When Suffering Drives Joy Away
Finding God in Dry Places
Article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner, Writer and Author, North Carolina
I was in my twenties when I first concluded that the Christian life was boring.
I read the Bible regularly, but often mindlessly. It just wasn’t that interesting. I had a prayer list for my friends, but that felt obligatory. My prayers didn’t seem to influence much anyway. I went to church every week, but paid little attention to the sermon. I was mostly there for my friends. I was grateful that Christ died for me and had saved me from my sin, but little about that seemed to excite me anymore. I assumed that was how everyone felt after the initial excitement of conversion wore off.
I was content with my mostly perfunctory faith until my son was dying, and then I moved from apathy to anger with God. Why had he not saved my son even after I begged him? I felt empty and almost purposeless until months later, when I cried out to God in desperation.
To my surprise, he answered me by surrounding me with an unmistakable sense of his presence. I started talking to God more honestly than I ever had before, often using the very words of Scripture. It felt freeing and life-giving, and I hoped it would never end. But as the intensity of my grief faded over time, so did the intensity of my connection with God.
Praying for a Passion
Around that time, I heard a talk by John Piper about loving God the way we love our spouses. I had never heard anyone speak with such passion about God before, and it made me reconsider my own desire for God or lack thereof. Then I heard another speaker whose love for Jesus radiated through her words as well, and I wondered if I could develop that kind of passion myself. She talked about the intimacy of her relationship with God, how he showed up in the most spectacular ways during some of her darkest times.
So I started asking God to give me a passion for him. I wanted to delight in God, but there was no formula to follow, no three easy steps, no way to conjure this up. I needed God to provide the spark.
The spark came when I was battling a chronic debilitating condition while raising two adolescent daughters after my husband had left us. Life was impossibly hard, and I needed God in ways I had never needed him before. It was then that I found a deep, abiding joy that completely reshaped me. This is what I’ve learned about finding true delight in God.
Pathways to Joy
First, I must be authentic with God, especially in my pain. I have sometimes pulled away from God, resentful and bitter, thinking I couldn’t tell him how I felt. But mouthing words of praise when my heart was far from God did not honor God (Isaiah 29:13), and never led to a deeper passion for him.
Rather than being superficial in my worship and inwardly turning away, or complaining about God and blatantly walking away, I needed to talk to God directly. We can tell him all our deepest fears and frustrations, as evidenced by the words of Job, Jeremiah, and the psalmists. Delight in God radiates from within (Romans 7:22), which requires honesty and truth in our inner being (Psalm 51:6).
Second, developing a passion for God requires focus and intention. I couldn’t just drift into it. Jacob wrestled with God through the night and would not let the Lord go even at daybreak until God blessed him (Genesis 32:26). That tenacity should be our model as we cling to God until he gives us a desire for him. Keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking until you are satisfied. Since the Lord promises that when we seek him with our whole heart, we will find him, we should expect him to answer us with nothing less than himself (Matthew 7:7–11; Jeremiah 29:13).
Third, I put things into my life that would lead me to delight, though at first they resembled mere duty. I started reading the Bible with a pen and paper in hand, expecting God to show me something — even when my day was overwhelming, and the Bible felt lifeless. I prayed expectantly and looked for God’s answers to my prayers — even when I was exhausted and wondered whether God was listening. I went to church and paid attention to the sermon, believing God would speak to me through it. I surrounded myself with believers and initiated conversation about faith — even when my non-Christian friends seemed more fun. All these things were God’s means of grace to lead me to delight.
Love Him in Finding
When we don’t desire God, we need to start walking toward him — a walk that anticipates delight is coming. If we lose sight of that goal and settle for a religious life fueled solely by duty, our faith will become wooden and meaningless, and we will likely fall away when tested. A perfunctory, intellectual faith alone cannot sustain us. In the end, faith without the faintest flicker of joy is not genuine faith.
Yet, if we want a genuine, life-giving relationship with God, we cannot set aside obedience, and simply wait for delight to wash over us. We must bring ourselves fully to God, continually asking him to breathe fresh, more vibrant, more satisfying life into our relationship. Passion for God doesn’t always develop overnight. As it’s growing, reading the Bible will move from obligation to delight. God’s word will bring a lasting joy that will sustain us in our affliction (Psalm 119:92). Until that happens, we must trust in the slow work of God as we keep leaning into him.
When we trust in the Lord, stay faithful, and commit our way to him, we learn to delight in God (Psalm 37:3–5). As we pursue that delight, we can ask God to teach us his ways, to help us walk in his paths, and to reveal himself to us in the process. It begins and ends with God.
The prayer of Ambrose of Milan sums this up beautifully:
Lord, teach me to seek you and reveal yourself to me when I seek you. For I cannot seek you unless you first teach me, nor find you unless you first reveal yourself to me. Let me seek you in longing, and long for you in seeking. Let me find you in love, and love you in finding.
Dry duty and willpower will not sustain us through suffering. In dark moments, we will inevitably reach for what satisfies us, comforts us, and brings us joy. God must be all those things to us, and if he is not, we must ask, seek, and knock until he is. Let us find him in love, and love him in finding.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Desiring God, who blogs at danceintherain.com. She is married to Joel and has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. She and Joel live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vaneetha is the author of the book The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering.