This is, perhaps, the opening of a much longer discussion (thus, the numeral with question mark appended to the title). The subject cannot be quickly covered, and shouldn’t be. But what I post here will open it.
Desolation is a word that speaks volumes in itself. I’ve been reading Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, to my eldest son. He loves it, and he particularly enjoys trying to trace the journey of Bilbo and the dwarves on the map that sits in our volume of the story. So when I come across “desolation,” it’s a word that reminds me of the desolation of Smaug. Dragon fire, death, destruction, decay. Lots of “d”s. I think in general, we look on desolation as a negative. It speaks of negative things, and we want nothing to do with it. But we would do well to remember that out of the desolation of a forest fire comes the new growth of the forest. Gifts come in different packages, and it is no surprise if some come disguised in garb we aren’t familiar, or comfortable, with.
That’s right. Desolation is a gift.
So, let’s start at the beginning. The experience of many, in coming to faith in Jesus, is that they find an incredible consolation (as the ancients put it) – an experience of God’s tangible presence with them as they approach via whatever road they’re travelling at the time: hymnody (or praise music), liturgy, Bible study, prayer, mediation. When faith in Jesus is enlivened in the human heart, people invariably seek to go deeper with Him. When they engage this process of deepening relationship, by whatever means available to them, they receive consolation – a joy-filled and exciting experience of God’s pleasure and presence with them. It is God’s affirmation to them that they are on the right track, that He is pleased with them.
But there tends to come a time in a believer’s journey with God when this consolatory experience is withdrawn. God pulls it back. This is desolation. This is the desert, the dryness, the lack of invigoration or vitality that had become associated with pursuing God. Praying the daily offices just doesn’t feel the same anymore. Praying for others feels like more of a burden than it did. Reading and studying the Bible loses its lustre, because it used to feel so clear but now it feels so empty. Fellowship with other Christians feels like a charade. Perhaps you’ve felt some of these – maybe less markedly than described here. Maybe more pronounced than described here. Perhaps you feel that way right now.
I think that our tendency is to try to avoid that as best we can. We rotate through the Christian disciplines so that whatever it is we’re doing, it’s always something fresh. “When liturgical worship started to feel dry to me, I switched to a more evangelical tradition that incorporated more praise music into communal worship.” Or the other way around. “When my prayers started to feel impotent, I gave up praying and started to read the Bible more, and to study it deeper. When that started to feel dry and contrived, I gave myself over to meditation of the things of God – you know, eternal things. When that started to lose its flavour, I started praying again.” For some Christians, these cycles characterize their whole lives. “Whatever works for me, for right now.”
The hard truth, which I’ll leave you to contemplate, is that for many of us we aren’t engaging spiritual disciplines because we love Jesus and want to go deeper with Him, but because we love the feeling of consolation that He gives. The evidence: we chase that feeling, unsure that we’re “doing it right” unless it is present.
More on this another time. First, we will look a little more closely at consolation itself. But that will be next time.