I’m excited to introduce you to my friend Marlena Graves. Marlena is a writer and mom of two. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog and is involved in Renovare. Listen in on our candid conversation about what it takes to “flourish” — and how to make it through wilderness times.
Marlena, welcome! Tell my readers a bit about yourself.
I contemplate, write, and speak about the eternal implications of our life in God. I am a lover of beauty (especially the beauty of my family and creation) and a justice seeker — trying to overcome evil with good. In addition, I seek answers to these types of questions: What does abundant life look like (John 10:10)? If God is good and we are his deeply beloved children and safe in his kingdom, how then should we live?
This month on my blog we’re exploring what we can do to spiritually flourish. For you, what practices or experiences are most helpful in keeping your faith vibrant and growing?
This is a great question. I think much of it has to do with our unique make up and bents. Here are some of the key practices and experiences that have become an integral part of who I am, allowing me to follow hard after Christ, staying right at his heels:
1. Solitude and Silence: In order to detoxify (be purified) from all that is in me that is not of Christ, I need solitude and silence. Busyness and over-stimulation keep me from seeing reality: from seeing God for who he is and myself for who I am and the world for what it is. However, solitude and silence allows me to drink deeply of the things of God. These disciplines allow me to pay attention to God. Then again, I might not like what I discover about myself in silence and solitude, but didn’t Jesus say that the truth sets us free? All throughout Scripture I notice that those closest to God spent a lot of time in solitude and silence. Of course, times of solitude and silence aren’t always a choice (Moses in the desert, David being chased by Saul). Sometimes searingly painful circumstances drive us into solitude and silence. Yet, I believe God still uses these times to form us.
2. Practicing the Presence of God: From the age of ten onward, I spent much of my time immersed in Scripture. For at least four years, from the age of ten to fourteen, I read the Bible two to three hours a day. Much of that had to do with the situation I grew up in. I was driven to God, to searching for his love and care. At the time, I didn’t realize how formational Scripture reading was; I did it because I wanted to. I did it because I needed to. As I read I thought, “Well Lord, if you did these things for those in Scripture, I see no reason why you can’t do similar things for me.” And he has. My reading, fueled by my search for God’s love and comfort, formed my imagination and transformed me by renewing my mind.
So, in junior high, I asked for lots of things, like wisdom, just as Solomon did. I spent a lot of time in prayer (in silence and solitude). I thought about God and his ways all the time. I thought about how to apply what I learned. As a result, my life has become God-haunted and God-intoxicated. I am now inclined to think about him all of the time — to pay attention to him. These habits make me God-conscious even during times when my emotions don’t feel him.
Consequently, I am now naturally inclined to practice his presence, but I also intentionally turn my mind towards him. I do this several ways: by spending time in his creation, reading Scripture, reading books and writing, spending time with other believers and through serving others. In addition, I find myself intentionally running headlong into his embrace during fiery trials.
For example, recently other Christians have committed a great injustice against some of my friends. From a human perspective, my friends’ livelihood and well-being are at stake. I’ve felt bitterness creeping in as I think about the evil committed by other believers in the name of God. In the midst of my anger and creeping bitterness, I intentionally turn to the Lord and ask, “How should I think about this, how should I behave?” Because if I don’t turn to God, this situation can turn me into an angry, bitter and retaliatory person. In addition to asking how I should think about the situation and behave, I intentionally pray for the serpent-like Christians. On my own, I do not desire for God to bless them, but the Lord tells me to pray for my enemies, to bless them and not curse them, so that I do, though I don’t want to. Thus, practicing the presence of God (paying attention to him) is now deeply ingrained in me, but also an intentional practice.
3. Serving Others: I find being intentional about serving others helps me keep my eyes on Christ and on seeking the good of others. Most of the time, I would rather be served and call the shots!
4. Confession: I confess sins I am tempted to keep hidden to my husband and other close friends. I am very intentional about this because I don’t want to bring shame to Christ’s name or body. Nor do I wish to unleash destruction into my own life, my family or into the lives of others. By no means is confession easy, but it is necessary that I may be healed and might continue to unleash God’s goodness in the world.
There are countless factors in our lives that, rather than helping us flourish, can cause us to flounder spiritually, emotionally, or relationally. What issues or life-realities have led you into times of spiritual struggle or dryness? And how have you pushed through those challenges?
I think my biggest struggle is the problem of evil. I believe God is good; but there are intervals in my life when I ask, “God, how can you let this senseless evil happen–especially to innocents?” There are some nights when I am tormented by it, tormented by the knowledge that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. It is a recurring struggle and although I push through, the struggle doesn’t always lift right away. I can be in an emotional stupor for days if I am not careful. During those times, I force myself to take Philippians 4:8 seriously. I force myself to think about the good, the true, and the beautiful. There’s plenty of evil in the world and inside the church and inside of me. It’s easy for me to focus only on the evil. I also intentionally give thanks for every possible thing I can think of. And finally, I make sure I get into nature so that my eyes and eventually my soul will be soothed by beauty, what Dallas Willard calls “the manifest goodness of God.”
Your blog is called “Through the Wilderness.” What does that mean to you?
This world is a wilderness and each of us are in and out of personal wildernesses all throughout our lives until we finally enter the Promised Land. In the wilderness, it can seem as if we are in the bowels of hell. But I’ve learned, and Scripture shows us, that wilderness drips with the divine. There are devils, temptations and trials — all sorts of perils in the wilderness, but also God, his angels, miracles and manna. The wilderness is a harsh environment where we experience God like never before. It is where we mature spiritually — one of the main places of spiritual growth. Thus, my blog is about how to thrive in the midst of the wilderness experience.
You’re passionate about spiritual formation — about helping others grow closer to Jesus. What spiritual encouragement would you offer someone who wants to deepen their connection with God but who feels they might be floundering? Or to someone who feels spiritually dry rather than spiritually vibrant?
Don’t panic. Even those considered spiritual giants stared down a bleak spiritual forecast. Remember Elijah? Right after he called down fire from heaven and obliterated the prophets of Baal, he got depressed because he thought Jezebel was going to obliterate him. So he fled into the wilderness. Once there, God took care of him. Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and Mother Teresa all have endured the dark night of the soul. You’re not alone as you walk through this valley of the shadow of death, nor are you some sort of pariah. God isn’t panicking either. As the perfect parent, he will not let you slip out of his embrace though you don’t believe you’re even in it.
Rest. Get enough sleep, take care of your body. Being well-rested does miracles. Getting eight hours of sleep can be the holiest thing you do.
Be Transparent. Tell others so they can walk alongside you. Ask for prayer. One of my favorite stories in Scripture is when the four friends cut a hole into the roof of a crowded house in order to lower the paralytic down through the roof at the feet of Jesus. Here’s why it’s my favorite story. I realize that sometimes I am the paralytic. I am floundering and in desperate need of help. I do not have the strength or will or energy to help myself. During those times, I rely on the Church, on friends to lower me down to Jesus. I wait there for his healing touch. It could be a long while, but I make it to Jesus because my friends have lowered me down before him. Other times, I am one of the friends doing the lowering. Friends are a means of grace. Under no circumstances should you walk this path alone.
Meditate on Slices of Scripture. Meditate on whatever piece of encouraging Scripture you can. You can meditate on a word or phrase or verse for months or even years. Here’s one that I’ve been thinking about for three years: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time” (Psalm 145:15). I’ve also been thinking about the word ‘peace’ –its meaning, its source and implications.
Thank you, Marlena, for stopping by! I feel blessed by your words. Friends, be sure to visit Marlena’s blog Through the Wilderness for more great conversation on spiritual formation.
Blessings to you. You can connect with me on twitter: @MarlenaGraves