Fathom Mag

I wasn’t summiting emotional mountains.

The Christian journey seldom skips straight from indifference to intimacy.

Published on:
December 1, 2022
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4 min.
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I grew up around Christians who loved to talk about “mountaintop experiences.” Moments spent above the clouds were cast as the sort of epiphanies Jonathan Edwards codified and popularized where a mysterious work of God made a person ravenous for the scriptures and the Lord. In my Christian subculture, ascending to these heights validated and exemplified a good relationship with Jesus. 

Mountaintops had their contrasting spiritual valleys—anything from falling out of daily quiet times to licentious partying. But the consensus seemed clear to me—the deepest valley was rote repetition, and as proof, I was pointed to Revelation 3:16: “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” 

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Alone in the Bleachers

At nine years old I worried that not swinging far enough to evil, to coldness, would limit my progress toward good, like a pendulum with too short a backswing. I remember asking, “Why do people who did bad things make better Christians?” 

As a temperamentally reserved Norwegian, I felt unfairly predisposed toward a Lukewarm soul.

As a temperamentally reserved Norwegian, I felt unfairly predisposed toward a Lukewarm soul. At a middle school altar call, I wasn’t moved to walk down. I sat with my head down and eyes closed, sensing someone walking by me every now and again. Then, I peeked—I was among the minority still sitting in the bleachers. I began furiously praying, “God, I know I’m not down on the gym floor physically, but I am there in spirit!” After the sinner’s prayer ended and all the students filed back up, everyone clapped, but my stomach dropped. Was I in the deepest valley reserved for the lukewarm? God would certainly spit me out of his mouth. 

At worship services when others raised their hands or scurried to the corner for one-on-one prayer, I interrogated myself: “If I were to raise my hands, would I be faking it? What would be grounds for a legitimate hand raise? Do you do it and then figure out why you’re doing it, or should you only do it if you know without a doubt that you should be doing it?” My mental gymnastics left me wondering, “Had God already spit me out?” 

In college, I  went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, eager for my long-awaited spiritual breakthrough. I was disappointed to find that I was on the mountaintop, but the epiphany was stubbornly absent. Prettier church; same problems. 

I thought maybe I was depressed or defective when comparing my even-keel disposition to the swings of my peers. Eventually, I became cynical: “Everyone must be faking.” Defeated, I left the environment that prized emotion as a spiritual barometer.

Roadblocks on a New Path

I arrived at an Episcopal church where, to my delight, no one clapped. Freed from emotional pressure, I tried to pursue meaning rationally. Surely, if I could just understand God more fully then I could be more devout in every way. But, that was discouraging in different ways. I may have evaded Edwards’s emotional epiphanies but I hit Leo Tolstoy’s rational roadblocks. 

In “A Confession,” Tolstoy despaired when comparing his professional and personal success to an infinite universe. All his works would come to naught in the long run. Frustrated, he began studying working-class, content Christians. Here’s how he explained what he found: 

“If a naked, hungry beggar were taken at a crossroads and led to an enclosed part of a splendid establishment where he is given food and drink, and then forced to move some kind of handle up and down, it is obvious that before deciding why it was he had been brought there to move the handle, and whether or not the establishment was reasonably arranged, the beggar must first move the handle. If he moves the handle he will see that it operates a pump, that the pump draws water and the water flows into the garden. Then he will be taken away from the enclosed place and given another job, and he will gather fruits and will enter into the joy of his lord. As he progresses from lower to higher tasks, he will continue to understand more and more about the structure of the establishment and participate in it, and he will never stop to ask why he is there, and he will never come to reproach his master.

But we, the wise, eat the master’s food without doing what he asks of us; instead of doing it, we sit around in circles debating whether we should do something as stupid as moving a handle up and down. 

Tolstoy put this finding to work and found that he only began moving out of his mire by doing God’s will without full comprehension. As he put it, “If I do not do what is asked of me, I will never understand what it is that is asked of me.” 

The Christian journey seldom skips straight from indifference to intimacy.

I’ve hiked the forty-six High Peaks in the Adirondacks, and while emotional moments occasionally coincide with summiting a mountain, they often don’t. I find after about five minutes on a peak, my hedonic treadmill catches up: “It’s a nice view, but what’s next?” The popular use of “mountaintop experience” to mean “a flood of happiness and clarity” is, in my experience, often a misnomer. 

But I can also ruin a hike before I even start by worrying over the forecast, a photo, or ideas of what the hike will be. A purely rational approach obscures the beauty and enjoyment of the activity. 

My best hikes start with no expectations of the process and with my eyes right where I am instead of staring at the daunting, far-off peak. I just take the next right step in front of me, yielding my illusions of control for something meaningful and memorable. 

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The Path of Intimacy 

As an adult, I learned that the lukewarm water in Revelation 3:16 refers to nearby hot and cold water springs that offered different but equally valuable refreshment. Reading hot or cold in relation to God presents a false dichotomy. The Christian journey seldom skips straight from indifference to intimacy. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace.” 

My Episcopal Church exposed me to spiritual and liturgical disciplines—ways to do God’s will in order to more fully understand his will. These disciplines prepared the ground in my heart for a good harvest, but they didn’t promise emotional ecstasies or epiphanies any more than reaching a mountain’s summit does. Taking one step without a clear sense of the bigger picture was not a failure of wisdom or passion. Rather, it is the necessary, natural way of moving through a world that is both challenging and baffling to me as a limited human. 

God had not spit me out because I wasn’t summiting the emotional mountains nor was he hiding when I was paralyzed by the purpose of my choices. He is hiking beside me, pointing out what’s worth remembering, explaining intricacies, and spending time developing intimacy with me all along the way. 

Ben Christenson
Ben Christenson writes essays and an occasional newsletter from Fairfax, VA, where he lives with his family and 4 dogs.

Cover image by Marek Piwnicki.

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