Living in the desert (A Praying Life)

Thomas Hawk Creative Commons

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)


Desert Lily

Desert Lily

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.



[tweetit]“Prayer is the key to survival when you are in the desert.” – @Tanya_Marlow NEW Post: Living in the desert [/tweetit]
[tweetit]“I had to mourn again the life I hoped I would be living.” – @Tanya_Marlow New post: Living in the desert [/tweetit]
[tweetit]How do you respond when the reality of your life is so different from your hope? NEW post by @Tanya_Marlow: [/tweetit]
[tweetit]”We can thrive in the desert, in the tension, pain and mystery, because God is with us.” – @Tanya_Marlow. New post: [/tweetit]
[tweetit]“God takes everyone he loves through a desert.” – @_PaulEMiller NEW post from @Tanya_Marlow – Living in the desert: [/tweetit]

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 or

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33 Responses to Living in the desert (A Praying Life)

  1. Liz Eph 25th September, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    Thanks for another encouraging and honest blog Tanya.

    A really good wine won’t loose anything by being kept a bit longer in the wine cellar, in the dust and cobwebs, undisturbed, out of the light. Bit frustrating every time it hears a meal going on and it thinks I could have really complemented that nice bit of beef, I could have wowed those visitors. Instead I’m vegetating here, un-noticed, just maturing. What fun is that – maturing ? What experience am I gaining ? What blessing am I being ?

    Just keep on leading the way showing us how not to turn to vinegar instead dear Tanya. You’re doing great. Helping us learn to grow up about all this, and yet be able to be childlike, not the childish pretending to be adult. I love your blogs, you set off poetry in me lol 🙂

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

      Thank you SO much for this! This is a great metaphor – you should totally make it into a blog post! I DO so like to think of myself as a fine wine… 🙂

  2. Monica Benton 24th September, 2014 at 7:59 pm #

    Yes, the desert is a hard place to be. The telling yourself the mirage is just around the corner, if I just can keep going. It’s in the learning of finding beauty where I am at, that I am finding peace.

    • Liz Eph 25th September, 2014 at 12:36 am #

      Yes. xx

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

      It’s such a hard thing – to find beauty where you’re at, but it really does bring peace when you do. Thanks for stopping by, Monica. 🙂

  3. Miriam 24th September, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Brilliantly put and refreshingly honest, Thank you as always for your godly approach to life!

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

      Mizza! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment – lovely to see you here 🙂

  4. MaryLee 24th September, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Hi Tanya,

    I so understand what you are saying here. I have lived my life in the desert, too. Chronic illness, yes, but more importantly that problem marriage you included in your list. People are so uncomfortable with the desert, that is for certain. If you haven’t resolved all the issues and are now living in something approaching your new Eden, people don’t want to hear from you. It is as if they see you as incompetent, foolish, or with such a weak testimony that you couldn’t possibly have anything relevant to share with them. It’s like your life doesn’t matter.

    After 47 years and 8 months my husband finally did something so far out of bounds that I could no longer stay with him. It took me over a year to get my head together and physically leave, but in March of this year I filed for divorce and in July I moved out.

    Am I wounded? Yes. Is it going to take some time for this old lady to get on her feet, to heal and begin a new, single life? Of course it will. And it is not likely to be some kind of new Eden, either. But here is the thing: throughout all of those painful and difficult years, the Lord was with me. I am so blessed to have accepted the Lord as a child, so that in spite of the abusive childhood that set me up for the abusive marriage, the Lord has had his hand on my life and heart all along. He taught me that he is my primary relationship. When no one else is there for me, Jesus is. He taught me to pray without ceasing. And although I am intimately familiar with all three of the strategies you speak of, I am nowhere near as destroyed by all of this as I could be–as some others have been. The Lord is faithful, especially in the desert. I am so much stronger today than I ever would have been without walking through that desert. And even if I walk in the dessert for the remainder of my days, that does not change anything about God’s kindness to me, his love for me, or his plans for me. It does not change God’s faithfulness. It does not change my continued path of growth, or of knowing God better and better and walking with him—even if it continues to be through the desert.

    We are not alone in this dessert of life here on earth. It is good for those of us intimately familiar with the desert to encourage one another.

    • Liz Eph 25th September, 2014 at 12:35 am #

      That’s it, that’s so it, Mary Lee. One off explorers out in the desert are very frightened by it. Desert dwellers have to find survival strategies, to not get complacent but learn from others and learn to not let it spook us out. As we travel this lonely trek we’re far from alone. Beduin have to live alternative life styles. Not wrong, just different. Those of us not born to it take some time to adapt our pace of life and our expectations. We gradually toughen up, growing a faith that is both more mystic yet terribly down to earth. Despite predjudices, I’m not diminished by being a Beduin, I just have to learn how to do it. God gives us the grace.

      This was my Baptismal verse many moons ago, August 1977. Little would I dream how utterly relevant it’s been over and over again!

      Isaiah 58:11New International Version (NIV)

      11 The Lord will guide you always;
      he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
      and will strengthen your frame.
      You will be like a well-watered garden,
      like a spring whose waters never fail.

      It’s an “If … then…” verse.

      “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
      with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
      10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
      and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
      then your light will rise in the darkness,
      and your night will become like the noonday. etc ”

      Who would think that I’m in any state or situation to serve in this desert. Yet there are any number of fellow voyagers who need a touch of love and compassion. Let alone home helps. We’re onto number 41 since 2006. They’re paid a pittance so it’s a job done by a few dedicated souls and a lot of very very needy ones. I can’t do door to door, so they come to my door. And I have to honour them by receiving from them, respecting them.

      Sometimes I can’t do much but then God’s not asking me to be their psychiatrist and social worker (tho have ended up being both) but just being an honest employer, not denying them their pay, not paying late or stingily. Being polite, thoughtful, not taking advantage of them tho having to be firm to get the work done properly. These people see us at our daily worst – that’s when faith is proved to be of value or empty. I can’t keep a face up like I can on a Sunday, or try to find right answers, or even any answers except that God is. This is when we find out if evangel does actually mean good news or just churchianity.

      .” And even if I walk in the dessert for the remainder of my days, that does not change anything about God’s kindness to me, his love for me, or his plans for me. It does not change God’s faithfulness. It does not change my continued path of growth, or of knowing God better and better and walking with him—even if it continues to be through the desert.

      We are not alone in this dessert of life here on earth. It is good for those of us intimately familiar with the desert to encourage one another.”

      Spot on. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

        I love those isaiah verses. Thanks, Liz.

      • MaryLee 25th September, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

        Bless you for the work you do!

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

      MaryLee – I was so moved by this comment, and hearing your experience. 47 years is a long time in the desert. You’re a veteran. You’re so right – i think we as. Christians find it very difficult to deal with deserts, particularly an abusive marriage, because we know that marriages are supposed to be good, so it’s often easier to deny when they’re not.

      This, especially, moved me: “I am so much stronger today than I ever would have been without walking through that desert. And even if I walk in the dessert for the remainder of my days, that does not change anything about God’s kindness to me, his love for me, or his plans for me. It does not change God’s faithfulness.”

      I am grateful for your words. Thank you.

  5. Michael Wenham 24th September, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    What a helpful post, Tanya. Thank you so much. I found that picture of the lines of hope and reality ringing true.

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

      Thank you so much for visiting, Michael! I’m glad it resonated with you – i found it a really helpful concept, too. Definitely recommend the book.

      • Michael Wenham 25th September, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

        Sometimes when I’m lying awake at night I listen to the World Service to lull me off again! A couple of nights ago, I caught this on “Outlook”, talking of deserts making one stronger: A great testimony!

  6. Lisa England 24th September, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

    Wow you write so beautifully and honestly. I’m so glad that things are improving for you and I’ll pray that the strength in you grows.
    ME feels like a marathon of a desert and I’ve been struck again recently at how much grief comes with chronic illness. It is hard to be full of exhaustion and pain on a daily basis. I related so much to your line “I had to mourn again for the life I hoped I would be living” and the awkwardness of people not knowing what to do with deserts.
    I’ve been focusing not on being a “better” Christian who deals easily with pain and disappointment but just being a real one who takes all the good, bad and ugly to God in a real relationship. This then gives me hope that I am not alone and that I’m part of something bigger than my solo story. Thank you so much for what you wrote. I love ur blogs x

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      Thank you so much for this, and for being glad for me that I’m improving. It is such a gift to me when others who are still stuck in the desert nevertheless cheer people on who seem to have reached even a hint of an oasis. Thank you.

      I know just what you mean about the grief that accompanies chronic illness. And I think your approach to be authentic rather than ‘better’ is definitely the way forward. It’s not about performance, but real relationship. Thanks so much for commenting.

  7. Nigel Warner 24th September, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Tanya, thanks for this. It is very touching and humbling to read your experience. We hold you in our prayers as we walk through our own bit of desert.
    What to do with hope? Enjoy it as the gift it is and live each day as a fresh gift.
    Love and Prayers to you and yours.

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

      Nigel! Lovely to see you here. Thank you for your kind comments, and for your prayers – much appreciated. Praying for you, too.

  8. Dave 24th September, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    I love that book. And thanks for telling your story again.

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

      Thank you for affirming the retelling of my story. That’s strangely very encouraging.
      And I owe YOU, I think, for recommending the book to me! So, thank you!

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