Everyone is familiar with the term “seasons”: winter, spring, summer, autumn. In winter it is cold, birds migrate to warmer climates, animals hibernate, the trees have shed their trees and lie dormant for a while; in spring it becomes warmer, new leaves and flowers spring to bathe the world in colour, birds return and animals come out of their winter slumber; summer is the warmest time of the year, life thrives and all the world is a-bloom; and in autumn the steady decline of all into the cold sleep of winter once more.
In my experience, there are also seasons in the Christian life: times of intense growth, where passion and zeal reign supreme; times of peace and tranquility, where passion cools to determined steadfastness and constancy; dry times, where the hunger that fed steadfastness wanes ; and then the cold times, the dry times where it seems as though all Life lies dormant.
Unlike the natural seasons, Christian seasons are personal and within our control. However, it becomes easier to control them as we mature as Christians and we become more adept at recognising the signs that an autumn is slowly encroaching. Then, just as we know that autumn has arrived when the leaves start turning brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange, so can we recognise that a spiritual autumn is upon us when we become more lax in the things that we happily practiced in our most passionate times.
Caveat: None of this that I have noted now is scriptural of course – you won’t find it in the Bible. This conjecture comes purely from observation and from experience. I don’t think that counts for nothing; in fact I believe that many of us experience the same thing, especially as newly born again Christians.
My own journey thus far has been filled with many seasons, not limited to those I have provided as examples, mos notably within the context of my time at university. For a year after my salvation I experienced such extreme passion and zeal for God, I mean I was practically ablaze! In that time I was like a sponge, intensely eager to soak up the word of God and to learn as much as I could, participating in fellowship with other Christians through ministry, church, small group, church camps, get-to-togethers and discipleship. Thinking of it now I’m quite surprised at that year. It was a lovely summer indeed.
The autumn was extremely short, I didn’t even see it for what it was because it happened during a ministry tour. I call it an autumn because it was a waning of desire: less desire to read my Bible, less desire to talk to God in prayer, less desire to hear from God. My heart was growing colder. But I was still ministering, serving, and because our leader set aside time for the group to have our Bible reading and prayer time I was even still reading my Bible and still praying – but those things had become formalities without my realising it.
Directly after the tour it was the December holidays. With them came Winter. It wasn’t immediate. Reading my Bible and praying had become habits and so I continued in them for a time. It also felt wrong not to go to church so I tried different ones out back home, but in short, my whole routine and church life in Stellenbosch had been pulled out from under me. I became listless. Winter. Stagnation. Cold, cold weather. And with it, a hardening of the heart. Not so much as to be immediately noticeable, but a hardening nonetheless. By the end of the holiday I was completely out of relationship with God: I wasn’t reading my Bible to hear from him, I wasn’t going to church to be taught of him and I wasn’t praying to speak to him.
Back to university. Winter remained. And the winter grew long. Outwardly, it was as if I had never known God, slowly my life and actions returned to the how they were before I believed in Jesus, before I was born again. One evening I went so far as to sleep with someone. I cannot even begin to begin to explain the self-loathing and despair that that action brought me when I got home the next day and was left alone with my thoughts. I felt like the lowest, scummiest, most useless person in the world and I could only think of how disappointed God must be in me. The depths of that despair led me back into a bout of the depression that I’d had since I was a teenager. I felt as though I had betrayed God, after all that he had done for me and taught me, after all that I knew, how could I do this? He was surely disgusted with me. I was disgusted with myself. I wept. I might have prayed – I don’t quite recall. But life went on. And so did Winter.
More months went by. I didn’t return to God. Even so, I couldn’t fully escape him. He was speaking to me through the most mundane things: billboards, adverts, bumper stickers, movies, music. A veritable barrage of communication. Having heard God speak to me, specifically, through his word before, I knew his voice and I knew when I was being addressed. It is difficult to describe but I will try through two examples:
1) You’re in a group of people, everyone is talking, there is constant chatter and you are listening to it all, but no one has spoken to you specifically yet. Suddenly, someone’s voice rises above the others and you turn to pay attention to them almost automatically, drawn to the sudden change in volume. When you turn to listen, they are looking right at you, and you see that they are speaking to you. Thus you know that you are being addressed.
2) You’re in a group of people, everyone is talking, there is constant chatter and you are listening to it all. In this scenario, you are blindfolded. Suddenly, someone’s voice rises above the others and you turn to pay attention to them almost automatically, drawn to the sudden change in volume. When you turn to listen however, you cannot see whether or not the person is looking right at you and is thus speaking to you specifically. However, you keep listening anyway, since that voice is the loudest. In listening, it becomes apparent that this speech is directed at you based on what they are actually saying – perhaps it is a thread of conversation that you and the person had picked up before and they refer back to that conversation, perhaps they speak of things which are only relevant to you – whatever it may be, you are certain that you are being addressed based on context.
In the manner of the second example God spoke to me all through those months in which I was not pursuing relationship with him.
In about the middle of that year, I was sitting in my car listening to music about to go into a club. A song which I really enjoyed started playing. In the same way as described in the second example above, I felt personally addressed by the chorus of this song and along with this address a darkness which I had never felt before and I knew that speaking to me through this song was an evil spirit, a devil if you can accept it. And it said: “I’m on the outside, I’m looking in, I can see through you, see your true colours, ’cause inside you’re ugly, you’re ugly like me. I can see through you, see the real you.” Never before that moment and never since has the chorus in this song been accompanied by that intense darkness and the certainty of being personally addressed. It shook me to the core. And sadly, a part of me agreed: I was ugly, deep inside and the evil thing that was looking in could see right through to the real me.
I was so shaken that I left and went home. I was deeply troubled in my spirit. I wanted comforting, and nothing earthly could provide the necessary spiritual comfort. So, for the first time in months, I opened my Bible. I don’t know what I expected to find, but I opened that book on a random page and as I started reading there was a sort of “Hey, listen!” – I put it in words now but there was nothing audible, no voice in my head, but the effect was the same as if someone had said my name, so I paid close attention, and received these words as spoken to me directly. And what He said was:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:3)
I thought immediately of how God had been reaching out to me, pursuing me through the most mundane things; I thought of how I had sinned so terribly in all that time and of what the song had said of me that very evening; I thought of what I had learned the year before, how he said ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you’. All these thoughts in a second. I was weeping almost immediately, understanding more fully what it meant to be loved by God unconditionally, experiencing first-hand what he meant when he described himself as “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. I had never seen the beauty of God as clearly as I did then.
And just like that, the Winter was over. The ice thawed, and in its place life began to take root again.