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There Are Days

There are days when I wake up thinking life is a struggle. It’s hard to get out of bed, and I stumble to the bathroom muttering under my breath. I feel tired and stagnant – as though I’m just going through the motions. Although I’m usually passionate and engaged, I have these “other days.” I think we all do. Here’s the question. What do our down days teach us about the spiritual journey? What can we learn from the days when – like the fading moon – we are on the wane?

Down days make it clear: faith doesn’t give us a free pass to escape life’s challenges. The spiritual journey doesn’t exempt us from humanness; it immerses us in it. Down days, struggles, and stagnation are part of life. There is no “easy street.” Spirituality grounds us in the guts and substance of human experience – the bitter as well as the sweet. It is there that we encounter God, experience transformation, and are called ever more deeply into surrender. It is there we live out our incarnate spirituality. Jesus became human, suffered, and died. We will all, in our own way, experience the full range of what it means to be human.

One of my most challenging lessons in confronting my down days is learning self-acceptance. When I’m lethargic and unmotivated, my tendency is to respond by trying to whip myself into shape. Being disappointed with myself causes me to think I should try even harder. If I don’t catch myself, I soon find myself going down the rabbit hole of self-judgment and self-condemnation. It has taken me a long time to realize that path leads from bad to worse. Slowly, I’m discovering that berating myself isn’t helpful. I’m learning to treat myself more gently – extending the same respect and understanding toward myself that I would give to a friend.

I’m also learning – slowly, with some inner resistance – to accept the help of others. There is much in me that wants to be the strong one, the helper, the generous person who goes the extra mile. Because my “strong one” identity is overdeveloped, I find it hard to acknowledge my weakness and admit my need. I’m not good at accepting help – much less asking for it. I am trying to learn to give up – or at least moderate – my fierce independence.

Healthy relationships are mutual, a balance of giving and receiving. That balance empowers each person, and it provides mutual support. We see an intriguing example of this mutuality in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. (John 4:5-26) It begins when Jesus asks her for a drink. He acknowledges his need and asks for help. In that simple act, he reaches across religious and cultural barriers to establish a connection. As their interaction unfolds, the woman’s suspicion and fear gradually give way to openness. Their encounter leads to mutual revelation: the woman acknowledges her need and woundedness; and Jesus reveals his identity and mission. When we are unable to acknowledge our need, it limits mutuality – the balance of giving and receiving that nurture healthy relationships.

Acknowledging our humanness is an admission that we can’t save ourselves. Most of us like being on the strong side of life – calling our own shots, helping others, making a difference. We tend to resist life’s weak side – feeling inadequate, acknowledging our need, and asking for help. Encountering the depth of our humanness and owning up to our need creates the necessary space for God to work within us. Accepting that the spiritual journey isn’t a do-it-myself project opens us to the healing and redeeming power of God. We don’t have to save ourselves. Healing and redeeming are what God does best. We simply need to surrender to God’s transformative power and let it have its way with us.

The struggle with our down days is an invitation to prayer. When we’re on a roll, it’s easy to think it’s the result of our own efforts. During those times, our sense of self-sufficiency can inhibit our prayer. By contrast, coming to grips with our humanness is humbling. It has the potential to open us to prayer – encouraging us to join the psalmist in our longing for God.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God,

When shall I came and behold

the face of God? (Ps 42:1-2)

When we pray from the depth of our need, our honesty and humility become a powerful way of opening ourselves to God. Prayer is always a transformational force. When our prayer is grounded in humility and need, we join Paul in trusting the Spirit to utter the prayer of our hearts.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, know what is the mind of the Spirit . . . (Romans 8:26-27) 

A subtle gift of the down days of life is the way it invites us to pray.

Accepting our weakness and need reminds me of an old joke. A minister was asked what his favorite passage in the Bible was. He responded: “And it came to pass . . .” The down days of life will come to pass. Life follows cycles. Spring follows winter. The bulbs we plant in the fall become the tulips that greet us in May. The world keeps spinning, and the sun will rise tomorrow. Embracing both our up and down days teaches us that “For everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” (Eccles 3:1)

Our down days teach us that the mystery of passage is at the heart of Christian faith. Jesus embodies the passage through suffering and death to the new life of resurrection. Our faith is grounded in the utter confidence – against all odds – that doubt will give way to faith, despair will give birth to hope, and every form of hate will be transformed into love. The mystery of passage unfolds in the ways our down days invite us to embrace the spiritual journey, accept our weakness and need, open ourselves to the help of others, embrace the redemptive power of God, and surrender in prayer too deep for words.

The spiritual journey is a marvelous adventure – even on the days that we find it hard to get out of bed and stumble to the bathroom muttering under our breath. Whether our life is waxing or waning, we live in the presence of the God of healing and redemption who loves us more deeply than we can imagine.

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to help you reflect on your own experience of down days.

  • What is your experience of down days – the times when you feel lethargic, unmotivated, and weighed down by your humanness?
  • How do you respond to those days?
  • In what way does your experience of need and weakness:
    • Urge you to accept your humanness?
    • Invite you to ask for and accept the help of others?
    • Encourage you to embrace the redemptive power of God?
    • Open you to prayer?
  • What does accepting your need and weakness teach you about the spiritual journey?