Dry Season Back to all sermons

Date: August 28, 2015

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Teach Us to Pray

Category: Prayer

Scripture: Psalm 13:1–13:6

Tags: discouragement, faith, prayer, abandonment, honesty, trust

Synopsis: This is the final message in our series “Teach Us to Pray”. In the message, Pastor Cam turns to the subject of Dry Season. What does prayer look like in the “dry seasons” of our spiritual life when God seems absent and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling? Psalm 13 is our text, as King David asks the Lord, “Will you forget me forever?”

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I grew up in East Africa, only about 100 kilometers from the equator. We didn’t do 4 seasons there; no winter, spring, summer and fall. We only had two seasons; rainy season and dry season. During the rainy season it would rain almost daily for a couple hours; everything turned green, lush, full of life. During the dry season, there was no rain at all for weeks and even months at a time. The greens faded to yellows and browns, and as the dry season progressed, the earth itself almost resonated with thirst. The people would wait and anxiously watch the sky for clouds to indicate that the dry season was about to end and that the rains were returning to water the parched earth.

I have titled my sermon today, “Dry Season.” Only I am not going to talk about the weather. This is the final message in our series, “Teach Us to Pray”. And I want to talk about the times when we experience a “dry season” in our prayer life and in our fellowship with God.

There is an old hymn called “In the Garden”. I love the melody and the imagery of fellowship with the Lord Jesus.

The first verse goes like this:

I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.

The second verse continues in the same vein:

He speaks, and the sound of His voice, is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gives to me, within my heart is ringing.

The chorus goes like this:

And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

It’s a beautiful hymn and a beautiful image. But what I want to talk about today are the mornings when you come to the garden alone – and the Lord doesn’t show up! You walk and you talk, but no one answers. You pray, but it feels like your prayers are bouncing back, echoing in your own ears like so many useless words. You come to the garden alone and you walk there alone and you leave alone. And it doesn’t just happen one day, or one morning. It happens day after day after day. Your prayer garden is in the doldrums of a long dry season.

Have you ever gone through times like that? I know I have. Maybe you’re going through a time like that right now. If so, you’re not the only one.

King David was described by God himself as “a man after my own heart.” He was a man who knew what it was to walk in intimacy with God. He is the author of many of the beautiful praise Psalms in our Bible.

He paints beautiful word pictures like this in Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.

He concludes that same Psalm with these ringing words of confidence and trust:

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

That’s why it seems so jarring when we read words like this, found in Psalm 13:1-2, also written by David:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Have you ever felt that way? David did.

One of the most influential Christians of the 20th century was a man called C.S. Lewis. His writings continue to be a blessing to many people today. He had a way of expressing deep matters of faith in everyday language and logic and accessible images. Yet he also endured dark times, as indicated in these words:

“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, if you turn to him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.” (from “A Grief Observed”)

Have you ever felt that way? C.S. Lewis did.

During the two years before we moved to Abu Dhabi, I worked at a counseling center in California. The Center’s ministry focused on counseling with missionaries and others in Christian ministry. One afternoon, one of my counselees came into my office. She was a gifted young woman who had served successfully for several years on the mission field. She had recently come to our center on a referral by her mission board. It was only my second or third session with her. On this day, she burst into my office, glanced around and said: “I can’t stand to be inside today. Can we walk around outside and talk?”

Sensing her deep distress, I agreed. As we walked around the campus of the counseling center, she suddenly began to weep. These were not silent tears, but great sobs which tore her and shook her whole body. Through the sobs, she tried to talk and share her desperation; how alone she felt, how misunderstood, how angry. Aggravating and deepening her pain was the sense that she had been abandoned and forgotten by God. We walked together for the entire hour; she crying, I listening. I will never forget the question she asked again and again: “Where is God? Where is God?”

Have you ever felt that way? Can you relate to that young woman’s sense of desperation and aloneness? Are you feeling that way this morning?

Maybe you’re saying to me: How does this relate to our series of messages about prayer? It actually relates very directly. We are going to examine Psalm 13 in some depth. Psalm 13, like many of the psalms, is addressed directly to the Lord. It is a prayer. So we are studying a prayer this morning. It is a prayer articulated by a “man after God’s own heart.” Yet it is not exactly your typical prayer. These are words wrung from a desperate heart. We might call this a “Dry Season Prayer.”

Let’s dig into it together.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

In these verses, he four times asks the question: “How long?” How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? “Lord, is it permanent? This feeling I have; this sense that you have abandoned me? This feeling that you have forgotten me, will it go on forever? The word he uses for “forget” carries the force of ignoring, overlooking, being unmindful.

The next line is a parallel question: How long will you hide your face from me?

This is another way of describing the same sense of abandonment. The metaphor of God’s face is used in the Scripture to symbolize his presence or his favor. The image it brings to my mind is that of a tiny baby. It is remarkable how quickly a baby focuses his eyes on the eyes and face of his mother. And to that infant, when the face turns away, the mother is no longer present. So in David’s experience, he finds himself lying in the darkness, searching for some sign of God’s face, some sense of his presence.

How long must I take counsel in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

The New International Version translates that first phrase: How long must I wrestle with my thoughts.

Both translations capture the same reality. We are trapped in a futile, inner debate. We find ourselves in a closed system, wrestling with our own thoughts, taking counsel in our own soul. Why? Because God is absent. He isn’t listening. At least it doesn’t feel like he’s listening. We are caught on a seemingly endless mental treadmill, going over the same ground over and over.

There is no relief. There seems to be no way out. “How long?” David cries. Will this endless cycle repeat itself forever? “Where is God?”

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

This is a major theme of David’s psalms. This was the arena in which his life was lived: Goliath, Saul, the Philistines, Absalom. All his life David was surrounded by enemies who sought to bring him down and destroy him.

Our lives may involve actual physical enemies; people who are hostile towards us, who wish us evil. But more often our battles may be spiritual battles with an unseen enemy. How long will he run roughshod over us, causing us problem after problem and defeat after defeat? Whatever the exact nature of our circumstances and/or enemies, what seems to wears us down is the sheer duration of our problems. How long, O Lord? What we can endure for a day, a night, a week, a month becomes unendurable when it drags on month after weary month. As Matthew Henry expresses it in his commentary on this psalm: “Despondency turns to despair and those who have long been without joy begin, at last, to be without hope.”

“How long?” “Where is God?” It is dry season, and the parched ground of our souls is crying out for relief.

So, what do we do when we reach that point of desperation? How can we pray in the dry seasons of our lives?

As we examine the totality of this short little psalm, let me present four answers to that question.

1. Be honest with God.

We have to be honest enough to ask the questions and express our despair. I think as Christians we sometimes think that God can’t handle our honest feelings. We have to pretend things are OK, even when they are not. We have to paste on a smile and pretend it doesn’t hurt, even when it does. How many of us feel free enough to express ourselves in God’s presence the way David does in these opening lines? How many of us are bold enough to accuse God of forgetting about us and our problems? There is real pain, even anger in David’s voice in these opening verses. I think this is often where we need to start. God can handle our anger, our pain, our disappointment. He knows what we are feeling anyway. What possible good can it do to pretend?

In I Samuel 30, there is the account of a crisis in David’s life. He and his men had returned from battle to find that their village had been attacked and burned and all their families taken captive. I sometimes use that passage and move quickly to verse 6 which says that “David found strength in the Lord his God.” But there is an earlier verse (verse 4) which says, “David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.”

Sometimes we try to skip that step. But that can be a mistake. Often the open, honest expression of our deep anguish is the first step to genuine healing and renewed trust in God. We have to allow for the feeling and expressing of raw human emotion. God is not uncomfortable with our emotions. As I walked around the campus with that young woman, I did not pull out a Bible. I did not quote any verses. I did not rebuke her for her lack of faith, or even try to answer her question, “Where is God”? I simply listened and let her cry. That session was a small, first step in a long and arduous journey toward healing and wholeness. But I never again saw her in such an anguish of despair. Her willingness to be honest with God was a small step, but it was a very important one.

2. Don’t stop praying.

I am going to make a leap of logic, and assume that as a Christian you are already praying about your dilemma. As I read the opening verse of Psalm 13, my sense is that this is not the first time David has talked to God about the problem. In fact the sense is that this is the 100th time he has talked to God about it and it still hasn’t been resolved. “How long are you going to keep ignoring me, God? Forever?”

And so I would urge you. Don’t stop praying. It is here that David’s faith begins to reassert itself.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken

“Consider and answer me,” is in a verb form called an “insistent imperative.” The important point is that even in his despair, he is still engaging with God. He is angry. He does not understand why God has not acted. But he does not stop praying. He does not stop crying out, “Listen to me, God! Answer me!”

He expresses this same urgent plea in the next line: Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death. It is possible that this metaphor came from the battlefield and the experience of a wounded soldier who has lost a great deal of blood. He is in shock. He has lain untended on the battlefield and is seriously dehydrated. As he lies there in torment, he senses that the end is near. The first thing that begins to fade is his eyesight, as shock sets in and he senses the descent of unconsciousness, coma and even death. He only has time to croak out one final cry for help in hope that some passing comrade will come to his aid, gather his head into his arms, pour life-giving water into his parched lips and bring the light back to his eyes, pulling him back from the brink of the sleep of death. “If you don’t do that God, I am finished, and my enemies will rejoice at my demise and exult in their victory over me.

The key is that even in that moment of final extremity, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, David still cried out to God. Don’t stop praying. Only when we stop praying does the enemy win.

3. Don’t stop trusting.

Look at verse 5: But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

The verb tenses are very important here. David is taking his past actions and experience with the Lord and he is projecting them into the future. “I have trusted…my heart shall rejoice…” This is real faith in action. This is faith that does not yet see the answer, but believes that the answer is on the way. I have trusted in your steadfast love. I am not personally feeling that love now. It feels like you have forgotten me. I don’t know where you are. But I have put my trust in you and in the belief that your unfailing love has not forgotten me. And by faith I believe that my heart shall rejoice in your salvation, your deliverance. In fact, I am commanding my heart to rejoice. I don’t know how or when. But I believe that I will rejoice in your deliverance from this crisis, this hole, this desperate situation.

This is where the struggle is hardest. Our experience, our eyes, our emotions tell us: “God has forgotten me.” But the Bible says that God, in his unfailing love, will never forget me. Which will we believe?

Be honest with God. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop trusting.

And finally,

4. Don’t stop praising God.

This is where the psalm concludes in verse 6: I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The verb “to sing” is in a form that is called “cohortative” which is used to express strong intention. I have a strong determination and intention “to sing to the Lord”. Why? For he has dealt bountifully with me in the past. And I believe that somehow he is working for my good even in this situation. Because, by faith, I believe that God’s unfailing love never forgets. And so, with the memory of past blessings and past deliverance, and with faith in God’s future deliverance, David determines that he will once again sing to the Lord.

Don’t stop praising God. Even if, at times, you have to praise him by faith, even as David does in this psalm. I can’t prove it, but my sense of the psalm is that David’s circumstances have not changed at the conclusion of the psalm. The answer has not yet come. Deliverance has yet to arrive. It is still dry season. But David’s inner landscape, his heart has changed from despair to hope. His desperate prayer has become a song of praise even as he awaits God’s deliverance.

The soil of his soul may still be parched, but he can see the gathering clouds of rainy season.

I don’t know what you might be going through right now. Maybe things are rosy and wonderful in your corner of the universe. I hope they are. If so, then praising God should be natural and easy, and I hope you are praising him for his goodness. Or maybe you, like David, feel that God has forgotten you. Your problems are simply too big and they have lasted far too long. Those are real feelings. Be honest with them. Tell God how you feel.

But the key to surviving the dry seasons of our lives is, in spite of your feelings, don’t stop praying. Don’t stop trusting. And don’t stop praising. God will send the rain.

Well, that concludes our series of messages on prayer. You might be wanting to say to me, “But you haven’t taught us how to pray.” If, by that, you mean I have said next to nothing about the mechanics of prayer, you are right. I haven’t said anything about what time of day is best for prayer. I haven’t talked about what physical position is best for prayer. I haven’t said anything about keeping a prayer list or a prayer journal, or about prayer walks or prayer retreats, or corporate prayer vs. private prayer. I haven’t said anything about prayer before meals or even whether it’s necessary to close your eyes when you pray. (On that note, I would suggest that if you pray while driving, it’s best to keep your eyes open!) There are a whole host of practical issues affecting our prayer lives that we have not covered. The reason for that is because the Bible itself says very little about those things. Or if it does, it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. On the subject of physical position for example, the Bible describes people praying while kneeling, while standing, and while lying face down. And it is my conclusion that where there are no commands, there is freedom; freedom to experiment and to find the mechanics of prayer that work best for us.

The risk of too much practical instruction or advice on prayer mechanics is that we try to pray by imitation – and that may not be what fits us best, and we find ourselves constricted by trying to follow someone else’s pattern. We become like David before his battle with Goliath, when King Saul tried to equip him with his own royal armor. David had enough self-awareness and God-awareness to refuse to go into battle in the king’s armor. “I cannot go in these,” he said, “because I am not used to them.” Instead he took his shepherd’s staff, his sling and five smooth stones and went into battle against the giant. We all have different personalities We are wired differently. Prayer is an expression of relationship – so my relationship with God and hence my prayer practices may be different than yours and yours from mine. You know the colloquial expression: “different strokes for different folks.” I think it is relevant to the practice of prayer.

You might also say to me: “But you haven’t answered all my questions about prayer.” I am well aware of this. It’s not because I am unwilling to answer all your questions. It is a simple reality that I don’t know the answers to all your questions about prayer. I don’t even know the answers to all my own questions about prayer. Prayer remains, in a very real sense, a mystery and an enigma. But it’s my great desire that the sense of the mystery of prayer will not keep us from praying, but actually draw us to greater commitment to prayer as we enter ever deeper into the life of faith. Let us not forget that, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” as the writer of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 11:1.

The same writer goes on to say in Hebrews 11:6: without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

Prayer, at its very core, is how we draw near to God and how we seek him. And we must do that by faith and faith, by its very nature, exceeds our understanding and takes us into the realm of mystery ant that which is not seen. Welcome to the journey.

I will close by taking us back to where we began in the very first message in this series.

We started this series of message on prayer back on July 7 by looking at three parables of prayer. The third parable we looked at was the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge – and how the widow received justice because of her persistence. It is one of those parables in which we are told the meaning and intent of the parable before we are given the parable itself. This is what we are told and this is where I conclude:

Then Jesus told his disciple a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever gone through a “dry season” in your prayer life? How long did it last? Describe your experience and the factors that contributed to it.
2. Read Psalm 13 together. Can you identify with David’s words in verses 1-2?
3. In the message, Pastor Cam presented 4 points for facing the “dry seasons” of our spiritual lives. Discuss each one in turn, and its relevance to your own walk with God.

• Be honest with God (verses 1-2) Is this easy or hard for you? How does it help?

• Don’t stop praying (verses 3-4) Why is this important?

• Don’t stop trusting (verse 5) How do the tenses of the verb help us understand this point?

• Don’t stop praising God (verse 6). What does it mean to “praise God by faith”

4. Reflect together on this whole series of messages on prayer. What stands out to you? What have you learned? What do you still need to learn?