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This year marks the ten-year anniversary of the lowest point in my life thus far.

In 2012, while still in our mid-20’s, my wife and I went through burnout after some intense years of college campus student ministry. That year I also lost my mother to cancer. We struggled to make sense of what was happening to us internally. There was a deep emotional exhaustion, like all our internal reserves of energy and emotion were depleted. But more distressing still was the spiritual darkness, the evaporation of spiritual affections, the numbness to the things of God.

In one sense we were simply on the well-trodden path taken by so many Christians before us: the path of suffering and of the dark night of the soul. But even knowing that only provides so much comfort. The experience is still deeply disorienting, lonely, and terrifying.

The Valley

I’ve recently been going through bits of writing that I found on an old hard drive of mine and I came across something I wrote right in the midst of that dark season in 2012. It captures the essence of what that experience was like. I thought I’d share part of it here along with three important lessons that came out of that season.

June 10, 2012

The silence of God is deafening.

The child is concussed, disoriented. His arms are outstretched, but they reach only coldness where warmth once faithfully met him. Walk in this direction, guided by faith, reason, and experience, and walk on into nothing. Walk on and reach nothing. Confused, he turns to another direction. Try any direction you like and walk your strength and nerve away, until only raw neurosis is left. What is this abandon?

The Word will set me back on a right path. It will help me keep my way pure, will be a lamp unto my feet. Surely. It will be a light for me in this darkness. Show me again the great vistas, the mountain ranges and rolling hills and unbelievable sunsets that came alive to me as I took in this Word.

But what trickery is this? Even the great Sword is become dull to me. It does not cut through this thick skin, does not separate bone and marrow and lay my heart bare. The words all run together and melt on the page, pooling together in tasteless soup. Even my beloved passages, my broken cisterns, my heavy laden and weary heart, my great redemption, are so intolerably familiar, so utterly known and not to be rediscovered.

Every word has been read, and nothing shines forth anew. “You may as well turn away because the longer you wait the more emphatic the silence becomes,” as C.S. Lewis so properly put it.

Atheism doesnʼt scare or attract me, really. Maybe it is different for others, but for me it would only be a thin veil excusing my indulgence in every imaginable craving of my heart; a great justification for sin and rebellion. No, my fear is not of atheism but of flat, lifeless Christianity. Never revived, never renewed, just old and fat and comfortable, suspicious of “all this excitement” in others. God, kill me first.

But rather, be true to yourself and meet me in my distress.

Hard-Earned Lessons

Dawn broke into the darkness slowly, almost imperceptibly – like the way children grow from day to day – until I looked back a year or two and realized just how much had changed. By 2015 we had settled into a good church home in a new town. I even had the opportunity to lead worship and preach again – expressions of public ministry that, in the depths of the valley, I had not dared hope I would get to do again.

Looking back from the vantage point of a decade, I find three lessons coming to the fore – lessons which may just help others, whether they be fellow sufferers or those seeking to minister to them.

1. Don’t be led or ruled by feelings.

God’s felt presence is a good gift, but not a need. We can and should learn to obey our Lord even when He seems distant. This was a hard but necessary lesson to learn. In my Christian walk, and especially in my fight against sin, I learned that there is a particular sweetness in this kind of obedience. The words of Titus 2:11-12 came alive for me in that season. Paul writes that God’s grace trains “us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”

The idea of that God was graciously training me through a dark a difficult season was strangely encouraging. My feelings, good or bad, didn’t change what I had to do, which was to renounce sin and live in obedience. I still believed, didn’t I? So never mind how I feel, let’s get on with the next thing God’s given me to do, whether that is being a hardworking and honest employee or a good father and faithful husband.

Let the feelings come and go as they will – but don’t be led or ruled by them.

2. God doesn’t need me (or you) to do big things.

The “do big things for God” approach to the Christian life is great until it becomes the cudgel Satan uses to beat you with. As a ministry-minded young adult, I had imbibed the big-dream visions of world-changing missions and ministry possibilities that were standard fare at the Passion conferences of the early 2000’s.

To be clear, I rejoice that God uses some people in extraordinary ways, and I think every faithful Christian ought to be open to being used however God has ordained (Eph. 2:10). But there was some imbalance in the way this worked itself out in my heart. I had spent the last few years filled with a kind of frenetic energy where I often sought to fill my days and weeks with ministry of various kinds. Efficiency and maximizing one’s impact was the name of the game.

But when I found myself without the emotional and spiritual resources to continue in visible leadership, my sense of identity was threatened. If I wasn’t the kind of guy who leads, teaches, and mentors, then who was I? The answer to this existential question came from something I heard the late David Powlison say. It hit me like a sledgehammer. He said if you want to know whether ministry has become an idol in your life, imagine the following scenario: through some unforeseen circumstance outside of your control, your only vocational option is mopping the floor at a McDonald’s. It’s good, honest work, making the world a cleaner place, and you’re still a child of God. Could you be okay with that?

Far from a hypothetical scenario, my failure to launch into vocational ministry forced me to wrestle with this exact question in a real way. Ultimately, something rotten inside my heart had to die before I really felt at peace with the prospect of a non-ministry vocation. I had to learn that unspectacular daily obedience was just as pleasing to my Lord as public ministry – and much better for me in some ways. I believe that a healthy public ministry can only be built on top of this foundation.

As I look around the ministry landscape and observe my friends and acquaintances who are serving in various roles, it seems to me that this is a lesson God tends to teach his undershepherds one way or another, sooner or later. And like most lessons I’ve learned, I need refreshers from time to time.

3. Don’t wander from the flock, but look for those who understand.

In part because we moved to a new region during this dark season, it took quite a while for us to find and connect with a local church. As we did, it became clear that not everyone knows how to handle the suffering of others. In fact, some well-meaning people say quite unhelpful things. What really ministered to me in those days were the written words of those who had gone through the shadowlands before me and could serve as guides.

Who were those guides? I’ll mention two: one ancient and one contemporary. The first and foremost was Richard Sibbes and his classic work, The Bruised Reed. Nothing helped me to grasp God’s heart towards the lowly saint like that exposition of a few verses in Isaiah 42. It spoke directly to my discouraged state and applied Christ’s patient love to my wounds. My little paperback version saw heavy use and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If the first guide was pastoral and didactic, the second was artistic and indirect: the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I’m not sure I can explain exactly how it spoke to what I was feeling, but something about the prose of that special novel was like a balm for my soul. And all the more meaningful because it was my mom who had first recommended it to me and lent me her copy. Though she was gone, still she blessed me.

Lastly, and most importantly, there was a person who, aside from my wife, did more to minister to me than anyone else: my mentor, Marvin Brubacher. His gentle encouragement, his faithfulness to pray for me, his trust that God could put the pieces back together, well it’s beyond what I can adequately describe in words. He was willing to sit with me in the darkness for a long time, and that is rare. Lesser men would have moved on to more promising discipleship and leadership prospects long before. I shudder to think where I would be today without his voice in my life over the last decade.

Every Christian needs to be in community. But the suffering Christian also needs the gentle presence and words of saints who have walked through the dark valley path before. If you are suffering, look for such a person; if you have suffered, look to find those who are going through what you did (2 Cor 1:3-4).


Looking back, I am grateful for it all even though much of it was miserable. God disciplined and moulded me in ways I didn’t know I needed. I can only borrow the words of the psalmists: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71); and “From my distress I called upon the Lord; the Lord answered me and put me in an open space” (Psalm 118:5).