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The wasteland of spiritual barrenness
This sermon is part of the sermon series "A Man for All Seasons". See series.


Confession: I've lived nearly 50 years and, for most of them, have never heeded the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. For everything there is a season. For everything. In the natural world, that's obvious. The earth moves in a rhythm of seasons: cold, hot, work, play, light, dark, sow, reap, fruit, barrenness. Nothing could be more self-evident.

But Ecclesiastes is talking about another kind of seasonality—life's seasons, life's inevitable tilting to and fro. Existence is seasonal, and our hearts know it. Our hearts taste the rapture and leisure of summer, the industry and urgency of fall, the bleakness and loneliness of winter, the busyness and expectancy of spring.

I've never before developed a spirituality that corresponds with the seasons of the earth. I have ways of adapting my yard and home and habits to the variations of climate and daylight that prevail with each season: I cut my lawn in summer, clean my chimney in fall, stack my wood in spring, and wear my boots in winter. But I had no equivalent ways of adapting my spiritual life—my prayer, worship, and listening to God—to the seasons of my soul. I especially didn't know what to do with winter. Winter is bleak, cold, dark, and fruitless. It is a time of forced inactivity, unwelcome brooding, more night than day. It's harsh, unrelenting, grim, seemingly endless. Most things are dead in winter, or appear so.

I've wanted to run from winter with all my might—to disavow its reality, to conduct myself in blatant defiance or outright denial of its existence, to frolic like it was high summer despite the darkness and shivering cold. When my father died in 1996, I hardly paused. I came back and preached what I'd scheduled to preach. The elders offered me a time of bereavement. I declined it. I didn't alter one thing in my spiritual regimen. I carried on as though a minor interruption, not one of life's darkest and loneliest passages, had just occurred. In 2001, when three young men in our church died within three months of one another, I did the same thing. I just carried on. But several months later, I sat in a cabin in Long Beach and thought I was losing my mind and my faith both—and I wasn't sure I wanted to chase either.

That was my wake-up call.

It's foolish to plant corn in January. It's foolish to transplant shrubs in July. Each season has its suitable tasks, its required duties, its necessary constraints. Concerning earth's cycles, I get that. But it's taken me almost 50 years to grasp that reality in relation to my own heart. A pastor's death in our church, almost a year ago today, was a big piece of the puzzle for me. It plunged me into a winter so deep and long, I couldn't run from it any more. There was nothing to do but enter it—and learn its lessons.

For everything there is a season.

In North American church culture, I don't think we've grasped that for everything there is a season. Somewhere, somehow, we adopted and perfected a model of activity-based spirituality: the more you do, the holier you are. The more events you attend, committees you sit on, seminars you participate in, ministries you lend a hand to, the more mature and alive your faith must be. That's the theory. But I started to notice a positive correlation—not always, but once in a while—between busy people and empty people. I observed that sometimes activity can be as much an evasion of and diversion from God as an act of worship to God. I saw that saying yes, yes, yes, can be as unholy as blasphemy if your season is to be one of waiting, listening, relinquishing.

For most of my life as a Christian—and since becoming a pastor—I unthinkingly adopted this model of activity-based spirituality. I rejoiced when someone—anyone—did more, said yes to more, signed up for more, or showed up at more. Now they're getting it! I thought. But what I then saw was that some of these people were only getting tired, cranky, whiny, and—honestly—less and less Christ-like. So I sat and I thought about that. I realized that the activity-based model of spirituality is flawed. It's not derived from the Bible. It's derived from North American gung-hoism and pragmatism, from the lure of the frontier, from our lift-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps work ethic and God-helps-those-who-helps-themselves creed. So our spiritual maturity is measured by our busyness.

The Bible's measure of maturity is not busyness, but fruitfulness. And fruit implies seasons. A season of rapid growth implies a season of long dormancy. Before a thing wakes up, it sleeps. Before a branch can ever become thick with leaf and fruit, it must first be stripped to its bones.

In this series I will attempt something no less audacious than to change your mind. I want for us to shift our thinking from an activity-based model of spirituality to a seasonal-based model. May we bear much fruit to the Father's glory!

With each sermon I will set out to do three things, but in an intermingled way: one, describe the main characteristics of each season; two, discuss the activities appropriate to each season, as well as activities that are inappropriate; three, identify some ways Christ draws closer to us in each season and conforms us more to his purposes and likeness.

Since I began talking about winter, I should continue. Truthfully, I'd still rather escape the heart's wintertime than endure it. I've come to accept it, but still I dread it. So let's at least get it over with.

The bankruptcy of winter

Ecclesiastes 12, though describing the winter of life, also provides an accurate depiction of the winter of the heart. Two details in particular stand out. Verse 1 begins: "I find no pleasure." The winter of life and the winter of the heart share this in common: pleasure is bankrupt. Things we once craved and relished we now avoid and despise. The food we savored, the friendships we treasured, the activities we cherished—none of these things give us anything other than a sense of weariness or disgust. And verse 8: "Meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless." The winter of life and the winter of the heart also share this in common: meaning is bankrupt. Things we once found captivating and stimulating—rich with meaning—we now find futile and bewildering. The trips we used to go on, the art we once pondered, the books we loved to read, the subjects we delighted to talk over—winter makes these all dullness and drudgery. We go from the purpose-driven life to the purpose-starved life. Everything is leached of significance. Ambition, accomplishment, aspiration, beauty, courage—none of it means anything in wintertime.

I once showed in a Sunday service a video of Baptist missionaries who were martyred in South America. I was hugely inspired by their example of heroic and sacrificial faith. But a woman came up to me afterward who was in a winter of the heart. All she said was, "Why did you show that? It was meaningless." The eyes of the heart in winter see little light. Pleasure is bankrupt. Meaning is bankrupt.

The waiting in winter

There's another passage of Scripture that, even more than Ecclesiastes 12, describes the wintertime of the heart: Psalm 88. Scholar Walter Brueggemann calls this psalm "an embarrassment to conventional faith." He even asks, "What is a psalm like this doing in our Bible?" Let me put his answer in my own words: Psalm 88 gives us language to turn wrenching sorrow into raw prayer. Sorrow wants to render us mute. Psalm 88 gives voice to what is most angry and grief-stricken and frightened inside us. It allows us to break our silence even when God refuses to break his.

It does that, first, by describing what the winter of the heart feels like. This psalm is no cool, clinical, dispassionate, detached listing of symptoms; it erupts with raw grief and anger. It's a diary of confession, a soliloquy of complaint from one wracked with pain. It's a testimony wrung from a broken heart. It's the howl of a man in the throes of an agony so excruciating, it's like death.

Winter is when my knowledge about God and my experience of God are separated by a frozen continent; my theology and my reality are irreconcilable. From the very start of the psalm, the psalmist affirms the most beautiful, exquisite, enduring theological truths about God: "Oh Lord, the God who saves me." Verses 10-12 have a steady drumbeat of God's attributes: his wonders, love, faithfulness, righteousness. There's nothing shaky or vague or half-baked in the psalmist's doctrine of God. However, his experience and his doctrine bear little resemblance to one another. What he tastes and sees of God mocks what he confesses and proclaims about God. His reality taunts his creed. He experiences not God's wonders and love and faithfulness, but God's rejection and anger and indifference. At every turn he's met with more bad news—sorrow upon sorrow, trouble upon trouble, loss upon loss. Darkness eclipses light. Sadness consumes joy. Despair overtakes hope. He experiences a God who simultaneously abandons him and punishes him, a God of apathy and of wrath, a God who hides himself and only shows up to express his anger.

The man prays anyways. Day and night he prays. He cries out, he calls out, he spreads his hands to heaven. Don't miss this: the wintertime of the heart is when we pray according to what we know, not what we see. This season grows almost nothing, but what it does grow, it grows large and magnificent; it grows our faith. Winter is for the ultimate cultivation of biblical faith. It is the season in which we nurture a certainty of things hoped for, an assurance of things unseen. We walk by faith and not by sight. I can attest, in the mild winters of the heart I have thus far endured in my life, that as awful as such seasons are, there is no better ground for growing an abiding faith that can weather the worst life can throw at me. In later weeks, we'll talk about the seasons we love to be in, especially summer. As delightful and fertile as summertime of the heart is, it is almost useless for growing faith. Think about this: when you want someone to pray for you, you instinctively seek those who have endured many long, hard, dark winters—those whose faith in the character of God is not subject to whim or mood.

The discipline of winter is waiting. We pray, call out, cry out, and spread our hands. God doesn't show up. Waiting is the terrible gift we learn. But as Isaiah tells us, "Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength."

The loneliness of winter

The psalmist describes another feeling he experiences during his winter: a terrible, terrifying loneliness. Psalm 88:8 and 18 read, "You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape … You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend."

Abandonment. Rejection. Isolation. These are the experiences of the heart in winter. You feel friendless. You even feel this way even while in a crowd at church, in Bible study, at weddings and reunions. Even if many surround you, you feel estranged, unknown, unloved.

The psalmist gives us no hint about what to do with that feeling, but he says something that points to a truth that only those whose faith is grounded in resurrection hope can understand. He says his closest friend is darkness. That is meant to be a statement of hopelessness. But how could it be for people of the resurrection? No moment in history was darker than the day after Good Friday. No day ever seemed so devoid of light or the comfort of others. As those two disciples in Luke's gospel walked toward Emmaus, though they walked together, they walked alone. Darkness was their closest companion. Then they were joined by a third man whose presence, at first, seemed an annoying intrusion into the isolation of their gloom and depression. But as he spoke, their hearts slowly warmed with strange conviction. Then, just as night came, so did day: it was none other than Jesus with them. Jesus walked alongside them in the darkest of dark, the loneliest of loneliness.

It's curious that Jesus didn't announce or disclose himself the moment he joined those men. He only did that in his departure. That's often the shape of winter: the Christ who meets us and walks with us all along doesn't reveal his true identity until we arrive at an end. But why? Why not whisk us out of the darkness and aloneness sooner? Why does he wait? My guess is this: winter is for pruning. It is that time we submit in silence and naked aloneness to Christ the vine dresser, the one who cuts those parts of us that no longer bear fruit.

If you are in the darkness and loneliness of winter, please do not resent or resist God's pruning sheers. It is a time when he takes more away from you, it seems, than he bestows on you. But each cut, which seems a deprivation, is really a cultivation; he's sculpting you to bear more fruit.

The sting of death in winter

One last thing: according to this psalm, the winter of the heart feels like death. Death haunts, taints, surrounds, and threatens. The psalmist describes this in the most vivid, sometimes lurid, terms throughout the psalm: "my life draws near the grave;" "I am counted among those who go down to the pit;" "I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave."

Winter is awful. Everything's dead, or appears so. You look at a tree in winter, and it's almost impossible to believe it will ever be thick with blossom, abundant with leaf, laden with fruit again. It is barren and dark and ugly. Winter is deadness. Winter is when your heart is so closed up that you can't imagine it ever opening again. When your dreams are so buried and seized, you can't conceive of them flowing and flowering ever again. You find no pleasure and no meaning in anything.

Here again, though the psalmist has no answer to this plight, those who follow a risen Savior are not without recourse. The apostle Paul went through his own Psalm 88 experience. He describes it in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9: "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death." But look how Paul continues in verses 9-10: "But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us." Paul goes on in 2 Corinthians 4 to disclose the full value of his winter of the heart. Here is finally the great gift that the winter of the heart alone is able to give us: it makes us heavenly minded. It breaks our addiction to the ways of this world and nurtures in us an anticipation of things unseen. We begin to long not for death, but for what takes death's sting away.

We are not made for this world. Only those who deeply suffer learn how to fully anticipate resurrection. The writer of Psalm 88 knew God but not the God revealed in Jesus Christ, whose greatest defeat and darkest hour turned out to be his greatest victory and finest hour. Christ's triumph means that, even when we draw near the grave, we can say, "Death, where is thy sting?"


I don't relish wintertime. I don't wish it on any of you. But some here are in that season all the same. God seems far away. Friends seem almost like enemies. Death seems close at hand. It's awful. But take hope, my friend. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Your salvation draws near.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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Sermon Outline:


I. For everything there is a season.

II. The bankruptcy of winter

III. The waiting in winter

IV. The loneliness of winter

V. The sting of death in winter