The Soul’s Winter Times
We are now into the winter season, colder days, long dark evenings and a bleak and barren landscape. What is true of nature can also be true of Christian experience. The Puritans spoke of “the soul's winter times” when the heart grows cold, the outlook bleak and communion and fellowship with God barren.
Dark days and cold hearts often invade the lives of God's children and life can become bewildering. We are often tempted to ask “What is happening in my life?” John Flavel urged his contemporaries to “exercise the faith of adherence when you have lost the faith of evidence”.
In nature the first signs of winter are usually the appearance of frost followed by cold icy days. In the spiritual realm frost and ice often forms in the soul of a church member and ever so gradually they become cooler to matters eternal. Church attendance becomes sporadic, absence from the prayer meeting becomes the norm and excuses for avoiding fellowship with God's people come in a wide variety of explanations; the voice of Christ is no longer heeded, the attractions of the world become more appealing and the soul gets colder and colder. The ice of winter. William Cowper expresses it so well when he asks the question “Where is the blessedness I knew, when first I saw the Lord?” How can this happen to a person who once showed marks of true saving faith in Christ and who now seems full of unbelief and distant from God?
We need to realize that unbelief can overtake the heart of any professing Christian. Even among the disciples of Jesus there were times when they did not believe. Take the account of the resurrection in Luke 24: Mary told the disciples the good news but they did not believe her (v 11). In Paul's letters we read of those who once were key people in the church but forsook the Gospel because of the love of the world. Spiritual declension is a reality and can invade the life of a Christian so easily. In Psalms 42 and 43 the Psalmist experiences a period of being downcast and in turmoil of soul and asks the question of himself “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” but in asking that question he begins to get a fresh hold on God.
It was Samuel Rutherford who said that grace grows best in winter. Another Puritan said “We must learn to spin out comfort, peace, joy and communion with Christ in our troubles”. When the bleak mid-winter of spiritual decline sets in on us it is vital that we turn to the Scriptures for that comfort, peace, joy and communion with God that so badly needs to be restored. C.H. Spurgeon writes “Down men, however, must not despair, for God is yet alive, and he is the Friend of the friendless. If there be no one else found to hold out a hand to him who has fallen the Lord's hand shall not fail to bring deliverance to those who trust him”.1Eric Alexander in commenting on Psalm 89 reminds us: “When there is winter in his soul, the Psalmist is still able to cry aloud of the Lord's great faithfulness”2
Restoring our Soul
Remembrance is one way of restoring our joy and fellowship with the Lord. David says “My soul is cast down within me, therefore I remember you.” (Ps 42:6) Murdoch Campbell asks “Would it be presumptuous to say that the three places named in the verse are typical of certain Christian experiences?” 3David recalls the land of Jordan, Hermon, and Mount Mizar, places of cherished memory for him.
When we are facing the “winter soul” experience we need to recall those special times and places when God touched our lives, met our need and brought us through. We remember God’s faithfulness to us. He is faithful in his promises and he is the one on whom we can depend. In Psalm 43 the Psalmist asks God's light and truth to lead him. Again it is to the Word of God that we must turn, as C H Spurgeon says: “As all nature rejoices in the sunshine, even so the saints triumph in the manifestation of the love and fidelity of their God, which, like the golden sunbeam, lights up even the darkest surroundings with delightful splendour”.4
The restoring of the soul to communion with God leads to worship. The Psalmist speaks of going to the altar of God, “to God my exceeding joy”. This in turn leads to praise and to a renewed hope in God. Recalling God’s faithfulness brings comfort to our souls so that we can know that peace which passes all understanding and be able to rejoice in all circumstances. Eric Alexander writes “In all his dealings with me, even when it is winter in my soul, I am able to sing of the faithfulness of God. I can do that because I know that God will never do anything out of step with his true nature. He ‘does not change like shifting shadow’, says James” (Jas 1:17).5
When we feel the chill of winter in our souls might our experience be like those two disciples on the Emmaus road, who said “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the Scriptures?”