Doing Desolation Well

During one of the most spiritually dark times of my life, I felt like I didn’t know what to make of God. I couldn’t sense his presence, and while I knew intellectually that he was there, the inability to connect emotionally felt cruel. And I was horrified by the stark reality of having only my own resources with which to cope. I wish I had the wisdom of Ignatius during that time.

I’ve been doing the Ignatian exercises with a group in Baltimore this year. Ignatius knew something about the spiritual ups and downs of life and writes about them as times of consolation and desolation. Spiritual consolation is an experience of being on fire with God’s love and feeling alive and connected with others. Spiritual desolation is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil that may lead to restlessness, anxiety, and feeling cut off from others. (p. 117, The Ignatian Adventure)

Ignatian offers “rules” for how to live during times of consolation and desolation that I think are very astute and helpful.

During consolation, we are to store up experiences to help us through times of desolation.

During desolation, these are his suggestions:

  1. Do not make any big life changes or decisions during times of desolation. Trust the choices you made during better times.
  2. Pick up your spiritual disciplines and/or add new ones.
  3. Believe that God has allowed this sense of being left to your own resources in order to grow you/refine you.
  4. Be patient, consolation will come again. These rhythms of desolation and consolation are to be expected—we are wise not to be surprised. (These points are summarized from pages 165-67)

The wisdom of this teaching is that Ignatian tells us that both consolation and desolation are to be expected as a normal part of a lifetime of faith. If you are like I was, we see desolation as an anomaly or a sign that something is wrong. We lack tolerance for these experiences and often make rash decisions or drop our prayer life out of a sense of hurt. With Ignatian’s wisdom, we might walk through desolation with more steadiness and patience. We might be able to understand desolation through the lens of normalcy rather than anomaly.

For more information on the exercises, click here.


I was challenged recently to do this: when someone tells you their story, listen and believe them. It sounds really simple, but it’s hard.

It’s hard when the story involves you, either directly or indirectly.

It’s hard when it threatens your own worldview.

It’s hard when the story challenges your ideas about the way things work.

After Urbana, a 16,000-student missions conference I staffed last week, it was hard for many to stomach an evangelical ministry embracing Black Lives Matter. In my counseling office, I see people every day who will not believe the story their spouse, child, parent, or friend tells them. Yesterday I heard yet another story of a sexual assault victim who was scolded by the first two people she told for “letting this happen”. Many trauma victims are more traumatized by the reactions of others to hearing of their trauma than by the trauma itself. How can we all help change this narrative?

It is scary and threatening, but it may be our only hope towards healing. How can it look? I lean on the wisdom of Erna Stubblefield:

We say, “tell me more” rather than disputing someone else’s story.

We lean in, rather than pushing back and away.

And I’d add the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, in his famous prayer, who prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much . . . to be understood as to understand.”

To believe another’s story requires us to let go of our own, at least a little. If someone tells us we hurt them, can we let go of our need to be right and listen? If someone tells us they were hurt by our society/institutions can we let go of our need to believe those things serve everyone equally and believe?  Can we do it?

Yes’s and No’s

This is a shot I took of a comment a college student wrote at conference for leaders of a campus fellowship at James Madison University this weekend. The student group has over 600 members and just one paid staff worker. There were around 100 very impressive student leaders at this conference. My friend and fellow JMU grad says she can sniff out a JMU grad when she meets them: competent, social, winning, sincere, and so darn capable. Super students by any measure! And these students did not disappoint! Ironically, what these super-students wanted me to talk to them about was healthy boundaries in the midst of all of their commitments. Here’s what we did:

  • One session was titled “Say Yes!” Jesus had really packed days of ministry and didn’t seem worried that it would cause everyone to fall apart. We looked at the fact that oxytocin is actually a stress hormone that gives you the urge to reach out to others (thank you Kelly McGonigal!). So, basically, their ministry output and relational commitments can help them with their stress!
  • Another session was “Say No!” Jesus had personal prayer time and stuck to his agenda even when “whole towns” were coming to him for healing (see Mark 1). In other words, he knew what his no’s were because he was clear on the yes’s.
  • Then we spent the whole weekend trying to unpack the implications.

The tension comes when don’t allow ourselves to seriously consider the no’s that are implied by the yes’s. The implications are far-reaching and tough to stomach sometimes; from social engagements, to leadership positions, to jobs and marriages. And my, how the students wished God would hit them over the head with all the answers! I have the same wish sometimes, but have seen in life that behind that wish is often resistance to growing up, taking responsibility, and staying steady when I have to stand in the tension that comes with my decisions.

How do you stand in the tension of your yes’s and no’s?

Only Kindness Matters…..










I came across a really interesting article about how marriages succeed or fail. “Research…has show that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage.” (p.7) Kindness. Kindness is something that almost everyone is capable of, so how does it become so difficult in relationships?

One thing that researchers analyzed was how people responded to “bids” for connection in their relationship. A bid for connection can be as simple as, “Hey, did you see that they cut down that tree at the corner?” It is a question seemingly unrelated to the relationship, but the person is making an attempt to connect. If the comment is met with openness and interest, a connection is made. If the comment is met with silence, disinterest, or contempt, then the relationship is harmed. Bids for connection might be more directly related to the relationship as well, like “hey, that comment stung, can we talk about it?” The same rules apply. The partner’s response will either build or harm the relationship. So at the bottom line, if bids for connection are met with kindness, the potential that the relationship will succeed soar!

After a long, cruddy day last week, my husband followed up on a problem I’d told him about at work. He asked me something simple, like “how’d that thing unfold today?” My response was pretty abrupt, “Ug! I talked about it so much at work today I’m just done talking about it.” Add to this comment a pretty impatient, fed-up tone. While my response had nothing to do with our relationship directly, I was saying no to my husband’s bid for connection, and it showed on his face. He was a bit hurt! I had turned away rather than turning towards the bid.

And here is the reality: “Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had ‘turn-toward bids’ 33% of the time. Only 3 in 10 of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples that were still together after six years had ‘turn-toward bids’ 87% of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.” (p. 5)

This evidence makes me so passionate about how important is to get help if you are having trouble with basic kindness in your marriage or relationship. Get help! See what’s getting in the way. Dig into the problem so that you can figure out how to apply the basic skills of kindness and responsiveness in relationship. So many marriages out there can change. Why not give it a chance?

The article sited is from The Atlantic: Masters of Love.


Last week I got some news that really let loose a stress reaction in me. The news wasn’t life or death, but it represented an enormous amount of pressure to me. I felt my body stepping up into response-mixed-with-despair mode. I was getting emotionally swirly and weepy and starting to cave in while simultaneously becoming an irritable, defensive, crazy lady. I know, I’m a woman of many talents.

So, I paused. I remembered something about getting good at stress, from The Upside of Stress. “When oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, it’s encouraging you to connect with your support network……Scientists refer to this as the tend-and-befriend response.” (p. 52-53) I realized I needed to harness the oxytocin that is released during a stress response and reach out rather than isolate.

Here’s what I did in the five minutes that followed:

  • I texted a couple of good friends to let them know what had happened.
  • I emailed two people who I knew sometimes dealt with the same situation and asked them to pray for me that day.
  • I vented via email to my mother and sister.

I tended-and-befriended! And nearly immediately, the email assurances and empathy texts came back to me, lifting me up…..helping me know that I’m not alone.

Then I went to work. I drafted the necessary emails, thought through my action plan, and started the work that my stress response was empowering me to do. “…the tend-and-befriend response is a biological state engineered to reduce fear and increase hope….a tend-and-befriend response makes you social, brave, and smart. It provides both the courage and hope we need to propel us into action and the awareness to act skillfully.” (p. 138-9)

To tend-and-befriend like I did in this moment, I had to overcome a really strong tendency to cave in to this horrible, alone feeling. It was really vulnerable to reach out and let people know I was struggling. But I’m really glad I did it!

What are 3 things you could do to tend-and-befriend when a challenge hits?

Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress is a great read. Click on the link to purchase.

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