Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), the great ancient philosopher and theologian of the Christian Church, wrote nakedly in his Confessions about a period of his life in which he faced spiritual apathy. He said,
“I was astonished that although I now loved you…I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world…as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.”
Can you relate to this? I know I can. At one time the Christian walk is a state of perpetual wonder and fire, God is front and center, and everything else gives but a bitter aftertaste. But steadily, regressively, a waxing and a waning seep into the soul. Spiritual things, God-centered things, lose their glistening luster. You catch yourself, rebuke the slow fade, and earnestly try to reignite the fading passion, only to have such intentions peter-out as fast as they came to the mind. The heavens seem to re-calcify and you are once again drawn into a state of mind-wandering indifference. Sound familiar?
If this is you, or you fear it could be but aren’t sure, here is advice: keep going. Press through. Lean into Christ. Journey across the trough.
The problem is not the trough itself but the view you have of it.
You should expect times in which spiritual drought tries to creep into your soul. It is a given. It is a biblical truism. This is contrary to many a person that is obsessively seeking after some “experience” – running hither and thither to this or that conference or church service – with the hopes of having a perpetual catharsis of gyrating emotional fervor.
The fact is the Christian life is not going to be one perpetually ecstatic revival service. It does not work that way.
We are told over and over and over again to expect troughs and struggles as Christians, not unending emotional highs. We are told that our spiritual walk will be marked by perseverance (Romans 5:3-5), that we will war against strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), that hardships and calamities and weakness are a given (2 Corinthians 12:9-10), that we will have tests of endurance (James 1:1-3), that we will wrestle against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), that we will experience suffering (Romans 8:18, 1 Peter 5), and that our fleshly cravings will war against us (Galatians 5:17).
The point is: struggle and hardship are a given reality of spiritual life. Get used to it.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) gets all of this across powerfully in The Screwtape Letters through the senior demon Screwtape advising the junior devil Wormwood on how to exploit his Christian patient’s spiritual trough. Screwtape writes,
So you ‘have great hopes that the patient’s [the Christians] religious phase is dying away’, have you? I always thought the Training College had gone to pieces since they put old Slubgob at the head of it, and now I am sure. Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?
[The law of] undulation [is that] repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life— his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.…
Now it may surprise you to learn that in His [God’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks….
[The Enemy (God) is] prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning [of their spiritual walks]. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He 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 [the patient] is growing into the sort of creature He [God] wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. 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. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.…
I hope [all of this has not] convinced you that the trough of dullness or ‘dryness’ through which your patient is going at present will…of itself, give you his soul, but needs to be properly exploited. What forms the exploitation should take I will now consider….
[One chief way of] exploiting the trough [is] through the patient’s own thoughts about it. As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind. Do not let him suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition. Having once got this misconception well fixed in his head, you may then proceed in various ways. It all depends on whether your man is of the desponding type who can be tempted to despair or of the wishful-thinking type who can be assured that all is well. The former type is getting rare among the humans. If your patient should happen to belong to it, everything is easy. You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task now-adays), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will-power, and the game is ours. If he is of the more hopeful type your job is to make him acquiesce in the present low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all. In a week or two you will be making him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive. Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things’. If you can once get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point’, you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.
Notice in the passage the “Law of Undulation” is to be expected, and in fact, is not the sole work of devils. This law, Lewis writes, is an expected “natural” feature of up-and-down happenings in one’s Christian life. God can and often is using this “law” to refine His servants. He is wanting us to “stand on our own two feet” in the sense that we come to a point that we stop leaving our faith on our sleeve and ground it in the reality of everyday struggles and experiences. He is calling us to a mature faith (1 Corinthians 14:20; Ephesians 4:13-15) that takes serious struggle, pain, and suffering.
What does this mean then? It means that the danger is not really going through troughs, the danger lies in allowing the trough to become a valley that one takes up residency in. This is where indifference lies. It is much more about how we see the trough than the troughs themselves. Remember Lewis’ (Screwtapes) words,
“The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going [Wormwood] are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.”
If you are wanting a Biblical equivalent of this then consider the words of the Apostle Peter when he said to the persecuted underground 1st Century Church,
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:6-7
Not your usual health-and-wealth constant victory over your lesser self type of sermon is it? But I digress.
THE DEVILS LOVE A DOMESTICATED FAITH
The devils work their dark magic to massage our souls amid the troughs we go through. They want to make us yawnish with hands folded and spiritual eyes glazed over – to the point that we no longer resists and don’t care that we don’t care about resisting.
How do they do this? One way is to bring us to a state where we domesticate our faith. We come to see ourselves as “grown-up” and beyond the wiles of excessive forms of devotion and prudishness. We come to believe “moderation in all things” and that “religion is all very well up to a point.”
We laugh at our past selves and how naïve and militantly pious we were: Remember the days when we cared about saying certain ‘bad’ words? Ha! How virginal. Or remember when we thought this or that behavior was unbecoming or disrespectful? Jeeze. The “good-old-days” of our Puritanical youth am I right? Or remember that time we preached modesty? Or recall that time we took seriously discerning what we watched on television!? Ho! Those were the days! Am I right? Those were the quaint, naïve, priggish, traditionalist, Pharisaical days of excessive religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism… the only “F” word worth keeping ourselves and our children from.
Such a conversation is all too true for many of us.
It is at this point that the classical arguments of excessive Puritanism rise in the mind. “You are being far too judgmental!” or “Stop being such a prude!” is what comes to our numbed post-modern minds. We need to come to terms that we may have, to some degree, allowed ourselves to be nursed to a spiritual slumber in our contentment with things we once found abhorrent. The Law of Undulation (that up-and-down battle of troughs and peaks) may have flatlined in our souls and we are not even aware of it.
Take inventory dear saint.
THE DEVILS LOVE A HAUGHTY PROGRESSING FAITH
How else do the devils slowly seep spiritual complacency into our hearts? Well before closing I want to argue that another way they do this is through the seemingly most unlikely path: through our spiritual progress.
Yes. Spiritual progress can possess within itself a germ of hand-folded indifference. We can get to the place that as we grow in the Lord we start to “become aware” that we are growing and slowly become complacent in that growth. Lewis gets this across powerfully through the mouth of Screwtape when the devil reminds Wormwood to keep his patient on track to start thinking about how humble he is becoming. The high-ranking hellion puts it this way,
“[Do not forget Wormwood that] all virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them…. [In fact the virtues] may even do us good if they keep the man concerned with himself, and, above all, if self-contempt can be made the starting-point for contempt of other selves…. You must therefore conceal from the patient the truth end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.”
In short what Lewis is getting at is the fact that we are most in danger of spiritual failure when we are becoming aware of our spiritual growth. When we start becoming aware of our progress we can begin to suffer from spiritual comparability. We can begin to measure our spiritual progress to where we were in our past or where others around us are presently. At such a stage we are in danger of arousing the sleeping dragon of the Idol of Self in our souls. We can start checking off a list of how modesty we are, how charitable we have become, how humble we now are, how much more often we go to church, and how much more Bible we have memorized compared to others. We can start seeing others through a tinted lens of spiritual contempt – the whole “I thank God I am not like other men” Syndrome (Luke 18:19).
Be careful saint.
Even here, amid spiritual progress, one can get snagged among the bushes of indifference. As time goes on the tune of our souls' rhythm can start relaxing and we can become like the caricature of the rabbit in the Tortoise And The Hare. We are seemingly ahead of everyone else, so much more knowledgeable, so much more discerning, so much more mature, that we can calcify in our passions and sense of wonder.
In closing, I just urge you to awaken yourself to the whiles of the enemy in crafting in you a spirit of settled faith. You and I need to diligently check our spiritual barometers in the daily and pray as the Psalmist did,
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
 Augustine, Confessions, trans, R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York, NY: MacMillian, 1961) pg. 152
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 206-210
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017), pg. 224-225
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.