How to Survive a Spiritual Winter
by Sara Hagerty,
Sept 4, 2018
A tree doesn’t survive the winter without healthy roots. Neither do we.
I remember that bleak February morning when my husband and I loaded up our car and drove through the stripped-bare forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains to move into my parents’ basement. Everything felt cold, including my heart. Weeks earlier, my dad was diagnosed with a fast-growing brain cancer which we were all still dazed by.
I left their house only for brisk runs through Ohio’s suburban sprawl, and I came home to more winter as I watched my dad decline. I couldn’t escape this season. I had entered into a spiritual winter.
A Holy Season
What I didn’t know then was that this was a holy winter. God was doing something underground that I couldn’t see.
In our early thirties, our friends were taking active steps towards impacting the world for God: sharing the gospel with neighbors over shared meals, moving into impoverished parts of a city with their hammers and prayers, and starting foundations to release women from bondage. This, while I was cooking tomato soup and playing euchre in my parents’ kitchen, watching my once-strong daddy die.
It all seemed so unfair.
When God saved me at fifteen, I responded by pouring myself into evangelism. Then, in my prime, I was unable to alleviate the pain for the man who’d raised his little girl to believe that life had no limits. My offering was now a cup of soup.
Yet it was in the dark basement of my parents’ home, listening to my dad restlessly putter upstairs through the dark night, that I started to see winter as holy.
A Tree in the Cold
Psalm 1 talks about the man who meditates day and night on the Lord:
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3)
The deciduous tree knows seasons. It shoots out nascent sprigs of life and verdant leaf in spring. They and their accompanying fruit unfurl under the summer heat, lush and alive. In fall, the mossy-green alights into gold, but only for a flash before brown takes over and winter starts her pull. This tree is disrobed in winter, but not dead. Motionless, with roots resting and waiting, it ever so slowly grows.
The tree prospers in winter, fulfilling its God-intended purpose. Though, to the unknowing eye, it sure looks barren.
Without recognizing seasons, we might only see that barrenness. We see a prospering life in God akin to the opulent tree in early spring, with leaves and fruit intertwined. We forget that this blooming comes forth because of the preparation that winter provides.
Blessed Are the Thirsty
That holy winter — when I felt hidden, unseen by friends who weren’t familiar with long hours of care-giving, passing my days without visible accomplishments and apparent fruit — I started to see that I could cultivate an unseen, private life in God. My roots were still alive, albeit concealed.
In the basement, underground seasons of my life, His Word and His whisper became fresh to me. I wanted it, not so that I could teach it or share it or sermonize it, but because I was thirsty. So thirsty. During my daddy’s restless nights, I needed God to highlight a phrase from His Word to sustain my little-girl heart.
I wasn’t changing the world; I was changing my parent’s laundry. But through it, God was changing me. With his word cracked open on the counter, he whispered words of encouragement and promise: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . . my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:4–5).
The blessed man, likened to the tree in Psalm 1, found his delight meditating on God, day and night (Psalm 1:2–3). Meditating on God’s word — singing it, crying over the pages, taking my angry heart to his word for answers and asking for a surprise rush of his Spirit’s lifting — took on new meaning when I was winterized.
In the winter, I fell in love. He became my delight — because he was all there was. His whisper, my winter song back to him. And this was to his glory.
New Practices for Cultivating Roots
For those who are in winter (perhaps even a prolonged winter), there are some reminders that might help sustain our roots:
1. Receive your season.
Rather than giving your energies towards wishing for another. The surrender, although painful, positions us to receive all that God intends for that particular season much better than if we fight against it. God is always oriented towards our growth, even in our winter. This is a truth given to us in John 15.
2. Create new spaces.
Find areas where you can fall in love with God afresh. Seemingly barren seasons might convince you that your roots are hardened. Not necessarily so.
Thwarted opportunities are a fresh chance to see God through His Word in ways you haven’t before. Start a new habit of engaging with His Word in the middle of your thwarted day. Write songs from His Word. Take walks with your earbuds out, praying a verse back to Him. Ask His Spirit to direct your eyes to the ways He is working in the small areas of your life. Winter is a time when the inside can be nourished even when what is outside feels barren.
3. Don’t forfeit your dream for fruit.
Our culture is largely oriented toward action. But dormant dreams are not dead dreams; they are often further opportunities for dialogue with God. He created you to desire fruit, and He desires fruit for you (John 15:8). Winter is a time to take those desires to God in prayer. Winter can also be a season where dreams are cultivated.
Thankful for Winter
My seemingly barren winter started even before my dad was diagnosed, and it lasted years beyond his death. But during that very long season, I had this single verse on a notecard, propped behind my kitchen sink:
“I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 45:3, NKJV)
Now, during a kind of spring, I see that it all proved true. He cultivated my roots in winter and gave me treasures that are still producing fruit within me. And it wouldn’t have happened without my winters.