Drowning? You May Be Spiritually Discouraged, But You Can Stay Afloat

Greg Stoughton

I took a routine upward glance from the pages of my book toward our Florida apartment pool where my 6-year-old son, Ryan, had been playing. I was instantly thrust into a parent’s worst nightmare as I saw him floating motionless atop the pool surface.

Fifteen minutes later, after what seemed like hours, Ryan screamed and cried in the back of the ambulance, piercing my fog of fear and answering my prayers.

Ryan would live.

For weeks afterward, I sat on my porch and gazed in the direction of the pool, continuing my habitual meetings with the Lord. Having seen my son so close to dying, I spent a lot of time thinking about life. Ryan was fine, and over time, traces of guilt and the image of my son’s “dead-boy’s” float gradually eased. 

But in a somewhat strange turn of events, I began to see myself metaphorically -- like one face-down atop the water in a pool -- floating spiritually lifeless. Depleted and exhausted from a life that lacked grace, I had become void of much passion or joy.

For too many months -- years, even -- religious activity had come to trump having a love relationship with God. I was attempting to curry favor with Him through performance. My heart had grown callous and numb, and I needed spiritual resuscitation.

In the spring of 2006, our family began a 2-year international mission assignment. A language barrier, coupled with an atheistic culture, proved more challenging than we had envisioned. Intellectually, I knew that “apart from God I can do nothing” (see John 15:5).

Yet emotionally, and in my actions, I defaulted to patterns I had ingrained in my life. I thought that if I replicated practices and strategies that have brought past success -- pushed hard enough into enough activities that look good—I would be fine.

But the harder I worked, and the more I sought to control outcomes, the more fatigued and disheartened I grew. Religiously diligent, many mornings I woke with an inward disdain for the very task that God had called me to do.

In The Rest of God, author and pastor Mark Buchanan emphasizes, “The attraction of legalism (duty over desire) is that despite all its complexity, it is mindless....It draws nothing from your heart, your mind, your strength, your soul. It’s like paint by numbers. It requires no artistry, no imagination, no discipline -- just dumb, methodical obedience.”

Even our obedience can bring death to our souls.

I’ve also had other seasons of busying myself in too many good things, like rigid Bible study, church attendance, prayer meetings, church leadership, ministry programs or an excess of kids’ activities.

I’ve done so much I’ve nearly drowned my soul. I start well enough, but end up empty, placing too much trust in myself, leaning on my perceived abilities, reveling in others’ applause or pushing for results. 

Doing is not necessarily bad. But I have come to understand that doing in an attempt to feel significant -- to measure up to a bar that I think God has set -- is, in its pride, of great offense to Him.

Who you are matters to the Father. We begin our Christ-walk through faith, in belief, not works, so why are we so quick to try to gain access into God’s good grace?

Every Christ-follower already has God’s full acceptance. In sending Jesus as Savior, the Father displayed a willingness to embrace mankind at its lowest point. Bought with a price—the shed blood of Christ—our value and worth was gained.

We have been placed into a relationship of unconditional love.

It is worth emphasizing: there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us more or to love us less.

As a result, our service is meant to be all about Him. When what I do flows from pure gratitude for the Lord and His redemptive work, then my work itself becomes an act of worship.

With significance detached from results, fear of failure fades. My “work” becomes more restful, and my energy sustained, as I work with God in a continual awareness of His presence and His power. Full of grace, I serve with even heightened vigor, glorifying God.

Here are a few items that gave me perspective and helped provide what I needed to awaken from my spiritual stupor.

Spiritually numb, I was prone to drift toward isolation. It was a small group of Christian friends that I brought into my struggle that helped me take steps toward healing through spiritual encouragement, godly perspective and insight.

Is there a community of believers you need to embrace? 

God’s Word had begun to feel stale, so I did something surprising: I set aside my Bible for a couple of weeks and spent more time just being still before God in listening, prayer and song (Psalm 46:10). My desire for God and for His Word, which I love and need, soon returned.

Are you deadened by ritual or routine? What can you do differently to better connect with God?

God led me to take a class on “Loving God, Loving Others” that reminded me of my identity in Christ. Lectures, some good books and a return to journaling some thoughts were all of value.

You may not have time for a class, but a chapter or two of the right Christ-centered book, or capturing a few thoughts in a journal, might work as trigger points for positive change.

Today, Ryan and I are both back in our respective pools.

I had to help Ryan overcome his fear of the water, so I climbed in first, reached out my hand to my son, and slowly guided him back into the pool. Ryan felt safe through a relational bridge of trust.

I delight in knowing from experience that the arms of our loving heavenly Father are large enough -- in relationship with Him --to invite us into His presence to splash, frolic and play.  We can live again.

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