What is better than a “mountain top experience”?
Many years ago, Tim Stafford shared his struggles with the ups and downs of faith:
“When I asked God to take over my life, I felt good. I will never forget the sense of adventure the next morning brought. I had a friend in God, a forgiving, loving, wise and comforting Father. He had plans for my life. I could talk to Him. But time went by and my feelings changed. Sometimes I felt depressed, almost to the point of despair. Talking to God then seemed like talking to a wall. The joy was gone.
“I thought I must be doing something wrong. I prayed harder, yet felt no better. I searched for sin in my life, but confession did not always bring relief…. When I felt far away from God, some of my friends recommended a new way of praying. Others recommended reading certain passages of Scripture. Yet when these didn’t work, what could I do? Investigate other religions? What?” (Campus Life magazine, July/August 1984, p. 41)
We love the times when God’s love and goodness shine through, when we feel the joy and the closeness of God! We struggle when God seems far away from us. Therefore, we try to cling to whatever might enable us to hold onto the feeling of God’s closeness to us.
A few of Jesus’ disciples shared in this struggle. One day, as recorded in Mark 9:2-10, Jesus brought Peter, James and John up a high mountain with Him. There they saw Jesus “transfigured” before them so that His clothes became “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in this world could bleach them.” And they saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.
That’s the kind of thing all of us long for: Christ’s glory shining through in a wonderful way so that we clearly experience the presence and the grandeur of God!
Peter jumps to do what all of us would love to do: He proposes a way in which they can try to cling to that which might enable them to hold onto that experience of God’s glory among them. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
But God quickly steps in to make it clear to Peter and to us that there is something more important than clinging to great experiences. A voice from heaven said to them, “This is My Son, whom I love. Listen to Him.” God was telling them that what is more important than commemorating great experiences is relationship with God and heeding Christ’s words to us.
In that voice from heaven, God was inviting Peter to know and to live in the love that exists within the Trinity, and God was calling Peter to heed the words of Christ. (Interestingly, Jesus puts these two elements together in John 14:15: “If you love Me, you will obey what I command,” and in John 15:10: “If you obey My commands, you will remain in my love.”)
We, too, try to find ways to cling to our best experiences with God. But God calls us to something other than clinging to our experiences.
David Benner writes, “It is relatively easy to meet God in moments of joy or bliss. In these situations we correctly count ourselves blessed by God. The challenge is to believe that this is also true—and to know God’s presence—in the midst of doubt, depression, anxiety, conflict or failure. But the God who is Immanuel is equally in those moments we would never choose as in those we would always gladly choose. Richard Rohr reminds us that ‘we cannot attain the presence of God. We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s lacking is awareness.’” (The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, p. 42)
That’s why God calls us into relationship with Himself (to know and to live in the love that exists in the Trinity) and to heed Christ’s words to us.
The route to contentment
A Middle Eastern king was extremely wealthy…but not content. He realized that his treasury was full but his soul was empty. He recognized that he needed to find God but was at a loss as to how to fill his spiritual void, as he continued to invest his energy in expanding his wealth and enjoying his riches. One night this king was roused from a deep sleep by a loud stamping and stomping on his roof. Alarmed, he shouted, “Who’s there?”
A voice from the roof called back to him, “A friend. I’ve lost my camel, and I’m looking for her.”
Perturbed at such stupidity, the king shouted, “You fool! Why are you looking for a camel on a roof?”
The voice from the roof called back, “You fool! Why are you looking for God in your silk clothing while lying on a golden bed?”
One day, many years ago, Jesus told the apostle Peter that he, like the man looking for a camel on a roof, did “not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man” (Mark 8:33). Then Jesus explained to Peter and to everyone else around Him that the route to contentment lay in a different direction than they were thinking (and in a different direction than we would think). He stated, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). And He explained, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).
In that recipe for life, Jesus tells us that the route to contentment in life involves three vital elements: Undivided allegiance to Christ, Unrestricted loyalty to Him, and His Unstoppable presence with us.
Undivided allegiance: We tend to think that to be content in life we should grab hold of as many pleasures in life as we can get. But evidence shows that it doesn’t work that way. According to researchers, “If you focus on doing and getting things that give you pleasure, it does not lead to happiness but produces what one researcher has dubbed ‘the hedonic treadmill.’ You become addicted to pleasure, and your need for the pleasure fix keeps growing: You have to do more and more. You’re never satisfied, never really happy.” (Tim Keller in King’s Cross, p. 149, based on a January 7, 2007 article, “Happiness 101,” in New York Times Magazine)
Jesus proposes a different route to contentment. He tells us that contentment in life is found in the process of giving ourselves fully to Him rather than in pursuing pleasures and happiness. Thus He calls us to “deny” ourselves in undivided allegiance to Him.
Unrestricted loyalty: No one would imagine that the route to contentment would involve taking up their cross. The people at the time of Jesus had seen criminals carry a cross to their execution. They knew the horror of crucifixion. They would never imagine that taking up their cross would lead to contentment. But that’s what Jesus tells us to do. Why?
A.W. Tozer explains, “To be crucified means, first, the man on the cross is facing only one direction; second, he is not going back; and third, he has no further plan of his own.” The call to take up our cross is the call to let nothing—not even death—get in the way of our loyalty to Christ.
His unstoppable presence with us: Here is what makes it all worthwhile! We are called to follow Jesus. That means that we are called to be in continual close relationship with the One who brings peace and hope and joy to life! This is the true route to contentment: Being in the constant presence of Jesus as we follow Him throughout the day.
Learning to pray better prayers
The other day I came to a bothersome realization: For years, many of my personal prayers have been more shallow and off-focus than I like to admit.
I recognize that many of my personal prayers are variations on the themes, “God, make things turn out nicely for me,” or “God, get me out of the mess I am in.”
Reading through the prophet Habakkuk, I notice how differently he approaches prayer. Things are going horribly in his nation, and the future looks more discouraging. Near the end of his book he summarizes how bad things are and will be: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls….” (Habakkuk 3:17)
I would have expected that what would come next would be a prayer like my typical prayers: “God, make things turn out nicely for me,” or “God, get me out of the mess I am in.”
But those aren’t the prayers Habakkuk came up with. Instead, he prayed, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; He enables me to go on the heights.”
The focus of his prayer was greater than mine. He did not ask merely for God to make things turn out well for him or to get him out of the mess he was in. He focused on God’s presence with him through it all and God’s ability to equip Habakkuk with what he needed to get through the difficulties: the feet of a deer to maneuver through the rocky times ahead.
About those feet, Ray Vander Laan remarks, “Negotiating the rugged mountains, deep canyons, and rocky ground of the Judea Wilderness is hard, dangerous work. The graceful ibex, however, are able to move with little effort on nearly impossibly steep trails at hazardous heights. They can do this because God, their Creator, gave them a soft hoof that grips the rock without slipping.”
That’s what Habakkuk focused on: Not a request for easier circumstances but that God could give to him what he needed to be able to negotiate the troubles that surrounded him.
What a better person I might be if that would become the content of my prayers!
Phillips Brooks expresses it well: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men and women. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, but pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself—at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”
Perhaps instead of asking God to make things turn out well for me or to get me out of the messes I fall into, I should pray the prayer of Thomas Aquinas: “Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.” Or perhaps I should pray the prayer of an anonymous saint, “Dear God, enlighten what’s dark in me, strengthen what’s weak in me, mend what’s broken in me, bind what’s bruised in me, and, lastly, revive whatever peace and love has died in me.”
Who is Jesus to you?
While Jesus wandered through the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi—a place of diverse religious affiliations—He asked His disciples, “Who do people say I am?”
They pop up with a varity of answers, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” There were a lot of opinions flying around about who and what Jesus was.
There are a lot of opinions flying around today as to who and what Jesus is.
Havelock Ellis suggests, “Had there been a lunatic asylum in the suburbs of Jerusalem, Jesus Christ would infallibly have been shut up in it at the outset of his public career. That interview with Satan on a pinnacle of the Temple would alone have damned him, and everything that happened after could but have confirmed the diagnosis.”
Speaking not just of Jesus but of the whole concept of God, Clarence Darrow said in 1930, “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”
Friedrich Nietzsche asks, “What is it: is man only a blunder of God, or God only a blunder of man?” Six years earlier he summarized his opinion on the matter: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
H.G. Wells put it differently: “The problem with Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, is that He is too big for my small heart.”
The critical issue is not what others think about Jesus but what you think about Jesus, so Jesus moves the question from the general to the specific—from the impersonal to the personal. He asks, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Mark 8:29 records the most concise version of Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ.”
If Jesus was a lunatic, as Havelock Ellis suggests, or a nursery rhyme, as Clarence Darrow suggests, or the blunder of our imagination, as Friedrich Nietzsche suggests, then to believe in Jesus would be foolishness, and to submit your life to His leading would be a complete waste of time and the height of foolishness.
But if Peter is right, if Jesus is the Messiah—the One who came from God to rescue and restore our lives—then to submit our lives to His leading is the most wonderful thing we could ever do!
J. Sidlow Baxter remarks, “Fundamentally, our Lord’s message was Himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; He Himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; He said, ‘I am the bread.’ He did not come merely to shed light; He said, ‘I am the Light.’ He did not come merely to show the door; He said, ‘I am the door.’ He did not come merely to name a shepherd; He said, ‘I am the shepherd.’ He did not come merely to point the way; He said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’”
If Peter is correct, that Jesus is the Messiah—the One who came from God to rescue and restore our lives—and if Jesus’ words about Himself are true, that He is the bread of life and the way, the truth and the life, then to submit our lives to His leading is the true way to find the peace of God and the love of God. If Jesus is the Savior of the world, then submitting our lives to Him causes springs of living water to begin to well up within us, with the Holy Spirit transforming us from the inside, enabling us to embrace the forgiveness of God and to know the assurance of eternal life and to live our lives in God-filled hope!
So…who is Jesus to you?