The first winter after I got my driver’s license, blizzards pummeled Chicago. Temperatures stayed below freezing from Christmas day until the beginning of March. It was bad even for us hardy Midwesterners, with whiteout conditions coming up out of nowhere. On a bright morning with about four inches of snow, I ventured out in my dad’s Corolla. On the way out of our neighborhood, I drove a stretch of road going past an industrial park with almost no traffic. I hit an ice patch, tried to correct the slide, and gasped as my the vehicle did a full 360-degree turn and slammed into the snowbank piled against the curb. I hit the accelerator and the car didn’t budge. I was stuck.
Spiritually, it’s easy to feel the same way. We hit the accelerator—doing the same spiritual practices, praying for help, trying to be part of a community—but we don’t budge. Instead of feeling the wind of the Spirit at our backs, it feels like there’s a weight in our gut.
When that’s where we’re at, what can we do that doesn’t just make things worse? Is there a way forward?
By God’s grace, we can lean into his work in our lives even in our most stuck moments. Here are five ways to step up when you’re stuck; you can remember them as the acronym arise.
Actually, Stay Stuck.
Okay, this first idea probably isn’t the brilliant advice you were looking for. (It’s the one way not to get unstuck, as promised.) But it might be the advice that you need. It’s easy to assume that getting stuck is a problem, something you need to fix. But sometimes the feeling of stuck-ness, while a real emotional burden, is part of an important spiritual process.
In the Bible, we see the wilderness as a place of significant preparation. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness of Midian before encountering God in the burning bush. Jesus spent forty days in the desert before beginning his public ministry. In church history, this pattern repeats itself. In the sixteenth century, John of the Cross experienced a dark night of the soul while imprisoned by religious opponents, and in that darkness found a grace that he went onto share with thousands of others through his spiritual direction and his writings. Mother Teresa ministered to the vulnerable of Calcutta for decades while grappling with feelings of God’s absence. Spiritual maturity and fruitfulness can come out of the valley of spiritual difficulty. We build muscle when we’re carrying weight. Consider whether the place you’re stuck in is a place of new spiritual opportunity.
At other times, we’re not stuck because of a mysterious work of God in the darkness; we’re stuck because we’re indulging in sin. If you’re having a hard time connecting with God when you read your Bible, but you’re also unmarried and sleeping with your significant other or nursing a grudge, it’s probably not your approach to Bible study that’s your problem. Peter warns husbands to honor their wives “so that nothing may hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7 NRSV). By implication, Peter is teaching that sinning against someone else will put a roadblock in any attempt to express devotion to God or share our hearts with him. Our life is one connected whole; what we do in one area affects everything else.
The good news is that we’re always just one step away from repentance. If something is coming up for you as you read this, stop now and bring it before the Lord. Choose to turn away from any pattern of sin, and turn toward God’s forgiveness and love. Find a trusted friend, pastor, or counselor and talk to them about the changes you want to see in your life.
Invite the Spirit.
Even if you know in your head that you can only live a Christian life by the Spirit’s power, you may not be accustomed to intentionally inviting the Spirit to work in your life. “Come, Holy Spirit” is one of the most ancient prayers of the church. Consider moments in your life when you can pause and pray for the Holy Spirit to enter in. Before reading the Bible. Before opening your work email. Before working out. It might seem strange to invite the Holy Spirit so directly into the minutiae, but the little moments of each day are what make up most of our life, and therefore most of our spiritual life. We’re commanded in Scripture to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17 NRSV). Not just spiritual things, not just important things, but everything. That means we need the Holy Spirit’s power and presence in everything we do. And he is waiting and ready for us to invite him in.
Stop the Ego Project.
Another way that we can get stuck spiritually is by making our spiritual practices a way to secure our ego. If you have a strong sense of personal drive and a desire to perform, it’s easy for that performance to become the basis of your sense of well-being. Just consider the experience of so many sidelined athletes: Once they don’t have their sport, they don’t know who they are without it. Do you ever have this mentality about your spirituality? You do certain disciplines because you have to perform. If you don’t do them, it feels like you’re a bum, a loser.
Here’s the hard news: Spirituality is not something you can perform your way into. Trying to secure your identity by following all the right rules and doing all the right things is backwards. It’s not that we don’t have spiritual work to do; we do. But that work flows out from the conviction that Christ has already secured our well-being in the most permanent way. Paul puts it like this: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1). We’ve already been raised with Christ, brought into a new life by the power of what he has accomplished in his death and resurrection. Because that’s true, we do the work; we “seek the things” that fit with life in Christ.
When we’re liberated by a vision of what Christ has accomplished for us, we’re motivated to work hard in our life with him. The Christian life doesn’t work without hard work. If you don’t do anything to connect with God and experience life with him, then you won’t. God will not zap you and suddenly make you spiritually vibrant without any effort on your part. And this only stands to reason. Suppose you were in a serious relationship, and things were in a bad place. How would you feel if your significant other said, “I want our relationship to be better, but I’m not willing to put in any effort to work on it.” Ouch. Sounds like the relationship isn’t so serious to them.
In his book Your Future Self Will Thank You, author Drew Dyck writes, “Sanctification is like sailing. Sailors can’t move without the wind, but that doesn’t mean they kick up their feet on the deck and wait to start moving . . . Our effort works with God’s power to move us forward” (149-150). Or as another wise Christian has said: God does everything, and we do something. Effort is not about performing, and it’s only possible because God is doing the heavy lifting. As he works in us, we work with him, and real spiritual change happens. If you feel stuck, ask him to help you do your part. He’ll be faithful to do his.