?
We see the answer in David’s prayer in Psalm 63:1-8. In this passage, David finds himself stranded in a literal desert. He has been on the run from King Saul who is trying to kill him because God has anointed David to be the next king of Israel. Eventually, he finds himself with no strength and no water, yet his soul longs to worship God. By looking at David’s prayer, we see a template for what to do when we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1-8 ESV)
Step 1: Acknowledge
As we see in David’s prayer, he begins verse 1 by acknowledging three things—God, his spiritual longing, and his present weakness.
David starts his prayer by acknowledging God. However, he does not acknowledge God generally, but personally. “O God, you are my God.” David is acknowledging his awareness of the relationship. He is acknowledging who God truly is to him.
When you find yourself in a spiritual desert, start your prayer by acknowledging who God truly is. He is your God. He is your Friend. He is your Lord. He is your Savior. He is your Shepherd—the One who can lead you back to pleasant places.
After acknowledging God, David then expresses his spiritual longing for God. He is earnestly seeking God and acknowledges how much his soul longs for Him. Notice that he doesn’t say he is longing for something God will do, he is longing for Him; God as a person, His presence, not His power or His gifts.
When you find yourself in a spiritual desert, confess to God how much you want Him. Don’t ask for Him to do something or fix something. Confess your longing for Him and His presence.
Finally, David acknowledges his physical weakness and the circumstances that contribute to it. David wants to be close to God, but his flesh is too weak because he is in a desert with no water. There is nothing in himself that can find the strength he needs to pursue the longings of his heart.
When you find yourself in a spiritual desert, honestly express where you are physically, emotionally, spiritually, or mentally that has you stuck in the desert. What got you to that place? What made you wander in the first place?
Step 2: Remember
In verse 2, David then remembers a time when he wasn’t in the desert. He thinks about a moment in his life when he experienced the power and weight of God because he was so near to His presence. This for him was the sanctuary—the place where God’s presence dwelled and where God’s people worshipped Him. In the sanctuary, David was “beholding [God’s] glory and power.” When he remembers these powerful moments of worship, it immediately reminds his heart of what is true in the present moment. God’s love right now is better than life is. It does not matter if he is in the sanctuary or a desert, God’s love is better than his circumstances.
When you are stuck in a spiritual desert you need to look back on a moment when you deeply experienced the presence of God in your life. A moment in your history so real that you experienced the power and glory of God like never before. Let that moment bring you back to the present situation and remember that the God who was with you then is with you now—His love is better than life.
For me, this moment is my baptism. I think about it every time I find myself unimpressed with God. It was my junior year of college and my dad had just been diagnosed with ALS, a terminal neurological disease with no form of effective treatment. It was in the midst of deep brokenness that I went into the water—brokenness of sin’s impact on the world, brokenness of my dying dad, and brokenness of my sin against a Holy God. But I did not stay in the brokenness. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, I rose from the waters as a new creation in Christ. I vividly remember feeling the grace of Jesus, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit surrounding every part of me in that moment. God’s love was better than life then, and it still is now as I type this.
Step 3: Look Ahead
Even though David has a rich moment reflecting on a powerful past experience of God’s presence, it doesn’t change his circumstances in the present. He is still in the desert. But, he knows he won’t be there for long. Look at what tense he begins to speak in—the future. Starting in verse 3 and through the rest of the passage he looks ahead to his worship of God.
“My lips will praise you …”
“I will bless you …”
“I will lift up my hands …”
“My soul will be satisfied …”
“My mouth will praise you with joyful lips …”
“I will sing for joy …”
Like David, look ahead. In faith, tell God that you know you are not where you want to be, but you are not where you will be. Look ahead and anticipate the upcoming moments when you will be back in the pleasant places near the presence of God with a heart longing to worship the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.
As you remain in the desert, trust that God will give you living water for your soul. Your Shepherd may lead you out of the desert and back to green pastures and still waters by changing your circumstances. Or He may keep you in the desert and give you roots that draw deep waters. Even though your circumstances stay the same, you experience the pleasant place of God’s presence because the desert does not parch your soul like it did before.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7–8 ESV)