“Our moods do not believe in each other.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson hit the proverbial nail on the head in this succinct little quote. It’s a simple yet important truth that the philosopher elaborated upon: “Life is a train of moods … as we pass through them they prove to be many colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.” There is a great deal of truth in that observation. When we are up, it is hard to imagine being down and discouraged, but when we are down, it is often difficult to believe that the feelings are temporary and will pass.
Although we may understand and live with this aspect of physical life, as Christians we don’t always apply that understanding spiritually – although it is equally true of our spiritual lives. In his thought-provoking work The Screwtape Letters* C.S. Lewis noted that there are times when God seems particularly close to us and our spiritual lives seem to go easily: our faith seems strong, we want to do what is right – and temptations to do otherwise seem relatively easy to overcome. Yet there are other times when God seems more distant, our faith seems less secure, and overcoming temptation may seem infinitely harder.
So our spiritual lives, just like our physical lives, are a series of ups and downs, of peaks and troughs that “hardly believe in each other.” But that is not the bad news we often presume it to be. In writing about this fluctuation in our spiritual experience, Lewis stated: “Now it may surprise you to learn that [God] … relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”
In fact, Lewis tells us, although God may often seem close to us and we may frequently experience true spiritual “peaks,” God never allows this state of affairs to last long: “Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from … conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish.”
On the surface, this situation may seem extremely discouraging, but Lewis effectively argued that it is during such “trough periods,” much more than during the peak periods, that we are growing into the sort of creatures God wants us to be: “He wants [us] to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there, He is pleased even with [our] stumbles.”
This is an important understanding. God allowing us to go through spiritual “lows” means that our efforts during those times are especially appreciated by him. “Hence,” Lewis writes, “the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.” That is an incredibly encouraging perspective if we can grasp it and make it ours. Although the spiritual aspect of our lives has its ups and downs and droughts as well as times of abundance, our God can and does use the spiritual lows of our lives if we let him.
When we demonstrate that we want to continue to walk with God even when we do not feel inspired or particularly blessed or helped, we demonstrate the reality of our commitment. The apostle Peter wrote: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Although these words apply directly to active problems and persecution the Christian may encounter, the principle applies just as much to the spiritual “low” times of our everyday lives.
Just like the daily temperature cycle, we will always experience “lows and highs” in our spiritual lives. Realizing that if we maintain our dedication lows do not last forever, and that while we are in them they are opportunities to grow that spiritual highs do not give us, can make a big difference in how we live and what we accomplish.
The main thing is not to presume that whatever spiritual phase we find ourselves in is somehow our “spiritual condition.” The only true measure of where we are spiritually is the combination of our highs and lows. So, as Lewis and many other Christian thinkers have stressed, we should not simply try to live and endure through our spiritual low periods. Seeing them for what they are, we should accept our low periods as opportunities to fight the good fight with renewed dedication – realizing they are opportunities to accomplish more than we may accomplish even during our “highs.”
*All C.S. Lewis quotes in this article are taken from chapter 8 of The Screwtape Letters, originally published in London during 1941 and 1942.