Peaks and valleys

I recently read C. S. Lewis’ novel The Screwtape Letters, which chronicles a fictional correspondence between a senior devil named Screwtape and a junior devil named Wormwood. These letters include fascinating insight into Satan’s strategies for sabotaging my spiritual growth, relationship with God, and interactions with others. One of the letters explores the ups and downs of the human experience, what I call the “peaks and valleys.”

In this letter, the devils are discussing the period of “dryness and dullness” that Wormwood’s charge is experiencing. Screwtape warns that God intends to use this time to strengthen the young man’s faith and advises Wormwood to ensure that the young man does not become aware of the normalcy of valleys but instead becomes convinced that his languid, depressed feelings are a permanent condition. As I read, I reflected on my personal peak-and-valley cycle and what I have learned from my valleys.

I have certainly enjoyed “peaks” in my life: periods of success in my work, progress in my studies, friendships, health, joyful communion with Jesus, and inspiring Bible reading. But I have also experienced “valleys,” such as the one I struggled through just recently. It started with a major setback in my work, followed by problems in my studies, conflicts and strained communication with loved ones, and finally a bout of illness. I found myself at an all-time low, with no inspiration to read my Bible or even pray.

My valley seemed to stretch on endlessly, swallowing me in its dark emptiness and blanketing me in despair. I felt as if God had packed His bags and disappeared. I pled for Him to be near, to pull me through my troubles, and to let me feel His presence, but He seemed distant and silent. What is happening? What have I done wrong? I wondered desperately.

I tried to use willpower and effort to re-create the excitement and spiritual high I had enjoyed during my peaks, but this only left me exhausted and more discouraged. It finally dawned on me that faith cannot be measured by feelings, for as Paul says, “We live by faith, not by sight.”1 Focusing on my changeable and often negative emotions only plunged me deeper into my doubts and made my trials more difficult to bear.

Reading The Screwtape Letters confirmed what I had discovered in my valley. My struggles were not indications that I had failed God or that He had abandoned me. Rather, they are painful yet normal parts of human experience in a fallen world. It felt as if I would remain in my misery forever, but I found that all valleys end in God’s time, and I emerged with renewed faith in His grace and love.

  1. 2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV