“Spatial disorientation” is what a pilot experiences when he’s flying in weather conditions that prevent him from being able to see the horizon or the ground. Points of reference that guide his senses disappear. His perceptions become unreliable. He can no longer be sure which way is up or down. It can be deadly — it killed John Kennedy, Jr.1
The only way a pilot can overcome spatial disorientation is to trust his cockpit instruments more than his intuitive senses 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 essentially I had a crisis of faith. I entered a tempest of doubt like nothing I had experienced before. God, who I had known and loved since late childhood, suddenly became clouded from my spiritual sight. I couldn’t see him anywhere. It got very dark in my soul and swirling winds of fear blew with gale force. The turbulence of hopelessness was violent. Not knowing which way was up or down, I found myself in spiritual spatial disorientation.
I was panicky at first. I swerved back and forth desperately trying to get my bearings. But one day a thought hit me with unusual clarity: “Jon, fly by the instruments. That’s what they’re for. Stop trusting your perceptions. Trust what the instruments tell you.”
In the years leading up to this experience God had trained me in various ways to trust his Word and I had always found it reliable. So now during this raging storm, when everything seemed uncertain, I had a choice: trust my doubt-filled perceptions or trust God’s Word.
Well, since my doubts were leading me deeper into confusion and darkness, and since God’s promises had given me more light and 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.
That was hard. And it was frightening. Many times I fought the temptation to ditch the instruments and go with my sense of what was true. But I had enough experience and knew enough Bible to know where “sense” can lead. So I continued devotional Bible reading, prayer, church and small group attendance. I opened my heart to trusted friends and mentors and sought counsel. I remember John Piper saying to me: “Jon, the rock of truth under your feet will not long feel like sand.” When he said it, my thought was, “I hope you’re right, but I doubt you are.”
My doubts proved wrong. After a long season of darkness, God pierced the clouds with his light. I’ll never forget that day. I wish I had time to explain, but it’s a long story. And since God’s ways and timing with each of us are different, maybe it’s best that you just know that God brought the storm to an end. It didn’t end immediately, but as the Sun of life broke through, the storm dissipated and finally I flew into clear skies again.
God’s promises did prove reliable instruments, even though I doubted them in the middle of it all. 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 Corinthians 5:7). I thank God for every minute of that horrible storm.
Jesus really understands what stormy darkness is like (Hebrews 4:15). His storms, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, were far worse than anything you and I 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.
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.