Surviving the Spiritual Summer-Slump
Roughly the same thing happens to me every year around the Summer. I have this expectation that Summer is going to be fantastic. It’ll be continuous sunshine, wearing shorts and flip-flops and a reason to eat ice-cream every day. But also, I’m finally going to have time to just seek God and spend time in His presence. There are fewer activities, less pressure and so there should be a lot more freedom.
Yet, somehow, the only thing realized is eating ice-cream every day. The weather often disappoints. And all the freedom I was looking forward to somehow didn’t magically turn into quality time with God. I thrive on a good rhythm, but when I lose that, I feel a bit lost.
Does my story connect with you at all?
Today we are going to talk through Psalm 84, which is a well-known Psalm. And I believe that understanding this Psalm will help us to survive that spiritual Summer-slump. The Psalm describes three stages: longing, journeying and resting.
Psalm 84:1-2 (NIV) How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Are you longing for the presence of God? Or you crying out in desperation?
I’m not asking you about the status of your soul or your level of fulfilment in life or your relationship with God.
I’m asking you if you are currently craving the presence of God. The presence of God is addictive. It's not like, once you've had a taste, that will last you forever. Once we have drawn close, we'll want to be in that place again and again. So, my question to you is not if this longing is currently fulfilled, but if the longing is there and how deep it is?
I’d argue that it is far better to be unfulfilled in life and desperate for God, than completely fulfilled, with no desire for His presence at all. Spiritually speaking, you would be in a better place. Are you desperate for God? Are you longing for more of Him in your life? Are your eyes set on Him?
It is far better to be unfulfilled in life and desperate for God, than completely fulfilled, with no desire for His presence at all.
The psalm starts off with a poetic description of what that longing for God looks like. Longing, fainting, even crying out! There is a craving there that is much more than just a light apatite. The man is starving!
Are you one of those people that can just work through a day and realize at 15:00 that you haven’t had lunch yet? I’m not. I can go without food, but I won’t forget about a meal. If I skip a meal – and I only do this while fasting – I know it.
I think our souls have a similar crave-mode as our stomachs, we’ve just become much better at ignoring it.
When our souls are not fed with the words of God and the presence of God and when it’s not in training through prayer and praise, it will grow increasingly hungrier and more desperate. But you know, that place of desperation, that’s not such a bad place to be in. This is how God has wired us. Without an urge to eat, some of us may skip too many meals and grow weak, without an urge to sleep, we’d just keep on going and deprive our body of this essential rest – and without spiritual desperation, we might forget all about God.
When we choose to tap into that craving, it can become a place of blessing. Acknowledging the need to enter into that place of God’s dwelling again, that’s the starting point of a healthy soul.
Psalm 84:3-4 (NIV)
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.
I love how the psalmist admits that he is so desperate for the presence of God, he is even jealous of birds. He remembers from his time in the Temple, and how sparrows and swallows made little nests in the niches. And it is almost like he is saying: "I wish I was one of those birds. They can just fly around there all day and tjirp their praises to God. I wish life was that uncomplicated."
The second stage the Psalm describes is a journey. Once you know where you need to go, you can start the journey.
What we need to understand is that in the time of the writing of this Psalm, worshiping God was different from what it is like for us now. The worship of God in OT times was centered around the Temple – the place where the glory of God dwelled and where heaven and earth met.
Priests were privileged to serve God through worship and sacrifices all day every day at the Temple. Verse four in this psalm hints to both the birds making nests in the niches and the priests living and serving in the Temple. But the rest of the people of God would only come to worship God one time a year or a few times a year. They would journey to Jerusalem to be at that Temple and worship there and bring a sacrifice.
Priests & pilgrims
In New Testament times, the presence of God is not limited to one place and it is not reserved for one ethnic group or privileged profession, but every believer is a priest. Not only has Jesus permanently opened the door to the presence of God for us, the Holy Spirit lives within us, making even our body a holy Temple.
There is no limitation, qualification or restriction for you to come into the presence of God because Jesus has prepared the way for you. Jesus’ death and resurrection moved every obstacle out of the way.
But, as we are all priests, we are all pilgrims as well. Just because God is always with us, doesn’t mean that we have arrived. We are on a spiritual journey of growing closer to God.
Verse 5-7 describes this pilgrimage. We’re going to walk and talk through these verses.
Verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
The ESV says: in whose heart are the highways to Zion. I love this phrasing. It expresses that wherever you are, even if you are in a place you don’t want to be or a place you shouldn’t be – you know the way back. You know that true fulfilment can only be found in the presence of God, and you know that His door is always open. Your heart is set on pilgrimage.
Journeying to Jerusalem would obviously happen on foot and often through the heat. It took determination to make the trip, but true pilgrims don’t mind.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka, (weeping)
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
When you understand your spiritual life as a journey, you will be able to deal with the difficulties better. Realizing that you are traveling, you let go of the pressure of arriving, and you see opposition as obstacles and setbacks as delay. Whatever you might face on this journey, nothing is going to be able to throw you off course, because in your heart you carry the highway to Zion. And when you travel through the Valley of Baca – that dry, desolate, hopeless place – God will spring up a well.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:3-10 (ESV)
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
I love how Jesus just turns it all around here. Who are the blessed ones? It’s the poor, the mourning, the humble, those who hunger and thirst. It’s those who realise that there is no fulfilment of their soul’s deepest needs outside of God. And sometimes, God may even bring us to the valley of weeping, just to help us realise how much we actually need Him.
Pilgrimage is not about climbing to the top of the mountain, but about meeting God in the valley.
Verse 7: They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
What does this “going from strength to strength” mean? It sounds like something that the hyper-successful and blessed people would say… I don’t think this has to do with a life of only mountaintop experiences. I mean… only mountaintops equal flatness. There are no highs without lows.
I think that going from strength to strength means that you, in faith, interpret your humpy bumpy ride through life as going from mountaintop to mountaintop. Yes, that means that you go through valleys and setbacks and disappointments and what not…. But you understand those as being part of the journey.
Those who find their strength in the Lord will be able to say: “I went from strength to strength”. It was a bumpy ride, there were ups and downs, but God was faithful through it all. He was always there to strengthen me and help me through it.
And don’t miss out on the solid promise here: till each appears before God in Zion. When your heart is set on pilgrimage and you earnestly seek God and crave His presence – you will make it. That longing will not stay unfulfilled. You will appear before God in Zion.
The final stage in the Psalm is about resting and belonging in God’s presence.
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
blessed is the one who trusts in you.
From these last verses I want to give you three simple take-homes to survive the spiritual summer-slump.
1) Make the presence of God your home
You and I, we come alive – truly alive – in the presence of God. This is where we meet our Maker. Where we find our purpose and fulfilment. In the presence of God is where the deepest needs of the soul are met because God is good, He is love, He is pure and just and faithful and all of this in a complete and perfect way.
And so, the psalmist says: I’d rather be here in your presence for one day, than a thousand elsewhere. He decided; I might actually spend most of my days in other places than in this Temple – but this is the place where I belong. This is home. I urge you to do the same.
Make God’s presence your home, and the rest of the world is the place He is sending you out to, to make a difference. But where you truly belong, in is His presence.
2) Make seeking God a priority
I know that there are a lot of things that will distract us and keep from seeking God. But I want to urge you, as well as myself to, even in the summer-slump, stay disciplined in setting time apart for seeking God.
Do whatever works best for you to encounter with Him. Pick up that guitar, go for a walk, open the Bible to one of the Gospels and just start reading, spend time in prayer, put on worship music, meet up with a friend that you know will encourage you in your relationship with God – whatever works best for you, just do it.
Isn’t it amazing how much time, money and effort we spend on things that don’t feed the soul? Make seeking the living God a priority.
3) Make your position with God your prime-identity
We have so many different roles in life. Family roles, work roles, relationship roles… Many people pick one of those roles and make that our prime-identity. It’s the role that defines us, where we long to excel in. I want to encourage you to start seeing your role as a child of God your prime-identity. This is who you are, before you do anything else.
It’s from that place of having a secure identity in God, that the psalmist says: I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than be celebrated in the tent of the wicked.
What he’s saying is: I rather have the lowest position with God, than the highest position in a world that wants nothing to do with Him.
This should be our attitude as well. Our prime-identity is being a child of God. We are loved by Him, accepted, celebrated and commissioned by Him. That position in God, shapes who we are and how we live out the roles we have been given.