When you have been living in the desert for years and years, how can you still continue to hope?
I’ve been reading Paul E. Miller’s excellent book, A Praying Life, which compares life with unanswered prayer as being in a desert.
His daughter, Kim, has autism and other health problems. She didn’t talk for over twenty years, and now talks with the use of a special computer. He knows what it is to cry to God in vain for healing, help and support. He knows a thing or two about living in the desert.
“The hardest part of being in the desert is that there is no way out. You don’t know when it will end. There is no relief in sight.” p184
He described it with a graph, with hope on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis. Plotted onto the graph was one soaring line at the top, starting high and rising higher, representing the hope you have for your life, or your child, or career, or spouse. There is another line, at the bottom, starting low and keeping low, which represents ‘reality’. This is what it is like to live with severe chronic illness, or a painful marriage, or poverty, or bereavement, or infertility. Time goes on, and the lines never meet, and when the gap between hope and reality is a large one, it is hard.
Paul E. Miller writes this:
“Every part of your being wants to close the gap between hope and reality. We will do anything not to live in the desert.” (A Praying Life, p.181)
Then he describes three ways that we attempt to close the gap:
- Denial – we raise the ‘reality line’ up high to the hope, and just pretend that things aren’t as they actually are. We tell ourselves that healing is around the corner, and we can just step into it, because God has good things for us.
- Determination – we keep jumping as far as we can up to the hope line, although it is still always out of reach. We research alternative medicine. We budget. If we throw enough money at this problem, it will change. If we work hard enough, things will get better.
- Despair – We quit trying to raise the ‘reality line’ up to the hope, and instead bring the hope line down to reality. We stop hoping. This is it: it will never get better. There’s no point in changing anything. You stop asking God to act, because He never will.
“God takes everyone he loves through a desert. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden.” (A Praying Life, p. 184)
How do you respond when the reality of your life is so different from your hope? Miller argues that Christians are to be different – it is possible to thrive in the desert, in the tension, pain and mystery, because God is with us. We see the huge chasm between hope and reality, and somehow walk in the middle. Prayer is the key to survival when you are in the desert.
“The still, dry air of the desert brings the sense of helplessness that is so crucial to the spirit of prayer… Desert life sanctifies you. You have no idea you are changing. You simply notice after you’ve been in the desert awhile that you are different.” (A Praying life, p. 185)
Last week I told my sad story to a bunch of new people. We were all ministers’ wives, and we were gathered in my lounge, sitting on leather sofas, the new women perched a little nervously on the edge.
In my day-to-day existence, I don’t think very much about my illness, and whenever my health is stable and I’m not in the middle of an M.E. relapse, I feel happy and blessed, but there is something about telling the whole long story to strangers to bring it home again how much I have lost.
So I told my story, and I was reminded afresh of the big hopes that I had built up that had been demolished in the waves of reality.
I described how Jon and I had ventured together in leading a Biblical Theology training school. My voice cracked a little as I was talking about it to the women in my living room, and I was surprised by the influx of emotion. I loved that job, it was my dream job, and I lost it when I gave birth and my M.E. became severe.
Caught by the emotion, I couldn’t say much about the first eighteen months after the birth – the isolation and the shock of sudden disability, not being able to lift my baby or change his nappy. So instead, I joked about how inappropriate it was that I was the vicar’s wife who never goes to church. I gazed at the faces round the room, and it is always the same hard-to-read reaction when I tell the story: pity, sympathy, disapproval, or love, perhaps, in the silence, and definitely, definitely awkwardness. We don’t know what to do with deserts.
I found myself crying a lot the next day. I had to mourn again the life I hoped I would be living.
Things are better at the moment. For all my protestations that my sabbatical didn’t improve my health, I haven’t had a relapse in ages and, considering all I did in three days in Florence, I would have expected some kind of payback, and it hasn’t come. Hope is whispering to me, and I don’t know what to do with it.
It is hard to walk this line. Trusting God is the best way, but it means opening yourself up for disappointment and heartbreak. It means surrendering control, and I don’t care much for that. It means opening yourself up to hope, and hope can be painful.
One of my first blog posts was called learning to trust, and the truth is, I am still learning. (Always we begin again). I am still learning; but I am learning it is okay to still be learning.
I’m in the desert, but I’m walking. And for the first time in a long while, there seems to be a breeze cutting through the dust and heat, and perhaps in the distance I can see a desert lily, white and new in the wasteland.
“Prayer is the key to survival when you are in the desert.” – @Tanya_Marlow NEW Post: Living in the desert
“I had to mourn again the life I hoped I would be living.” – @Tanya_Marlow New post: Living in the desert
How do you respond when the reality of your life is so different from your hope? NEW post by @Tanya_Marlow:
“We can thrive in the desert, in the tension, pain and mystery, because God is with us.” – @Tanya_Marlow. New post:
“God takes everyone he loves through a desert.” – @_PaulEMiller NEW post from @Tanya_Marlow – Living in the desert:
Over to you:
- What kind of desert are you in?
- How do you respond to that gap between hope and reality: denial, determination or despair (or something else)?
I recommend A Praying Life by Paul E Miller. If you get it using the following Amazon Affiliate links, you get a great book, and you help this site too, at no extra cost to you. Get it from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com