What I Learned in a Spiritual Storm

“Spatial disorientation” is what an aircraft pilot experiences when he flies into weather conditions that prevent him from being able see the horizon or the ground. Points of reference that guide his senses disappear. His perceptions become unreliable. He no longer is sure which way is up or down. It can be deadly.

The only way a pilot can overcome spatial disorientation is to be trained to read and trust his cockpit instruments to tell him what is real. That’s why flight instructors force student pilots to learn to fly planes by the instruments alone.

There is a spiritual parallel. I’ve experienced it. On a spring day in May 1997, I flew into a spiritual storm.

The details are too lengthy. But what I experienced was a crisis of faith. I entered a tempest of doubt like nothing I had ever experienced before. God, who I had known and loved since late childhood, suddenly became eclipsed in my spiritual sight. I couldn’t see him anywhere. The Sun of my life disappeared and everything became dark in my soul. Swirling winds of fear blew with amazing force. The turbulence of hopelessness was violent. I found myself in a spiritual state of spatial disorientation.

I was panicky at first. I swerved back and forth desperately trying to get my bearings. But one day the thought hit me, “Jon, fly by the instruments. That’s what they’re for. Don’t trust your perceptions. Trust what the instruments tell you.”

Now over the years God had trained me to trust his Word. And to that point it always been reliable. So now in the raging storm, when everything seemed uncertain, I had to choose: would I trust my doubt-filled perceptions or trust God’s Word?

In very simple terms, since my doubts were leading me deeper into confusion, and since God’s promises had given me more hope than anything I had ever known, I decided to steer by the Bible’s direction until I had enough evidence to determine that it was a faulty instrument.

I continued devotional Bible reading, prayer, church and small group attendance. I opened my heart to trusted friends and mentors and asked for counsel. I remember John Piper saying to me: “Jon, the rock of truth under your feet will not long feel like sand.” It was very hard to believe when he said it, but he proved right.

After months of darkness, light pierced the clouds. My storm didn’t stop suddenly, but it gradually lost power and dissipated and I flew into clear skies. God’s promises again proved reliable instruments. I didn’t crash. In fact, the storm served me very well. I learned more than ever before how to “walk (or fly) by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). I thank God for every minute of that frightening storm.

Jesus really understands what stormy darkness is like. His storms, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, were far worse than anything we will ever know. And he entered them willingly for us, so that we would be rescued from all of our storms, particularly the ultimate storm of God’s wrath against our sin. That’s why he came. His storm crushed him so that our storms would become redemptive for us. What a wonderful reason to celebrate Christmas!

This Advent, remember that Jesus came “to give light to those who sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79). If you or a loved one is flying in a storm and despairing, remember your own perceptions, as real as they feel, are not reliable. As one who has tested them in a number of storms I can say with confidence: fly by the instruments God has provided you. They will not prove faulty.