Creating a devotional life with God can be a difficult discipline to cultivate.
I have experienced seasons when my devotional life with God seemed unstoppable. I can recall a period of time in seminary when I could not set the Bible down. It was like being addicted to Netflix - I just could not get enough of it!
Conversely, I have also gone through long slumps when my alone time with God felt like sledging through mud. Each step felt hard and exhausting. I still loved Jesus and valued my faith, but my desire to invest into it wained - and sometimes for unknown reasons.
Doesn't it seem odd that any of us would feel that way when spending time with the Creator of the Universe who rescued us from sin and death?
If this resonates with you, then I can imagine that like me, you have felt ashamed of yourself for feeling that way toward God. During low seasons in my relationship with God, I have struggled with myself and feelings of unworthiness. I suppose, however, that this is due to our sin, which has not yet fully been eradicated, blinding us from investing into our relationship with Jesus.
Though we know who wins the game, the game is not yet over. And so more than likely, you and I will continue to go through seasons of feeling distant from God so long as we live in a world still groaning for full and final redemption.
So what do you do in these kinds of seasons? Give up on a devotional life altogether? Or when you feel distant from God, should you just set the Bible on your bookshelf until you feel closer?
I don't think so.
Rather, I have found insight in interpreting my relationship with God in a similar kind of way that I do with my other relationships. Every relationship - whether you realize it or not - goes through life stages, as outlined here:
- Forming - the genesis of a relationship - the first encounter, including excitement and idealism
- Storming - conflict that arises between you and the other - often relationships that cannot withstand conflict do not make it past this stage.
- Norming - when both people in the relationship can make resolutions, gain understanding of one another, and appreciate the other regardless of differences
- Performing - the relationship thrives and grows almost effortlessly
- Reforming - as both people in the relationship grow, inevitably change ensues and the previous norm for the relationship shifts. At this point, if the people in the relationship do not adjust to the shifting norms of the relationship, then the relationship will end at at this stage and not reform into a new norm.
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman first came up with the memorable phrase "forming, storming, norming, and performing" in his 1965 article, "Developmental Sequence in Small Groups." He used it to describe the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. Later, he added a fifth stage, "adjourning" (which is sometimes known as "mourning").
Other professors, such as mine from Princeton, Kenda Creasy Dean, has adapted the final stage of 'adjourning' to 'reforming.' I have adopted her approach for a faith-based understanding of our relationship with God. I want to believe that our faith and relationship with God is continual, constantly reforming, and not adjourning after we reach the climax of the performing stage.
While Tuckman created this outline for small groups, I believe the same outline is true for our personal relationships, as well as our relationship with God. Small groups are simply relationships, and our faith in God, too, is a relationship that follows similar patterns (though there are complexities and dynamics in our faith with God that are mysterious and outside the realm of human understanding). Think about your relationships with others and with God. Does it follow this pattern?
I think many of us feel lost or distant from God during either the storming or reforming stages, especially after a long period of 'performance' and health. At these junctures, I hear people talk about God as being far from them or even non-existent - the same people who just weeks or months earlier enjoyed a solid, faithful relationship with God.
What happened? Did God change?
I don't think so.
I think when we hit a drought in our relationship with God, perhaps one of the questions that we need to ask is: "Where am I in my relationship cycle with God." Yes there are other questions that you need to ask, but you need to include this one in your list. Perhaps you encountered some kind of life dilemma, crisis, or conflict that caused you to re-evaluate your worldview. Those factors can certainly influence the life cycles of all of your relationships, especially your relationship with God. Often, what seems like a theological crisis of faith can actually be just a shifting relational norm.
Let me close with a personal example.
When I was in college, I can remember sitting in a New Testament class, learning about "Source Criticism," a big phrase that simply means the study of investigating what sources influenced the letters of Scripture. My professor made a remark that many scholars believe that the author of Mark used a source called Q to write his letter. (For more information about this, you can Google it. So fascinating!) This is a widely held idea that almost all people believe about the book of Mark.
Yet, I remember so well some of my friends feeling upset about the presented idea that Mark wrote his letter with the assistance of another source (in the same way that you would write a paper with referenced sources). They could not believe that something else other than eyewitness testimony would influence the writing of Scripture.
This was a disorienting dilemma for many of my friends. It shook the norm of their faith, caused a storm, which could not reform into a new norm. One of my friends even left the faith. Crazy!
No doubt, every one of us will experience each one of these phases in our relationship with God. May you know that the grace of God as you go in and out of each of these phases, and may you know the unchanging mercy and unwavering love of God for you as you do!
QUESTION: Where are you in your relationship cycle with God?