Cultivating a plateau spirituality

Oct 16, 2015 by

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A wise teacher of mine once wrote, “We all long for mountains — to be in the presence of God and experience his splendor. I have lived on the mountain for a long time. Now it is time for me to descend into the valley where I can meet God in a new way.”

These words reflect the continual cycle of your average Christian. I am no different. In life we constantly go through different seasons and life changes. Yet, unlike our typical life span from childhood to old age and unlike the emotional roller coaster of love and fear, our spiritual paths are quite unique. That’s because spirituality is rooted in something far deeper than simply changing emotions or surface-level love; instead it reaches into the very core of who we are.

If you grew up in the evangelical church, you may have lived the majority of your life under the false pretext that Christians should always be on a spiritual high. I know that is true in my case. I was taught by pastors and Sunday school teachers throughout my most pivotal growing years that I could always be doing more. Even if I felt close to Christ at that moment, there was probably something else I needed to do — read the Bible more, pray more, evangelize more. While it is true that none of us will ever reach perfection on this earth, I later began to see how dangerous this type of theology can truly be. If nothing else, it leads to a works-based theology — one in which constant striving doesn’t lead us to God; it only leads us to more striving which in turn leaves us feeling empty.

On the other hand, there is a different kind of extreme — lazy Christianity. In this type of Christianity, people embrace the fact that they will never truly be as close to God as they would have wished, so they stop praying, reading the Bible and serving, and instead live their lives in a self-gratifying way as if they truly were no different than anyone else in their culture. Both have their downfalls, and both are inevitable for Christians to face in their lives at one point or another.

Here’s the thing: we all go through ups and downs, spiritual highs and lows. I can tell you about many times in which the presence of the Holy Spirit was so real in my life that it felt as if God had personally directed a message to me. I can tell you about times when I was so deep in prayer that I felt as if Jesus were right there in the room with me or when I felt so compelled after a message that I actually went out and made some drastic change in my life. I definitely know there have been times when I have been so deeply passionate in worship that I fell to my knees and didn’t even care what others around me thought about it. I also can tell you of the greatest ecstasy I have ever tasted in my life when I fell so in love with God that I began to manifest the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, visions and dreams. These experiences are all wonderful and I savor each one. Whenever I can, I approach God in prayer asking that I may receive these moments again and again and so fall deeper in love with him than the times before.

But there is something else you need to remember. While I have experienced all of these lovely heavenly moments in which the Kingdom of God felt so imminent that it was almost as if it were happening in the here and now (and perhaps in a way it was), there have also been moments that have been far less glorious. I have had moments when the struggle and temptation to sin was so real I felt I had no power to control it. I have gone through bouts of depression and seasons of the Dark Night of the Soul where prayer seemed almost fruitless and all I could experience was static on the other end of the telephone line. I have had moments in which seeing the sufferings of this world have caused me to doubt the existence of God or at least caused me to question his truly gracious and loving nature. I have had all the same negative experiences that I assume many of you have also had.

However, while I have had spiritual highs and lows, more often than not, I am in a state of contented apathy. What do I mean by that? Simply that nothing is happening. I am not necessarily in a bad place with God — I still feel his presence, know that he exists and occasionally share in intimate moments with him; but I am also not in a great place with him. I don’t fall in love with him in worship the way I used to, may feel compelled by a sermon but instead choose to go about my normal life, and my prayer is more out of habit than out of commitment. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not really, it’s just the average life of a Christian.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I shouldn’t try more to get to know Christ deeper. I’m not making excuses for my behavior. As Christians, our main goal should always be to “love God and glorify Him forever, for that is the chief end of man” (as the Westminster Catechism states). However, it is simply impossible to constantly be maintaining a spiritual high. And if you are one of those people who believes that’s what Christians are called to do, I would urge you to re-examine your own life.

In a way, it is sort of like marriage. A married couple will experience days in which marriage is completely awesome. The first time you notice that super hot guy or girl and fall head over heels for him or her is a lovely feeling. When you first start dating and you can’t get him or her off your mind, think about him or her constantly, text and write each other daily, it is a lovely and completely natural thing. Even after dating, the day you say your vows and covenant to live your life together is an exhilarating day. Your honeymoon and sharing in those first moments of the passionate love God created you for are wonderful. The births of your children are something to be celebrated. These are all moments that God gives us and calls us to rejoice in. But then the storms come. High bills you wonder how you will possibly pay, wayward children, a spouse who can’t keep his dirty socks off the floor or who can’t keep her credit card in her wallet (or vice versa). In those moments, you may wonder what the point of marriage really is. Is it truly worth it? Did you make a mistake or is this man or woman truly the one God destined for you since the dawn of creation? Yet, in those valley moments, if you can recall the exhilarating feeling you first had when you locked eyes with him or her for the very first time, I think you will find that it is indeed truly worth it to keep going.

But then, there are also many days in which life is just normal. You still love your spouse so deeply you would do anything — including die — for him or her. You aren’t in some major fight, but you just don’t feel the passionate love you did when you first said “I do.” That isn’t bad; it’s normal.

For me, the hardest part of the Christian life is not in those moments when I am on the mountaintop, nor is it when I am in the valley, but when I am on the plateau, which is about 90 percent of the time. To cultivate a spiritual life when your spirituality is neither exhilarating nor boring but is simply stagnant is one of the hardest lessons to achieve.

What can we do in those moments? My advice: keep praying; keep reading the Scripture. Don’t let your lack of spiritual enthusiasm drive you away from God’s word and God’s will. Remember those moments of intimacy with him and learn to truly crave them. Continue your spiritual life as if you were still in those moments of jubilation. Continue to go to church, to meet with other Christians, and to serve. In fact, when we are in community and making a difference to those around us, that’s one of the best ways to rekindle that long forgotten spark that Christ gave us. Lastly, remember to constantly fall in love with Christ. Falling in love isn’t a one-time deal; instead, it’s a continual choice. We don’t tell our spouses we love them only once and never again, we tell them constantly and in loving matrimony we truly mean it from our core. If even after all of this you still feel distant and disconnected from God, then what better choice than to tell him. Let him know you want to get to know him in a real and personal way. That you want to dig deeper than you ever have before. I guarantee that if you pray that prayer and mean it, it will happen — but be prepared, because it will also really mess you up (for the better). It’s a radical prayer and not one for the faint of heart.

In any and every circumstance, I truly hope that you will experience the love of the one true God who is Father and Mother to all of us. For that is the will of the Holy Spirit — to graciously and continuously woo us to himself, even when we feel we are simply living on the plateau.

Deborah-Ruth Ferber studied religious education at Tyndale University College in Toronto, and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared at Zwiebach and Peace, her personal blog.


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