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. Lucy Mills 1st October, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    I don’t have much to say, in words, but…yes. I identified with you here.

    Desert walking does not get easier; but there are treasures that can be found – and one is to share our experiences with each other, holding out our hands.

    • Tanya 3rd October, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Thanks, Lucy. Solidarity, sister.

  2. Newell Hendricks 30th September, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

    Tanya, There is much in this post that feels helpful to me. Thank you for the hope/reality graph, and for the image of the desert as a place to pray.

    Last week I reunited with an old friend from my youth whose daughter, now approaching 30, has Rett Syndrome, which is like autism except it is degenerative. Her daughter no longer can talk or walk, and my friend has Parkinson’s so she cannot care for her daughter. But my friend said that she believes that the Lord always gives blessings mixed with difficulties. I very much enjoyed interacting with her daughter, who has a wonderful smile.

    I told my friend about last summer when I was on my back for five months after two back surgeries related to my cancer; but realized that I could pray, and did.

    It was a wonderful visit for both of us; both with pretty wide gaps between the hope line and the reality line; but sharing our stories with each other was healing, just as reading your post was healing.

    • Tanya 3rd October, 2014 at 10:33 am #

      Wow – I am awed by both of your stories. This is life at its most raw, and it is so encouraging to hear of prayer in the midst of it maing a difference. I’m so glad you could share your stories together, and with us here on this page. Looking forward to hearing more of your story on the blog soon!

  3. Anita Mathias 27th September, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    Tanya, lovely to read this. Paul is one of our dearest friends. He discipled us for 5 years, and I was an editor of his first book. He mentions our friendship in page 200–just looked it up!–and thanks me for helping him find his voice in his wonderful first book, Love Walked Among Us. He is just as thoughtful, wise and deep in real life as he comes across in the book, even more so. It’s a book with integrity, which flows out of a life of hard and brave mini-decisions.

    • Tanya 3rd October, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      I did wonder as I read it whether that could be you he was talking about. Small world! How cool to have been discipled by Paul Miller – he sounds like an amazing guy.

  4. Mark Allman 26th September, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Living a life of love always opens you up to disappointment but it always opens up unexpected avenues of joy. I know you live this life with love Tanya.

    I never thought your story sad. I’ve always thought this is my friend Tanya’s wonderful hard life that she is doing such an awesome job living in the midst of that heartache. I’ve wanted and prayed that you’d see more sunshine than rain and more fertile fields than desert. I so appreciate you sharing your story for it inspires.

    I think we all mourn that which we wish for and do not get because in our wishing we live in it briefly and then it’s taken away and we so want to have it.

    It’s is also something about going through the hell of life with someone that so blesses that relationship that happiness and comfort never would have a chance to do. With those near to you and those like me who follow from a distance.

    You speak for us all at times Tanya. Those of us whose life is not what we wish or who struggle with illness of body or mind, who wonder why is it so hard. Not only do you speak for us you give us hope in letting us see that one can be in the midst of a storm, or one wondering in the desert, or one clinging to hope and still respond in a manner honoring to God. You rock Tanya.

    • Tanya 3rd October, 2014 at 10:29 am #

      This made me smile, Mark – especially the comment at the end! Thanks, as ever, for your encouragement. And this: “in our wishing we live in it briefly” – yes. This is so true.

  5. Chris 26th September, 2014 at 3:49 am #

    Hi Tanya. I’m coming to you from the Cosilium.
    I was encouraged by your piece. It was real and it was true. We all grow through the desert. I was always amazed how the Jews roamed the desert for 40 years because they rebelled, but he never left them. 40 years and no need for shoes or clothes EVEN their food was provided. They didn’t have to wander without guidance. His presence was a near as their eyes could see in the day as smoke and in the night as fire.
    The desert may be hard, but God never fails us or forsakes us. Why the desert? I don’t know. Why do other people go through life with what looks like trouble free? I don’t know. But one thing I do know God answers prayers.
    He understands the spiritual is of greater value than the body any day. You have learned the secret to a yielded life – relinquishing all rights to self.
    Generations past have gone down the desert road too and God makes the most beautiful things out of it. I think you would like to read this from my Archives. Meet Annie Johnson:

    • Tanya 3rd October, 2014 at 10:28 am #

      Thank you for this – it was fascinating to read about Anne Johnson’s life and see the creativity and ministry wrought from such suffering. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Rebecka 25th September, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    I’m so happy for you breeze and your desert lily. 🙂
    My desert seems to have gotten hotter and dryer lately and the gap between hope and reality is larger than it was this summer. I suppose I’m in denial, I keep telling myself that any day I’ll have more energy again, but the despair is starting to creep in… I hope the breeze will find me again soon. (I’m sorry, I wanted this comment to be a bit more positive, but I couldn’t manage that today.)

    • Tanya 25th September, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

      I’m so very sorry to hear this. Oh girl, I know that unhappy falling sensation, of being somewhere between denial and despair. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s so hard to deal, day after day, with the hope that is never being realised. I’m praying for you right now, for peace even in the midst of the panic, for God’s arms to be around you, for you to know that you are loved, for you to know how to manage the illness, if there is anything you can do. I am praying for healing, and good, soothing rest for your body. Thank you for cheering my lily on even while your desert is getting hotter. You are an amazing lady. (And don’t apologise for giving bad news – I like hearing your news, and truthful news is always the best kind). Xxx

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