The Winter of the Soul

Vital Pursuits:

“The Winter of the Soul”

Reverend Rick Kirchoff

March 26, 2006


Psalm 88:13-14 NRSV   But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?


Psalm 30:5b NRSV Weeping and sorrow may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.


Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove; descend on us, reveal your love. Word of God and inward light, wake our spirits; clear our sight. Surround us now with all your glory; speak through me that sacred story.  Take my lips and make them bold.  Take hearts and minds and make them whole.  Stir in us that sacred flame; then send us forth to spread your name.  Amen.



Have you noticed the cherry trees and the forsythia in bloom?  The dogwoods and the azaleas are about to burst forth into color.  It won’t be long! The convertible top will be down…the sunscreen will be slathered on.  Memorial Day will be here before we know it!  Vacations will begin.  Summer is almost here, and I’m glad! 


I don’t like winter!  The words that I associate with winter are words like: ice, wind chill, threats of snow, snow that never comes, cloudy skies, seasonal affective disorder, black ice, fender benders, dead batteries, stalled cars, frozen pipes, sore throats, flu, and big bills from MLG&W.  I don’t like winter!  I know there are people who claim to love winter.  But, I have never heard of anyone who spent all of their working days living in Florida, then retired and moved to Minnesota!  I don’t like winter!


But winter can be a season of the soul as much as a season of the year.  For just as there are seasons in nature, there are seasons in our spiritual life: the transitions of the fall, the new beginnings of the springtime, and the joy and celebration of summer.  But there is also winter!

This morning, I want to talk to you about the winter of the soul.  For while we might be able to relocate ourselves to a place where we can avoid the cold, there’s no place that we can escape the winter of the soul. (Ortberg) 

Martin E. Marty, a historian and theologian, says that we all need what he calls “a wintry spirituality” for times when the warmth and joy of life is taken away from us and a sunny disposition or positive thinking are not enough to bring them back. 


Have you ever known the winter of the soul? 


The winter of the soul can come when you’ve lost your job or experienced vocational failure. 


Winter may arrive when word comes from your doctor that the test was positive.  And all the dreams you took for granted — that you will watch your kids grow up and get married, that you’d grow old with your spouse and die when you’re darn good and ready — are suddenly dashed against the rock of reality. 


The winter of the soul can come when you feel as if you have failed as a parent.


Or when your marriage is coming apart. 


Or it arrives the day the love of your life dies. 


Spiritual winter is that in-between time when you’ve lost something and it’s gone; or there’s something missing that may never return and there’s nothing new to take its place. 


But loss is not the only feature of the winter of the soul.  The hardest part of the winter of the soul is that there are those times in our life when we feel as if God is distant from us, far off, out of reach.  The Psalmist understood.  He wrote: “I cry to you for help, O Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”


It’s amazing that is in scripture, yet it says something, I think, about the reality of the seasons of the soul.


The hardest part of the winter of the soul is when we can’t find God.  After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Where is God?  (You) …go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face and the sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, the silence.”


Have you known that winter of the soul?


Now, if you’ve never experienced this, I know it is hard for you to understand.  But I also know there are many others across this room who know the pain behind that Psalmist’s question, “O Lord, why do you hide your face from me?” 


My wife and I have experienced that winter of the soul.  That winter of the soul that came at a time in our lives when we were just sort of tootling through life…everything was just fine and good, and then one day we wake up to the reality of an accident that permanently disabled our son.  You know that story.  But then, just after we had stopped reeling from that reality, we could only watch as our daughter’s bipolar disorder began to manifest itself and spiral out of control. It’s one thing to have one kid who is disabled…but two?  So, yes, we can tell you about the winter of the soul.  During that hard season, we found we needed a way of holding on to God when it felt as if God had let go of us.  We needed to learn how to hold on when we cried out to God for help and there was no answer or the answer was one that we didn’t want to hear. 


So, I want to share several observations out of our own experience of how to live through the winter of the soul. (Ortberg) 


Now, first, you might ask, “Can’t I avoid the winter of the soul? Can I organize my life or navigate my life in a way that I can be winter-free?  Can you just give me three simple steps to avoid the winter of the soul?”  There are those sunny types who believe that if we’re just clever enough or strong enough or positive enough or have enough faith, life will be a perpetual summer.

But if you read Scripture, it is not so.  Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation.” And as we will be reminded in a few weeks, Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I know of no way to engineer a winter-free life. 


Second, in the winter of the soul, folks are tempted to isolate themselves. We were!  The winter of the soul often carries with it a sense of failure or shame or sadness and loss of energy that nobody else understands; nobody else really knows what it is that you are going through; nobody else really can identify with the pain of your life, the sadness of your life, the loss of energy that comes from those kinds of times.  In the winter of the soul, we’re tempted to go into a kind of spiritual hibernation.  We don’t want to be around others.  In the winter of the soul, I found I never desired community with other people less, yet I never needed it more.  You see, one of God’s gifts in the winter of the soul is community…other people.

I was talking to Christina Burns this week, one of the counselors in our church counseling center, to see if I had this correct: that depression occurs in three main forms: there’s bipolar disorder, which involves a manic phase and a depressive phase, high highs and low lows.  There’s biological depression that is brought on by a chemical imbalance.  Then there is what’s called “reactive” depression, which happens in response to the world around us. Reactive depression is more tied to circumstances, environment, upbringing and coping skills, while bipolar depression and biological depression are caused primarily by a malfunction in your body chemistry, and occur at pretty much the same frequency for all groups, in all cultures in the United States. 


But there’s one group in the United States that experiences significantly less reactive depression than any other.  So, as an exercise, I’d like you to turn to the person next to you and quickly guess, “What group do you think it is that experiences less depression?  Do you think that it’s left-handed people, vegetarians, preachers, or blondes…who do you think it is?”

The group in the United States that experiences significantly less reactive depression than anybody else is the Amish.  Did you guess?  They experience manic-depressive and biological depression at the same rate as everybody else, although diagnosing the manic phase in the Amish is a challenge.  The Amish have to diagnose the manic phase by things like when Amish people start driving their buggies too fast! Like, “Obadiah’s got the horses all lathered up again.  Run, and get the Lithium. This is going to be bad.”  The Amish experience less reactive depression than the rest of us.  Why? Some say it’s because of their faith…others say it’s because of the simplicity of their lives.  Both are significant.  But one explanation is since they live with a strong sense of community, they are less vulnerable to depression. (  

Now, I’m not suggesting we all become Amish.  But, like the Amish, we were made for and need strong community.  Because when you are going through the winter of the soul, you will never want community less, but you will never need it more.  So, if you’re not in a community now…if you don’t have real tight relationships with other people…I really want to suggest that you take a step.  Join a Sunday School class or small group.  Develop deep friendships.  Because when winter comes, you don’t need to winter alone.


And let me say this, you may not be in winter yourself, but you know somebody who is.  What do you do?  What do you say to someone who is in the winter of the soul? 


In Job, one of the great wintry books of the Bible, Job loses everything: his wealth, occupation, his standing in the community, his servants, his family, even his health.  He ends up sitting on the ash heap of life.  But Job has a few friends who come to visit.  They sit with him for seven days and seven nights.  Not one of them “said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”  It’s a funny thing.  If you know the story, you know his friends go on to say lots and lots of words and give lots and lots of well-meaning advice and explanations, and everything they say is wrong.  They were at their best when they said nothing and just stayed with him.


That reminds me of how often I’ve felt a need, whenever I go to somebody who is struggling or in pain, to say the words, to try to fix them, to try to make them feel better, to try to offer some explanation; and I think that is epidemic among Christians.  We feel like we’ve got to rush in and fix other people; we’re uncomfortable with their pain because it makes us feel bad.


I think one of the most often violated commandments in all of scripture are the words written by Paul to the Christians at Rome.  Paul says, “Mourn with those who mourn.” He doesn’t say, “Give advice to those who mourn.” He doesn’t say, “Give explanations to those who mourn.”  He says simply, “Mourn with those who mourn.”  


The primary comfort God allows us to give to another in the wintertime of the soul doesn’t come in the form of advice or explanations.  It comes primarily through presence…just being there with someone, sitting with them and mourning for awhile.  It’s not rocket science to do that; you don’t have to have advanced degrees or special training or have a “Reverend” in front of your name.  You just go to people and you mourn with them.


And then I would say this to those of you who may be in the wintertime of the soul in your life, I believe that the people who wrestle with the winter of the soul and those who are going through times of great depression in their lives, those who seek help and push themselves to pursue life when they’d rather quit — they’re some of the greatest heroes I know.  Why, some of the greatest Christians in history who have marked this world struggled with depression. 


  • Martin Luther, who began the Protestant church and penned the words to the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” struggled with depression all his life. 


  • Charles Spurgeon, who was probably one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century, battled with depression until the day he died. 


  • The famed missionary Hudson Taylor contemplated the awful temptation to end his life because of his severe depression. 


Yet, they all held on and had amazing faith.  They fought a heroic battle with their depression and the winter of the soul and didn’t give in. 


And I would say to those of you in the congregation this morning who are going through that kind of dark night of the soul, that winter of the soul, a time of depression, if there is a need in your life, come and talk to one of us or go to Christina or Dwaine in the counseling center because we want to help.  Make the decision not to do winter alone.  Winter is unavoidable, but isolation isn’t.


The last observation is this: When you go through the winter of the soul, cling tenaciously to the hope that is yours in Christ. The Psalmist understood the power and reality of hope.  He put it like this, “Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” That’s God’s promise!


Do you remember the story of Terry Anderson?  Terry was held hostage for 6 ½ years in a foreign land.  He was the Chief Middle East Correspondent for the Associated Press when he was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985 and he was held captive for almost seven years.  It was an incredibly difficult ordeal, but Terry Anderson came through it.  After his release, he was asked, “Terry, did you ever lose hope?”  Terry Anderson said, “That’s a hard question to answer.  Of course, I had some very blue moments, times of despair, but fortunately, right after I became a hostage, one of the first things that fell into my hands was a Bible.  Over the years as a captive, I spent a lot of time with the Bible and that helped me so much because the Bible is a book about hope; it’s about trust in God, and that’s what gave me the strength to make it through each day.”  And then Terry said, “You do what you have to do.  Faith helps you to do what you have to do. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and it reminded me to do the best that I could each day and to trust God for the future.”


You don’t have to have lived in Memphis long to know about and respect Reverend Jim Netters, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, a man who had helped lead the civil rights movement in Memphis and a former member of the Memphis City Council.  But few knew the private agony of Jim Netters.


In 1979, Jim learned that his daughter, Wynn, then a sophomore at the University of Memphis, was consumed by drugs and alcohol.  Jim stood before his church and asked for prayers and support, but privately he asked himself what he had done wrong.  It got worse!  In the early 80’s his son, Jim Jr. had worked his way up to a $1500/day cocaine habit. Then in 1985, his youngest daughter, Chandra, turned to the highs of cocaine to soothe the lows of a divorce.  Jim said, “During those years, I questioned if I’d done something wrong…if there was something in me that caused it, if there was some defect in my faith.”  As word got out, people stopped going to my church.  In time, hundreds left.  People said, “How can he help my children when he can’t help his?”  There were times that his situation was so bad that Jim would preach with tears in his eyes, yet he kept preaching, teaching, praying, and trying to help his kids. 


Jim kept the light of faith burning, even though sometimes it was just a flicker.  And he made it through those awful years.  And over the years, Jim’s children opened up to God.  And with the help of rehab and love of family and the healing work of Christ, all three are clean and sober and faithful disciples.  And today, Mt. Vernon church is a vital congregation with an exciting, healing ministry in the Westwood community. 


And Jim would say with Paul, “Though I was often troubled, I was not crushed; though I was sometimes in doubt, I never gave way to despair. Though I faced many adversities, I was never without a friend; and though I may be badly hurt, I was not destroyed.”


I hope that you can discover (like Jim Netters discovered and as Terry Anderson came to understand), that in the Scripture there is, in Christ, a deep well of spiritual resources that will make it possible for you to live with confidence, with courage, and with hope, even in the winter of the soul.  


Let us pray.  O God, we give you our thanks today that you have called us to be your children and that you don’t just stay with us in the midst of the best of times, but that you see us through the darkest times of life. So send us your blessing, for we pray in Christ, Amen.


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Endnotes: This sermon based, in part, upon material from the following sources:


  1. John Ortberg, “Seasons of the Soul” (primary source for this message)
  2. James Emery White, Embracing the Mysterious God