Surviving Seasons of Unsatisfied Longing for God
Understanding Desert Seasons
- Desert seasons are the most common place to experience unsatisfied longing. We all have experienced them at a certain point in our journey with God. Although they mostly feel wrong and are not things we usually desire, they are common and even vital seasons in our lives with God and mostly much better than we tend to perceive them at first.
- Desert seasons primarily refer to the experience of unsatisfied longing for God which in particular means that we feel dryness in our life and even in the secret place. We feel somehow unsatisfied, can at times even think that we are backsliding in our pursuit of Him. Our hunger gets stronger, which at times can frustrate us even more. People who have experienced more of Him and just know that there is more available for them will instantaneously feel the difference, which will make them long and yearn for what is missing of Him at the moment.
- Seasons of dryness are part of the dynamics of our journey with God. In the Bible, it was the fervent believers who experienced them. Thus, desert seasons first are indicators that we are moving towards Him, that we are fixed on Him and desiring more of Him. They are signs that we recognize our full dependency and neediness of Him. They are not a signal of judgment but of a burning heart.
- David prays in Psalm 63:
1 O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly. My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
- Similar to David the sons of Korah prayed:
1 As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God … (Psalm 42:1-2)
- In the Song of Solomon, the maiden – symbolizing the Church as the Bride of Christ who pursues God as her Bridegroom – experienced unsatisfied longing in seeking Him:
1 On my bed night after night I sought Him whom my soul loves; I sought Him but did not find Him. 2 I must arise now and go about the city; in the streets and in the squares I must seek Him whom my soul loves. I sought Him but did not find Him. (SoS 3:1-2)
6 I opened to my Beloved, but my Beloved had turned away and had gone! My heart went out to Him as He spoke. I searched for Him but I did not find Him; I called Him but He did not answer me. (SoS 5:6)
- There are different kinds of desert seasons. In this article I only refer to the first two.
- Desert seasons caused by God's withdrawal from us – God, for a short time, lifts His manifest presence from our life so that we start to miss His nearness.
- Desert seasons because of being in a place of spiritual poverty.
- Apart from those two kinds of deserts, there are several other types that I don't refer to here. Since their meaning, cause and necessary response broadly vary from the first two, many of the principles I am outlining here will not apply to them.
- Desert seasons caused by disobedience – where we miss God's presence and His blessings because we don't follow His leadership by which He would have led us to green pastures (Psalm 23:2).
- Desert seasons caused by struggles, worries and problems in your daily life that distract us from God and make it hard for us to live up to the fullness.
- Desert seasons in the meaning of a delay in God's interaction or the fulfillment of His promises.
Desert Type 1: God Withdrawing Himself From Us
- Definition: A season in which God withdraws His manifest presence from us in order to awaken more hunger for Him.
- In this kind of desert, God consciously and intentionally withdraws Himself from us, not because we did something wrong or so, but in order to increase our longing for Him in order to take us deeper. This season is characterized by a longing for God that does not seem to be answered or satisfied by Him. We might not have changed anything but somehow we don't feel God's manifest presence as much as we used to. Our seeking for Him doesn't seem to have the same effect on our heart. We don't get the expected and usual response to what we are doing. It's not about Jesus being absent from us. He is always with us and will never leave us. But He pulls back the amount of experienced, manifested presence from our lives for a period of time so it feels like He has somehow hidden Himself from us.
- The mystic John of the Cross referred to those deserts as the 'dark night of the soul'. The article on Wikipedia describes the phase with the following words:
“Typically for a believer in the dark night of the soul, spiritual disciplines (such as prayer and consistent devotion to God) suddenly seem to lose all their experiential value; traditional prayer is extremely difficult and unrewarding for an extended period of time during this 'dark night'. The individual may feel as though God has suddenly abandoned them or that his or her prayer life has collapsed.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Night_of_the_Soul)
- Challenge: Not to doubt in His love and presence and not to listen to the accusations of the enemy.
- Even though Jesus situation at the cross does not really fit into this category, Jesus' cry at the cross “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt 27:46) is at the very heart of this phase. It is this doubt, fear and feeling that makes this desert so difficult.
- In order to go through such a season with boldness we need to understand that we are not here because we did something wrong and He's now angry at us.
- Purpose: God wants to create hunger in us so that we will seek Him more passionately.
- God orchestrates such seasons in order to draw us deeper. He draws back for a short time so as to create hunger in us. Since we have experienced more than what we experience at the present moment, it creates more hunger in us.
- Hunger is actually much more an indicator of His presence than of His absence. It's His presence that makes us long for more, not His absence. Have you realized that you're mostly not very hungry when you live in compromise and not really close to Him? It's His presence that makes us hunger for more. Even in desert seasons, the hunger is an indicator of His presence.
- I would call hunger one of the currencies of heaven. We get because we ask for it, we ask because we hunger. Much is given to the hungry, those who are not lethargic over the things God has in store for them.
- Hunger is a blessing and not a curse. God draws us closer through hunger. It actually helps us to not settle in complacency and to not be content with a mediocre life. Through hunger, God lets us strive for His fullness and we won't stop until we have it.
- We desire God most when we're hungriest, we follow Him best when we're most satisfied. Both are essential experiences of our pursuit.
- It's not God's wrath or anger but His passionate desire for you that makes Him orchestrate seasons of unsatisfied longing. Because He wants more of you and He knows that you want more of Him and has heard your cries for more of His presence, He now is bringing you to a place necessary in order to release an increased measure of His presence in your life.
- He also withdraws His manifest presence from us in order to strengthen our pursuit of Him. This may sound paradox but it is actually true. In teaching us to stay faithful in our pursuit even in hard times, and even in times when it's not rewarded instantly, we will learn to maintain a life in intimacy, prayer and seeking His face regardless of our circumstances.
- Response: The right response is to continue pursuing Him, even though it's hard and it feels like it's meaningless right now. There is something God has for you in this season, that's why He brought you there. Search Him out, don't give up on pressing into the relationship with Him: “What is it that You want to bring forth in me in this season? What is it that You want to release right now. What is the thing, attitude or habit for what You sent me here to develop?”
Desert Type 2: Living In A Spiritually Dry Setting
- Definition: A season in which the place you live in and the people you hang out with fail to encourage you to go deeper with God, so that your vision, perspective and passion weakens over time.
- At the very core of this phase is the experience David describes in Psalm 63:
1 … My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
- This type of desert usually occurs when we transition from a place or season in which we spent a lot of time with passionate, inspiring believers, got a lot of spiritual nutrition, lived with God on a high level, where we experienced His presence and work in an extended measure.
- We suddenly come into a place that feels like a spiritual desert. Sources we used to draw from are suddenly not there anymore. We feel a lack of spiritual provision and inspiration. These places are deserts because there is a mutual lack of satisfaction because it is generally sought in things other than Jesus Himself (entertainment, relationships, ...). So we will actually need to swim against the tide in order to maintain the intensity of our relationship with God.
- It's the typical after-conference experience. It can also occur when you have to move and you cannot find a place in which the people go as hard after God as the people you used to spend time with at your old place. It's a very common experience for missionaries as well since they usually go to places where there is a lack of the knowledge of God and of genuine relationship with Him.
- Challenge: Not to conform to the limitations and lifestyle of the setting you're living in, not to become lethargic or lukewarm or go less after God than before.
- Though it's hard at first to maintain the level of our relationship with God, it's the most important decision to set our hearts to: not to end up backsliding. This is easier said than done, but I assure you it's possible.
- To be even clearer, this season is not even about maintaining your level of intimacy, relationship and pursuit of God, it's actually about increasing it. This is at the very heart of God's intention for this season. Don't go for less than that. He's definite about this and it's available to you in a special way if you persevere.
- Purpose: Overcoming our dependence on outward sources by digging our own wells with God. It is now the time to establish the things God has taught you in the last season in order to become a fountain yourself rather than continuing to draw from others.
- In this season, God reveals our dependencies on the wells of intimacy and revelation of other people. Often we experience a spiritual high when we are in a setting where people go hard after God and carry the knowledge of God. For a specific time God lets us draw from their relationship with God. However, God does not want to become dependent on them, but He intends to inspire us to make the things our own and to deepen our personal relationship with Him so that we will become a fountain ourselves rather than drinking from others.
- When God wants to impart new things to our life, He often connects us with people that already carry those things and lets us taste of them in order to create a desire for those things in us. In the following dry seasons, God takes those sources away in order to encourage us to establish these things in our own lives rather than continuing to feed on others and live in dependence.
- The emptiness many experience after an intense conference or seminar is to encourage you to establish in our personal life the things you have just experienced. Many fail to realize this purpose and don't respond rightly eventually going back to their former lives without accepting God's invitation to transformation.
- Hosea 2 speaks about God leading us into the wilderness in order to free us from all false dependencies, bring us back into the first love and increase intimacy with Him.
14 Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness (=desert) and speak kindly to her. 15 … And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt. 16 It will come about in that day, declares the Lord, that you will call Me 'my Husband' and will no longer call Me 'my Baal'. 17 For I will remove the names of the baals (=dependencies other than God Himself) from her mouth, so that they will be mentioned by their names no more. (Hosea 2:14-17)
- This type of desert season immensely reveals God's heart that burns with jealousy over our affection. If you are in such a season you have all reasons to delight in His jealousy over you that brought you there. It is a season in which Jesus is so willing to release revelation of His passion for you and to respond to your cry for more of Him. God desires to be the only source for us, to teach us to receive from Him directly and to be fully satisfied in Him alone. He does not let us cling to other sources.
- Response: Rather than accepting that the former season has ended and to settle for less again or end up backsliding, go for more. Realize that God has an intention for this season to actually increase your relationship with Him by becoming your source for everything you have experienced. God let you taste of more of Him so that you would now pursue it and establish it as a reality in your own life. This season of dryness is not to discourage you but to encourage you to never again settle for less again. It's God's invitation to radical increase and growth if you respond rightly. If you go hard after God now, He will bring forth everything that you miss.
The Resolve: Seeking God More Intensely
- No matter which of the two desert types you are in, the ultimate resolve for us is to seek God more. The worst thing we can do in a dry season is to give up or give in. Because God sends them to activate our craving. The two “hunger psalms” highlight the importance of seeking God in dry seasons.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Ps 42:2)
1 O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly. My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps 63:1)
- Our response to the desert season will define how long we will stay in them. God wants us to learn to lean on Him. The harder the season the more we are to lean on Him. By failing to lean on Him (to set our whole dependence on Him and seek Him strongly) we will only extend the time we will spend in the desert season because God is jealous for our love and affection and will not give up till He has it.
5 Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her Beloved? … (SoS 8:5)
6 … Only the rebellious dwell in a parched land. (Psalm 68:6)
- There is a temptation in seasons of unsatisfied longing for God to yield to lesser pleasures in order to get our desires and longing satisfied. This is one of the worst things you can do, because it won't help you to focus on God and for one who has tasted more of God will sooner or later realize that it doesn't really satisfy either. You are ruined for anything less. Don't go for it. It is hard, but focussing on God and expecting Him to move and even having the patience to wait on Him through this season and to not stop pursuing Him is the best thing we can do. Even though it's a challenge, it's absolutely worth it!
- How to seek God in dry seasons?
- Meditating on the Word of God – Overcoming desert seasons is deeply connected with meditation on the Word of God. Staying with it even though we don't feel like much happens will empower our spirit and revitalize our heart and relationship with Him.
2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. 3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:2-3)
- Seeking God at Night – Extending your times of seeking to the nights. Staying awake when you would actually go to bed. Going even harder after God. In Psalm 63 – the “dry and weary land”-psalm – David set his heart to seek God during the night. I believe that the night times are very important in desert seasons.
6 When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches. (Psalm 63:6)
- Thanksgiving and Worship – It's significant that the satisfaction, the actual turn in David's perception and experience of the desert happened in the place of praising and worshiping God. It's the place where we are satisfied by seeing Him and experiencing His goodness. Even more, thanksgiving makes us more sensitive for His commitment to our heart and His activity in our life even in the desert season.
4 So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips. (Psalm 63:4-5)
- Beholding God – This means meditating on God's character. The highest satisfaction for the human spirit is to discover and get to know God. Even though the desert season is a place where it is much harder, it is crucial to especially now set our hearts to search out His heart even more. There is a special anointing when we decide to seek Him in the desert time and it will be rewarded even though we might not feel it instantly.
15 As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake. (Psalm 17:15)
2 Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. (Ps 63:2)
- Pouring Out Your Heart – Be honest with God about the current situation. Do not pretend it isn't so. Being real with God can be one of the strongest ways to maintain our prayer life during desert seasons because we realize that we don't have to pretend and that He loves and accepts us right where we are at. Being honest with God will actually let us experience God's compassion for us.
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?' 4 These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. … 6 O my God, my soul is in despair within me ... (Ps 42:3-4.6)
- Remembering It's Just A Temporary Season – In their “as the deer pants”-psalm, the sons of Korah outline a very helpful principle for desert seasons. It is so important for us to understand desert times as seasons and not as the final state of our life. This will help us realize God's purpose for this season and keep us from discouragement. It will also enable us to lift our eyes to the coming season of experienced intimacy with Him, knowing that after every night comes a new morning.
5 Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. (Ps 42:5)
- We seeking Him and holding onto Him even in the hard times is one of the strongest signs of love for Him that He can experience. God treasures those times in His heart. He will actually remember them for ever. I believe that those situations when we were faithful despite everything around us are the real and pure eternal gold. Those will be memories in God's heart that He will remember for the rest of time, that He will remind us of again and again in eternity. It is so worth it!
2 Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus says the Lord, 'I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, your following after Me in the wilderness, through a land not sown.' (Jer 2:2)
- We set our heart to seek Him even when it's hard, even when the reward is not immediate. But just by staying faithful I will have the eternal reward of having deeply touched His heart in that season even though my own heart was not touched right away. It's one way to collect memories in the heart of God.
The Fuel: Knowing God's Love (Even In My Weakness)
- Seeking God in a desert season is harder than usual, however it is possible. The only power capable of enabling us to spare no effort to seek Him is His love. Revelation about God's love for us it the primary force to keep us going in times of drought.
- Because in desert seasons we are so prone to yield to lesser pleasures, one of the most significant revelations we need is that 'His lovingkindness is better than life' (Ps 63:3). Only knowing and having experienced His love for us will enable us to not go for less but cry out for Him and only Him.
- For David, this revelation actually initialized the turn in His reaction in and perception of this season. It empowered Him to love and praise God and revived His pursuit of God:
3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You. 4 So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips. (Ps 63:3-5)
- Song of Solomon 4 is another wonderful illustration of this principle. After Jesus' long description of His love and emotions towards the Bride (verses 1-15), she bursts out in an expression of highest devotion in Verse 16:
16 Awake, O north wind (=the cold, hard seasons), and come, wind of the south (=the warm, pleasing moves of the Spirit); make my garden breathe out fragrance, let its spices be wafted abroad. May my Beloved come into His garden and eat its choice fruits! (SoS 4:16) = In essence, the Bride prays for the release of whatever it takes, regardless of pleasant or not, so that Jesus would have the full and best inheritance in her life and everything He desires.
- We don't want to go for less than giving Jesus everything that He desires, even in the seasons when it actually costs us something to make this become real. Even more, He will treasure it in His heart. In desert seasons we still pursue Him because we know He loves us so much, and because we know that we can touch His heart even now, even though we don't actually feel it.
- In desert seasons it is easy to lose sight of God's love for us. That's why it is vital to reactivate our mind to meditate on God's love for us in order to reestablish the focus. There are several ways:
- Knowing God's Love in Your Past: Remembering
- Remind yourself of past seasons of strong intimacy with God, what He revealed to you, what He told you, how He shared His love with you. Our past can be a well of experiences with Him that can provide fuel in seasons of drought.
4 These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. (Ps 42:4)
- God's commitment to your life and heart does not vary. By looking back and seeing His hand in your life throughout your days, you can get very encouraged that He is still the same today.
5 I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands. 6 I stretch out my hands to You, as a parched land. Selah. (Ps 143:5-6)
- Knowing God's Love in Your Future: Hope and Purpose
- Realize that it's just a temporary season that will pass sooner or later. Understand the current seasons just as one step and a temporary place that brings you closer to God. See the purpose. You will rise again. Do not view the current season as your final place in life. It's temporary and it is about to change again.
5 … Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. (Ps 42:5)
- Realize the purpose God has for the current season of drought. It's not His judgment but His desire that brought you there. He caused this season out of yearning for more of you.
- Knowing God's Love in Your Present: His Presence and Tenacity
- God is with us and loves us regardless of what we feel. We need to realize that even though we don't feel Him, even though He seems far away, He is still with us and His love for us burns as passionately as we have experienced it in the most intense encounters. Even though our experience of His love may vary, His love does not. Perhaps we cannot really see it right now, but He is totally active in our lives, wooing and pursuing us.
8 The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. (Ps 42:8)
- Our key to surviving seasons of unsatisfied longing is to remember His affections for us and to get the strength out of that to not give up pursuing Him throughout the entire season. Song of Solomon 7:10 carries the most basic and powerful truth that can and will bring us through the desert season helping us to respond rightly if we just understood these few words:
10 I am my Beloved's, and His desire is for me. (SoS 7:10)
- Understanding God's Jealousy and Tenacity Over Our Hearts
- No matter how much you long for Him, no matter how intense your craving for Him is, you will never out-crave Jesus in His desire for your heart. He went through the driest of all possible seasons by becoming a human being and going to the cross in order to get you one day. You cannot even comprehend His desire for you that so vastly surpasses everything we could feel for Him. However, remembering His commitment to your heart, even in the desert season, is one of the most powerful revelations we can get.
- Near the end of David's psalm he realizes God working together with him in the season of drought. We do not wrestle alone. God will answer our clinging to Him with power to walk through it and to be found faithful. In our clinging, no matter how weak it might be, He will uphold us.
8 My soul clings to You, Your right hand upholds me. (Ps 63:8)
- God's promise to uphold us means to bring us through, to not let us go, to support us in the process of clinging to Him, to guide us through, to be there even though we don't feel Him, to actually carry us through. He is strong to deliver and much too jealous over your affection to let you end up in lukewarmness if you don't want to.
- The Scriptures reveal Jesus as our eternal intercessor, always praying for us. His prayers are always answered by the Father and He is absolutely resolute about this one prayer:
32 But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail … (Luke 22:32)
25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebr 7:25)
- Having given all those biblical principles, I believe that Song of Solomon 8:5 brings to the point the essential aspects of overcoming seasons of unsatisfied longing: As we lean on Him through seeking Him, He will take over and carry us through. It's an adventurous cooperation between human pursuit and divine tenacity fueled by intimate love.
5 Who is this coming up from the wilderness leaning on her Beloved? (SoS 8:5)