This Christian life. This idealist. Let's just say, I had expectations. The graph above shows what, at the beginning, I think I expected it to be like. At least in the "I haven't really thought about this all that much" sense, this is kinda what I expected. And I'm not the only one. Lots and lots of folks I know (and whose credibility I promise you I cannot vouch for) describe the Christian life this way. It's got the basics, after that foundational basic of "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." Read the Word, Pray, Repent, Encourage others as long as it is called today. And over time, you see this lovely upward progression, and you can expect joy and happiness and fulfilment. I like the sound of that!
And I will also admit, that at the beginning, it was really that way. I saw myself like this:
But life has this way of happening. And while the basics were still emphasized, other expectations began creeping in. In all honesty, I have to say that as a people-pleaser in personality, and as a person in works-righteousness tendencies, I never fought for the simplicity of the first model. But even if I had, I'm sure life's demands would have started filling in my formerly pristine and formulaic graph. I soon began to think of the Christian life of progress and sanctification not as a straight and soaring oblique line to the heavens, but more as a stairstep. Up, plateau, up, plateau. I think I thought this way for about 47.2 seconds, at least. It was long enough to share the example at least once with some poor soul. (I hope it didn't cause too much trouble.)
Somehow, though, the more we seek holiness, the more we get advice. And we get ideas on our own. And before you know it, the Real Stuff gets lost in the aspirations of Perfect Living. But the Perfect Living can't be wrong, right? So I had to adjust my expectations. Sometimes we aren't walking up that stairstep. Sometimes it's all we can do to hoist and pull ourselves to that next level of Spiritual Maturity. Just keep plugging along, right? I think I can, I think I can. Do more. It will come.
But I found my model was still inaccurate. Because it still wasn't an up, plateau, up, plateau progression. I've given this example many times. (Please forgive me, those of you who learned it from me.) The Christian Life must be like an escalator. And I'm on it.
That's it! Jumping rope on the up escalator! That's why I feel this way--making some progress, not making progress. Up, down, then MORE down, but then a little bit up... but I'm no athlete, spiritually speaking. I can't maintain this. I think it was while thinking along the lines of this model that I've had my deepest crashes.
Take a look at the overlay. Is this an encouraging graph of the Spiritual Life?
So after church on Sunday, after hearing a sermon about Who the Holy Spirit is and being given some deep questions to ponder, I met up with the pastor again for a little discussion. He had made reference to that constant question for the Christian: Are you growing closer to Christ? Are you loving him more? Are you seeking him more? And I saw again my oblique line, shooting up diagonally, straight as the proverbial arrow, toward a glowy, happy me in the heavens. So I cornered him. "Nope," I said. "Not soaring. But it isn't that I don't believe. I KNOW I believe..."
He stopped me. He'd heard this before, I think. "I should clarify," he said. And then he wiped out all my years' worth of thinking in terms of this upward-progressing chart in any version. "It isn't about how high you get," he said. "It's about WHO you come back to."
Did you hear that shattering sound? Listen:
"It isn't about how HIGH YOU GET. It's about WHO you come back to."
He held up a hand and drew a circle in the air in a flat plane front of it. "Here's Jesus," he said of the hand. "And here's you." (I'm the finger of the other hand.) He touched his finger to his palm and explained. I'll paraphrase. You're bound to Jesus. What you know and what you experience are all part of being human. You'll always know him. But sometimes life or experience or trouble or doubt or you name it draws you away. (The finger leaves the palm in an orbit around nothingness.) But you always come back around. Always. Back to Jesus. That's proof the Holy Spirit is in you.
I now have a new set of visuals, and they make a lot more sense to me now than the upward graph. As he was talking, I was picturing myself as a playground toy. Remember the tether ball on the pole?
Only I'm not tethered to a useless old pole. I'm tethered to the Cross. I'm tethered to the Christ. I'm tethered to the one I always come back to.
So when the things of this life weigh in on me, or as is often the case, KAPOW!--blindside me, it's only natural that I start swinging. That's part of this Christian liberty. We are bound to a sovereign God, but at the same time, we are free agents, acting and responding within the safety and context of his guiding hand.
But because of that permanent bond, the tether that is secured by the Holy Spirit, no matter how far and away I swing, I will always come back to him. And when at the farthest point away--guess what! The next degree brings me closer to home!
Now if you've lived at all, then you know, that the out and around, out and around, keeps happening throughout life. And sometimes, it feels more like you're caught in the whirlwind. In fact, I'd dare say many (maybe most?) of us feel this way more of the time than not. But when I think about how the promise is that we'll always, always undeniably come back, I can't help but hear Cowper's truth in the raging storm. Because what's actually happening, then, when it feels like this:
Is really guaranteed to be something like this. And the result of something like this, almost undeniably has to be
the resulting closeness and security in the end that is exactly what I've been looking for all the time.
The Cross was a lowly place. It isn't about how high you get. It's about who you come back to. Amazing. Grace.