Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,
and backward, but I do not perceive him;
on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him;
he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
A woman wiser than me called it “trail time.” Periods of uncertainty, suffering, failure, illness, broken relationships, or just the wearing-down of daily living, when it seems like the joyous presence of God has departed. Ecstatic, mountaintop experiences account only for short periods of life. The greater time is spent in the space between summits, plodding along stony, and sometimes perilous paths.
C. S. Lewis touches on this subject in The Screwtape Letters, a fictional correspondence between two devils scheming to snatch a human soul away from newfound faith. In one letter, Wormwood, the senior tempter, offers counsel on what he calls the “troughs” — periods of spiritual dryness in the life of the “patient.” Although the believer may experience, at times, the intense “emotional sweetness” of the presence of God, this state does not continue indefinitely:
Sooner or later He [God] withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their 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. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. . . . He wants them 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 their stumbles.1
Troughs are crucial seasons in the life of faith, revealing the rotting, lesser crutches on which we depend, conditioning our spiritual muscles, and nurturing our hope in heaven. Sorrow and suffering produce immense spiritual momentum. Grasping their hands as traveling companions, like Much Afraid in Hannah Hurnard’s time-honored allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places, strengthens our stride over time. Rejecting them produces bitterness and strain, because the troughs will find us, whether or not we look for them.
Last year the season of Lent corresponded with an extended trough time in my life. New to the Anglican Church, I was observing this marker in the Christian calendar for the first time, and I found that it wasn’t what I’d heard. Although Lent’s significance has diminished in the popular imagination to a forty-day crash diet, it has little to do with self-improvement. Lent is an expedition, a pilgrimage to the cross of Calvary that culminates in the feast of Resurrection Sunday. Although Lent is known primarily for disciplines of abstinence, such as fasting and sacrifice, it is also a time for what Dallas Willard calls “disciplines of engagement,”2 like prayer, study, and service. These disciplines serve as intensive spiritual trainers that cleanse and prepare the heart for the abundance of Easter.
In the weeks leading up to Lent, I found the spirit of the season sharpened when sorrow and suffering became my unexpected travel companions. A family member received diagnosis of an incurable disease, a relationship ended abruptly, and a young sibling ran away from home, sparking a frantic, 36-hour search. When I arrived at the Ash Wednesday service, my skin prickled with grief. The upcoming fast stretched out in front of me like harsh and unforgiving tundra. I wept while my pastor made the sign of the cross in ashes on my forehead.
In addition to my chosen fast, I added a discipline of engagement: a chapter a day in the book of Job. Few stories address the raw uncertainty of suffering like Job does. It is a place for questions, it is a place to grieve, and at forty-two chapters long, it is the perfect length for Lent. I followed Job’s fall from prosperity and health to ashes and potshards, the seven days of silence, the stanzas of speech between Job and his comforters, the divine cross-examination. I started strong, but as the days wore on, it became harder to get up early. Work sped up. Family came to visit. I missed several mornings in a row. In search of comfort, I broke my fast.
Despite the stumbles and missteps during my Lenten trough, important changes were happening in my heart. First, I realized how many flimsy, temporal supports had taken the place of my divine dependence: food and drink, relationships, the inherited faith of my family. All are good gifts from God, but none are capable of bearing our spiritual weight. In A Grief Observed, Lewis writes:
God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. . . . My temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.3
No lesser gods can survive the inner forest fires that occur in the troughs.
Second, I discovered that despite my constant stumbling, my spiritual muscles were still stretching and growing. Runners will find familiar territory in this analogy. In the beginning, running is agony: cramping, dry heaving, and headaches. Over time, persistence results in progress. Every run improves, if only a little. Coasting is not conditioning. The hardest part of mastering a discipline is staying in the game after the fascination has faded, as Eugene Peterson writes in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue.”4 There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth. It is arduous, slow, and every bit the “long obedience” that Peterson describes.
Finally, as I plodded on toward Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday, I found my hopes altered and increased. I longed less for things I had given up and more for the coming of the One who transforms sorrow and suffering into grace and glory. Time wore on. I felt weary, raw, and ready. “Hold on a little longer,” I told myself. “Easter is coming.” Hoping for Easter nurtured my hope in the final celebration to come outside of time.
At my little Anglican church, the congregation keeps the Great Vigil from the evening of Holy Saturday until midnight on Resurrection Sunday. At a crucial point in the service, there are three sharp knocks on the church door. The music swells, the incense rises, and the drab banners of mourning drop, revealing a kaleidoscope of color and light. Afterward, there is a great feast, an abundance of wine and laughter into the early hours of Easter. We celebrate like the children at the end of The Last Battle: “The term is over: the holidays have begun. . . . This is the morning.”5
I read the last chapter of Job after the holiday, like the last marathoner to straggle across the finish line. For me, the trail was not over. There would be many troughs to come. The seasons of Lent and Easter are only a microcosms of the life of faith, a brief rhythm in which we enter into the sufferings of Jesus, and in so doing, come to resemble Him with increasing clarity.
And when he has tried us, we shall come out as gold.