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In Catholic tradition, there are books on spiritual dryness (Dark Night of the Soul by st. John of the Cross is the most famous) and it is mentioned in Catechism of Catholic Church too. Eastern tradition has other books on this topic. But I wonder whether Protestants have anything more sophisticated than "Just hold on!" or "Read the book of Job, it's written for someone like you!" (or, in a worse case: "If you don't feel God, you must have sinned!").

Is there any Protestant doctrine on this topic? Is it accepted by most denomination, or only by a fraction?

EDIT to clarify what I mean with "spiritual dryness": I understand it as usually long-term (lasting for months, years or even decades) spiritual crisis, when a person doesn't feel "presence of God" or "God's grace" and it is hard to sustain faith. On the other hand, people experiencing this might be very good Christians bearing lots of fruits of Holy spirit. Mother Teresa's case is an extreme example, but many Christians experience some milder form of it and this experience often can't be attributed to a sin or a mental illness.

I never experienced real spiritual dryness (I'm too young in Christ for this, people rarely experience dryness just three years after conversion), but knowing people who experience it, reading books on it and being advised to prepare that it will probably come some day helps me a lot in my spiritual life - to realize that God's grace might become invisible one day is a good reason not to be proud of all that religious enthusiasm and nice feelings and to carefully try to build my faith on more solid ground than this enthusiasm is.

My protestant friends don't understand this; that's why I wonder whether concept of "dark night of soul" is unreflected and more or less unknown in whole or most of Protestantism, or just in some part of its Pentecostal branch.

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  • Within Reformed theology, the traditional means of grace (the two sacraments, the word, and prayer) are one method of seeking fullness of life. Christian fellowship and deeds of righteousness (Heb. 10:24-25) can nurture life. (not prepared to give an actual answer, but this comment might be slightly helpful)
    – user3331
    Jun 21, 2013 at 12:01
  • @PaulA.Clayton: what is your point? You just assure that grace and reply to it through deeds is enough regardless of whether a Christian feels God's grace somehow or not? Or do you maintain that if someone does what you say spiritual dryness is very unlikely or even impossible? The second idea was proven wrong by experience of many Christians (not only mystics, who usually experience the worst dryness), and of people from Bible like Job, or, according to some interpretation of "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?", even Christ.
    – Pavel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 22:22
  • It was a comment, a hint at a __proto__answer--with a foolish hope that someone would be encouraged to provide an actual answer. My knowledge of official teaching is extremely limited, and I could not distinguish easily what I think, what I have been taught in Presbyterian churches, and what is widely agreeably derived from Scripture. My motivation for working on an answer is very low. I had thought of mentioning that the bit related to the Hebrews reference seemed reminiscent of a statement of T. of Avila (Life, I think) in which she counseled godly conversation when prayer was too hard.
    – user3331
    Jun 22, 2013 at 2:20
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    The traditional recipie for dealing with Protestant dryness is to brine the chicken the night before the potluck, or when that fails, go to KFC. More modern evangelicals will substitute Chik-Fil-A. ... Oh, wait Spiritual dryness. The answer to that is to visit a charismatic church. :) Aug 29, 2013 at 20:41
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    I will pedantically point out that the spiritual dryness is "the dark night of sense" -- the "dark night of the soul" is the much more severe and rare one, where you end up screaming, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"
    – Mary
    Jan 1, 2023 at 19:22

6 Answers 6

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While it's not the exclusive subject of the Screwtape Letters, it is one of the topics C.S. Lewis touches on in it:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys

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  • You have well grasped the point of a true spiritual dryness. I expected something more elaborate, but this is much closer than all other answers so far. +1
    – Pavel
    Jan 18, 2023 at 10:51
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Yes, and I just give one example here, followed by a few comments of my own. The author of this book is a Protestant, and so am I (but we would not classify ourselves as in the 'evangelical' or 'charismatic' denominations.) The bulk of this answer deals with trying to avoid spiritual dryness in the first place, given that prevention is always better than cure! Protestants are generally very keen that, once a person becomes a Christian, they grow in grace, faith and maturity, to become more and more like their Lord and Saviour. God provides means for that. But should a person neglect those, and become spiritually dry, they can still find refreshment, as this extract show:

"The Wells of Salvation" takes 200 pages to dig deep into what the Bible teaches about avoiding spiritual dryness. A theme text is this one:

"And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." Isaiah 12:1-3 A.V.

I now quote to give you an example of the fundamental truth that needs to be grasped, if one is to maintain that joy of the Lord:

"These wells of spiritual refreshment in dry places were revealed in the gospel which was – by type and figure – before preached unto Abraham. It was of these that the seer prophesied in Isaiah 12:3. And so it came to pass in the fulness of time that the water of everlasting life in the Holy Ghost was plenteously forthcoming from the gospel wells of salvation…

It is clear that by these spiritual wells revealed to Abraham is meant the doctrine of the apostles to the early church. Then what deep roots are to be seen in this gospel. And no wonder: it is the everlasting gospel concerning the eternal Son of God. Everything, absolutely everything that has come in since is but cheap, frivolous substitution. For it is plain to see that by the wells of salvation the prophet refers to those peculiar, distinctive, and unique gospel truths which were uncovered by revelation to the patriarch at the very first.

And moreover no more or other truths were to be uncovered or discovered at the last. What was to be revealed in the new testament the apostles fully taught, not by types or figures of the true, but in the substance of them, by the true doctrine. However, no more ‘wells’ were or are ever to be uncovered than those already prefigured in the gospel preached at the first to Abraham.

You may take every single new testament doctrine back to Abraham and in form or in figure you will find it there, without exception. [p 85] We have not followed cunningly devised fables, you know. I don’t preach novelties, but stand in the genuine ancient tradition and old ways of the gospel, stretching away back to the patriarchs…

The good Shepherd ever leads his sheep back to the word of God. Green pastures are not elsewhere set forth. Then I say, at the direction given to faith by that word, it is to the still waters from the wells of salvation that he leads the flock actually to drink for themselves. And a true and spiritual people of God in their own generation have ever been led back to the wells of salvation and have found these spiritual wells still valid for faith now to draw water therefrom: they are the source.

And I tell you that any minister, book, or movement that directs us back merely to some great preacher, or period, or reformation, or revival, or that harps constantly upon some of those in church history, who perhaps, may well have drawn water from the wells of salvation:- well, I tell you plainly of this ‘evangelical’ canonizing of saints, of this sprinkling Protestant holy water on church history, it will bring no water of life whatsoever. You merely read it once or twice if you must: But get to the word of God for yourself.

Any other direction to your soul, it is not of God. No others, not even the very writers of holy writ, are wells of salvation! God complains of our day They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13 & 19). But a man that seeks salvation does not want [p 86] to know about another man that obtained it, he wants to know about IT. He craves drink for himself. He is dying of thirst.

Such gasping souls, on being led by the Spirit to drink from the wells of salvation, plainly see by experience what God revealed to Abraham. They give glory to God because they draw water for themselves from the wells of salvation with joy unspeakable and full of glory. They speak of the God of their salvation, and whilst they are grateful to God for taking up Abraham and revealing these things to him, it is not the patriarch they name when they make the discovery, neither is it his name that is on their lips, but the name of the God of their salvation.

Therefore I think it is plainly seen and proved and shown from the use of the word ‘wells’ that the Wells of Salvation refer to gospel truths given and revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, before the law was given. Gospel truths." The Wells of Salvation, pages 84-86, John Metcalfe Publishing Trust, 1997

This point needs to be stressed because spiritual dryness may be due to neglecting the gospel (taking it for granted, supposing that once it's grasped the person can move on to other topics) or, if false teachers creep in with a warped gospel, one that has either been added to, or taken away from, they wander into arid regions.

Then, on page 181, comes a section showing the New Testament fulfilment of ‘Drawing Water with Joy’: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians. After doing that, the author summarizes key points in avoiding spiritual dryness, such as, To obtain the joy of the Lord, the saints must necessarily reject every error, every worldly intrusion, and side openly and stand publicly with the despised, ostracized, and even imprisoned faithful ministers of the gospel... Faithfulness to what one says is far more important than saying it… Fidelity to Christ is incomparably greater than preaching... Fidelity is not dependent upon others. When individuals start looking sideways and not upwards, danger has already struck… This does not commence with actual evil [but] with that sapping of individuality in which it is supposed that all good must be done as organized en masse. Once that pernicious error softens the backbone, evil becomes almost irresistible, provided only that pressure is gently applied, and above all is applied collectively. The wells of salvation are twofold in character. First, they represent the hidden depths of the knowledge of God as Saviour. Secondly, the wells indicate penetrating deeps into the knowledge of the truth of salvation. …the first great character of the wells of salvation is that of the knowledge of God himself. This is that from which Paul drew not only strength, but real joy... Everything must be seen in connection with the Lord Jesus himself: he is the doctrine; ‘I am the truth’… There was no organization: only sweet communion and humble submission to Paul in the gospel." [pages 197 to 206]

Christ is the source of "living water" (Jeremiah 2:13; Zechariah 14:8; John 4:10 & 7:38; Revelation 22:1-2). If we disobey the command in Hebrews 12:1-2, then spiritual dryness will begin. The key is never to let that start to happen! It does not need to happen, and it should not happen if you obey that command, for then you will be abiding in Christ, the source of Living Water! http:www.johnmetcalfepublishingtrust.co.uk/contact_us.htm

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  • This is a good answer, but not exactly for what I'm asking about. The point of spiritual dryness in my point of view is neiter in neglecting the true Gospel nor in knowing its warped version, but in a "test of faith" leading to a "knowledge" that only experience can teach you. Knowing the true gospel in mind and in feelings is a prerequisite of this "good dryness", not just a protection from a bad one. Lewis cited in @Mary 's answer explains the good spiritual dryness very well.
    – Pavel
    Jan 18, 2023 at 10:41
  • @Pavel Yes, a good spiritual dryness is that of Psalm 84: "My soul longs, yea faints for the courts of the Lord, my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God... Blessed is [he] who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also fills the pools." Awareness of need for living waters, especially when God seems distant, will keep one going after God despite feelings or doubts. Religious rituals will never satisfy, but prayer and soaking up the word of God will. Obedience is better than sacrifice, to God. 1 Samuel 15:22-23
    – Anne
    Jan 18, 2023 at 11:05
  • Or Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When Jesus recited this on the cross, it wasn't because "spiritual dryness is invariably due to either neglecting the gospel (...) or, having been taught a warped gospel". I agree that prayer and obedience is important in this state, but avoiding insisting that feeling "forsaken" must show something wrong with one's faith is at least as important. In fact, the good dryness is an invitation to a deeper level of faith, independent of that kind of joy accompanying prayer, which is sometimes mistaken for the faith or the Holy Spirit.
    – Pavel
    Jan 18, 2023 at 15:00
  • @Pavel I wouldn't call the Son of God "spiritually dry" at any stage of his life on Earth. God incarnate is never "spiritually dry". He knew why God was forsaking him at that point, for he had become sin (without having sinned) to drink the cup of God's wrath against sin to its bitter dregs, and "accursed is anyone hung on a tree" the scriptures said. He knew that. There is no comparison with Christ on the cross and us having "a dark night of the soul."
    – Anne
    Jan 18, 2023 at 17:17
  • Sorry for a bad example, to which degree Jesus gave us an example or not is a matter for another question, not important here. Anyway, my point is that the paragraph about the reasons of spiritual dryness makes your answer unacceptable for me. Otherwise, I would gladly accept your answer, as it is "a Protestant way of handling spiritual dryness", and at least most of it seems to apply also to the kind of dryness that is explicitly excluded there.
    – Pavel
    Jan 18, 2023 at 19:49
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Joh 10:10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

Yes Kenneth E. Hagin who started Rhema and was a major contributor to the beginning of the Word of Faith movement has a series called "What to do when faith seems weak and victory lost". A portion of the doctrine is blame the devil, what does the word say, agree with the word, say the word and you're not supposed to feel anything.

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  • A good example. Brief discussion of whether this view is known and more or less accepted by few denomination, broader current within Protestantism or most Protestants will earn +1 (and perhaps acceptation, if no better answer arrives in a week or two).
    – Pavel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 7:53
  • +1 anyway, because this is a good answer. With that extension, it would have a good chance to be accepted.
    – Pavel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 22:07
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The Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA has exercises for its members to create environments in which the Spirit can flow. For instance "men's groups" which meet weekly usually for breakfast and to listen to a speaker - there is a Q&A. Many members are stimulated to give more attention to God, by meditation on the Word of God, and by mulling over things they are bothered about wrt God. There are retreats which consist of a week away from work, to think about God. We read books from those who have experienced God, and talk to those who have experienced God, in order to get encouragement. Of course, there is adult education on Sunday, which usually stimulates questions that need to be researched at home, and this often leads to a spiritual awakening. Giving time to nothing but thoughts about God always encourages the Spirit to bubble up with new revelations.

I was once stimulated by a religious teacher to explain Galatians. Knowing very little (I was a new convert of two years) I read it through three times and fell asleep reading. When I awoke I was inspired by the Spirit to begin writing. I sat at the computer for 18 hours non-stop and completed a commentary on Galatians. (It is on my web site under "Paul" if you are interested.) So, this has become a method for overcoming "dryness of Spirit" - to read and to sleep on it (usually in the chair) - and is what I taught in Episcopal Sunday school.

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    Your experience seems to be more temporary "tiredness" than long term "dryness". Anyway, this is plain "just hold on". The other answer is much closer to what I expect: it explains why spiritual dryness often comes despite of all the retreats and Bible meditation.
    – Pavel
    Jun 21, 2013 at 22:06
  • Ah, well then I have never experienced it.
    – Waeshael
    Jun 22, 2013 at 23:27
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My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. - Psalm 22:1-3

By both personal experience and the witness of the Word of God, the preventative and cure for spiritual dryness is worship. The Psalms are literally dripping with waters of praise in the midst of the desert of circumstance. God is extolled for His mighty works, His judgements, and His promises and what He has done in the past provides deep wells from which to draw living water (Psalm 136).

There is a dryness that overtakes us as we live in a world at enmity with God. The more we focus on the world around us the drier we become until we return our focus to the Lord:

Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked...But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.  - Psalm 73:1-3, 16-17

The presence of the Lord is to be entered with thanksgiving and it is not always easy to praise with a dry spirit but it is always possible and it is always refreshing once one has 'broken through':

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. - Psalm 100

There was a time following my 37 year old sister's long, slow, agonizing death to angiosarcoma where I dried up pretty solid. I had prayed and cried out and trusted and hoped for years as she got worse and worse, sicker and sicker and, when she died I went numb. Scriptures that used to bring me comfort (look at the birds of the air...) were now met with bitterness (I see birds dead on the ground all the time). I went through the motions, not knowing what else to do, but my prayers were without heart and God felt like an abstraction.

Then one day I was driven to sit down with my guitar to play Agnus Dei and I couldn't get the lyrics out. Over and over again I tried, literally choking on the words, until suddenly something broke free inside me. I played and sang and blubbered and began to reconnect with the Lord.

A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. - Psalm 63:1-8

"I will never leaver you nor forsake you" the Lord has promised and so, when one feels dry of spirit and far from the presence of the Lord it is not the Lord who has gone missing. Seeking His face and His presence in praise breaks down internal barriers, opens the sluice gates of living waters, and repels the enemy of our souls.

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! - Psalm 150

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    Such a powerful testimony. When I am down and feel overwhelmed by events, the Psalms lift my eyes to heaven and by giving God praise, my burdens are removed. It may be difficult to praise God when in the depths of despair, but David shows us the way.
    – Lesley
    Mar 16, 2023 at 8:56
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I endured two decades of regular suffering, including twice leaving churches, the deaths of my parents, frequent job loss, health and financial woes, and more. After my mom died, I prayed to God for where I should turn to find greater resilience. Not to be flip, His answer was to read the book of Job.

John Calvin preached over 150 sermons on Job. Forty million people, mostly Christians, died in the wars of religion over the next century during the General Crisis, usually at the hands of other Christians. The message of Job was useful to them, so it must be useful to us.

In the last six years, I have found solace in many parts of the Bible, but I keep returning to Job. Each time, I find new insight. For one, I found about thirteen different ways to communicate with God described in its pages, including prayer, fasting, meditating on God's words, offering sacrifices, suffering, listening to wise elders, interpreting dreams and visions, the mediation of angels and theophany. The book is about how to communicate with God clearly. It trains the person who is spiritually hard of hearing how to listen to God.

During the first six months of my study of Job, I got nothing. I nearly gave up. Then I noticed these verses:

He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea. (Job 9:8)

When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him. (Job 9:11)

He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason. (Job 9:17)

“My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey. (Job 9:25-26)

Taking those verses together, I had an image of Jesus walking on the waves while the disciples huddled in fear in their flimsy boat. I googled the passage and found that St. Chrysostom made the same connection as I. From then on, I began to see Jesus on every page of Job. Since that day, the Word has spoken to me more clearly than ever before. I also feel God's presence through sermons at church that touch me strangely, or Christian songs that say what I need hear at the moment, or answers to prayers for healing (like pain relief in the middle of the night after breaking my arm).

But reading Job is not the answer. Listening to God is the answer. I asked God where to turn and felt directed to Job. So I would say that the Protestant thing to do is to ask God what you should do to get close to Him. Personalized advice trumps religious systems. Earlier in my life, when I was struggling with depression, the answer was different: visit the sick. By visiting a sick woman in my church (at the request of my pastor, who addressed the whole church, not me personally), God rewarded my obedience. He baptized me with the Holy Spirit and relieved me of my depression, replacing it with joy.

Back to Job, the lesson is to practice every means of communication that you know how (and which Scripture does not condemn). You do not know which will produce results. During the three years prior to studying Job, I prayed and fasted one day a week with the same prayer, "Lord, show me your glory." I believe that a renewed desire to read the Word and an ability to see in its pages mysteries and blessings that I had long overlooked was the direct result of that fast.

Sometimes, the only thing to be done is to listen and wait. On several occasions, I prayed intensely for healing, for answers, or for other concerns. Sometimes these prayers lasted hours, other times days or years. On at least three such occasions I got to a point where I stopped praying, not because I thought it was worthless, but because I felt that I had been heard. The first was when I applied to a mission agency to go to Romania, but was turned down. I prayed for a half hour, then stopped to praise God and sing a hymn. Before I finished the last verse, the mission agency called; they had changed their mind.

The second time, I lost hearing in my left ear. After a month with no hearing in that ear, while reading Exodus 4, I got the sense that God knew why I had lost my hearing and trusted His will for me, whatever that might be. I stopped praying for healing and felt at peace. Two days later my hearing returned.

The third time was when I fasted for three years. I only stopped the fast because I felt that I had been heard. Based on the things that have happened since then, I know I was right. So learn to pray without ceasing, but also learn to trust in God during the times of waiting. Sometimes faith means accepting that God has made his decision and moving on.

Another place that I turn is to Proverbs. As a new believer, I made a New Years' Resolution to get wisdom. Every day during 1988 I read from the wisdom books. The first six months it was just Proverbs. After that, I read Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and James. I did not immediately become wise. That is the point. You need to lay the groundwork for understanding God and his ways.

The heart of a wise life is to value what is valuable. Jesus said to lay up treasures in Heaven. What are those spiritual treasures? I spent two decades looking, giving up, and looking again. The Gospel of Matthew was helpful in my search. So was Psalm 119.

My last bit of advice is not Protestant, it is Christian. Though a Baptist, I read the works of Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Orthodox and others. I find inspiration in the lives of saints, like Saint Francis. As I prayed to the Lord for guidance about Job, such as whether to trust in the opinion of St. John Chrysostom, I walked past Harvard's Memorial Hall and looked up at the building, only to see a bust of Saint Chrysostom looking down on me!

At the beginning of January, 2023, lying in great pain on my bed awaiting surgery two days later for a broken and dislocated upper right humerus, I praised the Father for rescuing me from drowning in a frozen lake days before. Earlier that day, I had shared with my pastor how Jesus was the one who best kept the Fifth Commandment to honor his father and mother. As I honored God the Father in my prayer, my pain diminished, but remained. Then it was like Jesus stepped in, to do something this Baptist would never have done. As I had shared, Jesus honors both his Father and his mother. I saw a woman's face, filled with compassion, and she pulled me close to her her to comfort me. She said not a word, and my pain was gone. The pain would be gone the rest of the night, allowing me to sleep. I believe that Jesus honored his mother, Mary, by sending her with healing power to comfort me in my hour of need. Because he honored her, so shall I, though I am a Baptist. Surely I did not deserve such a visit from the mother of my Lord, nor did I expect or pray for it.

All I can say is this:

16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:16)

The most important thing is to rely on God's love. Expect it. Crave it. Seek it. You have no idea what faith can do.

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