Read Romans 8:12-17.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

While the rec league is populated by players who don’t really practice, the select league has players who strive to improve. They do drills and run laps. And yet the motivation is mainly the fun times and camaraderie and the treats they receive. What happens when the drills get tough and the games brutal?

The sweet milk that God gives in prayer and meditation eventually gives way to solid food. Dryness. Suffering. Unanswered prayer and a God who seems to be missing in action. Maybe there is a crisis in the external events of life that puts them at odds with God. Or maybe the problems are internal—nothing seems to go as smoothly and pleasantly as it did. As though the workings have run out of oil for lubrication.

They sit to pray and meditate on a good book and find that meditation is impossible. The very idea is repellant. They may go through the motions—something inside still drives them—but it seems as though they are just going through the motions. At the same time, they lose interest in the rest of the world as well—old pleasures no longer please. The world turns gray.

This state may go on and on. And on. Weeks. Maybe years. How will they respond? How will they handle the sufferings of life and the absence of God? Some will turn back and give up on prayer. Others persevere in suffering and in dryness. They prove that they serve God for his own sake and not for the sake of the gifts they are given. It is these who are willing to take up the cross, and taking up the cross is the third conversion. They enter the Premiere League. They become tested Christians. Mature. Elders.

This suffering and dryness have many beneficial effects, even if the effects are not immediately apparent. Selfishness is restrained and diminished—though deep roots of self remain. Suffering builds compassion for the suffering of others. Failure make them more forgiving of failures in others. They see what they are in the absence of God’s help and humility grows.

Eventually this dryness gives way to deeper prayer that reaches the will more readily and brings many virtues. They long to be able to stop offending God. They guard against sin, watching what they do and think. They try to use their time well, eliminating unhelpful things from their lives. They take up practices such as fasting in an effort to kill self. They practice moderation in speech and dress and consumption and other areas of life.

They start to see the benefits of suffering, of the cross. They start to understand and believe that all things work together for their good. They start to desire such suffering for the benefits it brings—as long as it is not too much.

Although sin and self are restrained, these Christians are still weak. They may fall into sin that is visible to others, though they repent when they become aware of it. There are still deep roots of self that may manifest in anger when possessions or honor are threatened.

For them, prayer is the best part of the day. While God is still mostly hidden to them, the effects he leaves in the soul are obvious. There may occasionally be deeper experiences of prayer that serve to strengthen them or as invitations for them to press on and go deeper.

How deep are they willing to go? How much are they willing to suffer? How much courage do they have? How ready and willing and quick are they to obey when obedience is costly and painful? When they hear that to be perfect, they must sell all, will they turn away in sorrow? What these Christians need is to allow themselves to be led by the Spirit of God, to become children of God.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and