I mentioned in a previous post that one might appear to be in the same place in one’s spiritual life, but in actuality, it might be a lower or higher place. Whether lower is good or higher is good depends on your spiritual metaphor. I tend to much prefer the former and not just because I’m a pessimist (Optimist: the glass is half empty – Pessimist: the glass is half full – Physicist: the glass is filled half with air, half with water).
William Penn once wrote, “No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.” Christianity is a downward faith. Our motion is not primarily one of bigger or better or stronger or greater. That may be the end result, but time and time again, we must take a different path to get there.
Scripture is rife with examples of this. The Israelites were aiming for the Promised Land, but before they got there, they had to wander in the desert for a generation. Ruth had to leave the easy choice of returning to her father’s house where she would be cared for and work to sustain herself and her mother-in-law before she found Boaz’s favor. David had to be chased, threatened, tempted, attacked, etc., by the current king before he could take his place. And, of course, Jesus had to die before there could be resurrection. Jesus spoke of this kind of motion many times as well. Those who mourn are comforted and the persecuted are blessed and attain the kingdom (Matt. 5:4, 10-12). Those who wish to be first must take the least place at the table; thus the one who humbles himself is exalted (Luke 14:8-11). You must take up your cross for only by losing one’s life can one save it (Matt. 16:24-25).
The path of true spiritual formation is one of humility, usually a hard pill to swallow. I sometimes find it difficult to be around Christians whose every thought and attitude seems to be about excitement and victory and being strong and how powerful and wonderful everything is all the time. There is without question a place for this, and there are certainly cultural issues that come into play that I don’t want to discredit. This mindset, however, can get in the way of the truth that we have to die before we can live. Psychologists have been saying it for years: “It will get worse before it gets better.” This is true of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual life.
Thus, seeking the better while trying to ignore or circumvent the worse will lead to some serious problems. The Bible has a few examples of this, too. Early people decided that they would make themselves great. They took the upward motion of grandeur literally and built themselves a tower. God said it would never be and scattered them, and the building of Babel was abandoned. Rheoboam determined that he would show his power and authority over the Israelites and make himself appear strong and masterful, and two of the ten tribes walked away from him. The rich man in Jesus’ parable decided to build for himself barns to store all his goods and secure his happiness and wealth, and God took him that night so that he received none of it.
God keeps trying to show us that the upward path almost always has a cliff at the end of it, and it’s a long way down. But if we follow the path into the deep, downward, frightening places, there He is, willing and pleased to draw us up to Him. When we choose to go down into our weakness, our sin, our frailty, our need, our failures, this is where we become open and available to His love, His strength, His forgiveness, His patience and healing. Christianity is a downward faith, and thus, paradoxically, the only upward one.