The mountain top got a bad rap when I was growing up. I remember often going into the Sierra Nevada mountains to a camp called Hume Lake and having some of the best experiences of my life. I was challenged, encouraged, had incredibly moving moments with God, and had as much adventure as I could handle.
One phenomenon I noticed with post-Hume Lake life was the “let down,” that six-months-later-period where so and so who made a real proclamation of faith was now back to his or her old ways. Or perhaps it was me, where the elation of a closeness with God seemed to disappear like watching the sun slowly sink beneath a California ocean horizon (if you haven’t experienced it, sorry, I’m a little wistful for my State of upbringing, it’s truly something special).
I remember in christian circles people I looked up to terming the phenomenon the mountaintop experience. That is, that some how we could keep and retain all the emotion and rest and peace of the mountain top and simply relocate it into our normal existence, and that if we weren’t able to, we simply had a “mountaintop experience.” Of course, at that point in my life I accepted this definition and chocked my lack of God’s presence up to not trying hard enough to keep myself on the straight and narrow. I think “try harder” was one of the main tenets of my walk with Jesus in High School. It’s a miracle I ever figured out what the gospel actually is.
I think however this is a common experience in christian circles. And for some reason we become judges who besmirch the real declarations of faith of another when their lives seem to fall apart some months after that special experience.
Or we total the whole event as just that – an emotional experience where nothing of substance ever actually happened. We forget that the emotions are not independent of reality and are reflective of something happening on the inside.
I’ve come to love the mountaintop experience, no doubt I cherish it! I even learned to prioritize it while in France. I would go once a quarter to the top of the little mountain near our city, Mont Sainte-Victoire. I would climb up a ways with my bible and a list of problems and sit there with God until I got some kind of answer from him. Anything would do and I learned to look forward to getting away from everything and getting alone with God in this way. I look back on these times with new eyes, chuckling at my brazenness. I’m grateful God put up with me and actually spoke anything. I suspect he honored my desire to connect with him, if only to receive something from him, until I was ready for deeper truths.
Moses was also called up the mountain a few times. One of those times he was given some of the most influential rules for living ever, another time He saw God… His backside anyways.
Yet even Moses struggled off the mountain. Nor could he stay there forever.
While doing a Discovery Bible Study with two gentleman in France one time, I had a revelation reading Psalm 23. A little chunk of it stood out to me like someone highlighted two lines I had never thought to connect before. Connecting them changed everything.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake,Psalm 23:1-3
All good so far. There is (usually, depending on translation) a break in the text, a space separating two seemingly different ideas. Let’s continue:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.Psalm 23:4
Hmmm. Things went south a little bit. It’s easy to look at the first half of this Psalm and rejoice at God’s great provision. We are lying down in God’s goodness. We’re resting in His Presence and are thankful for His righteous leading. Life is good. How could we not to get on board with this?
But what happens if you connect the end of verse 3 with the beginning of verse 4?
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.Psalm 23:3b,4
Hold on… does David mean to say that the path of righteousness is actually down through the valley? Is God actually meaning to lead us through it? Was that his intent all along, to lead us off the mountain into the valley… of death? This all of a sudden sounds terrible.
I’ve heard some people say that the shadow of death is purely figurative in this passage. I don’t agree. The Hebrew translates out as literally “death-like shadow.” So basically, it feels like death and it’s complete darkness. The Bible is full of references to darkness being actual danger, and in any case, it’s impossible to see in complete darkness. A shadow is only cast by something that actually exists. I don’t think the Psalmist is referencing an illusion of danger. To the contrary I think he is saying it feels like death and I can’t see where I’m going. Words like confusing, disillusioning, disorienting, overwhelming, all come to mind. Let’s also not forget that complete darkness and isolation is used as a form of imprisonment for really bad dudes.
The valley is starting to sound like a terrible place. Don’t let the writer fool you into thinking it’s not so bad, he’s simply “not afraid” because God is with him. We have no indication that he knows where he is going or that he can even see! A better translation for “the valley” might be “the trench.” A parallel Psalm is 44. It’s a bit more bleak and graphic in it’s depiction of the valley experience:
But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies. You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil. You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.Psalm 44:9-19
Yikes! What the heck God!?! This is downright tragic. We can distill from this is one of three things:
- The Psalmist is dramatic and things aren’t actually that bad
- He’s lying and they have sinned and God is punishing them
- He’s telling the truth and for some reason God is not evident and allowing them to experience extreme hardship.
Did you catch the end? Who’s way have they not turned back from? God’s. Who’s covenant have they not departed from? God’s. This is pretty terrible treatment for the one who is trusting God to take care of them. If we look at the two passages together, there’s only one right answer and it’s not the one I used to believe.
God leads us into the trenches. We see the principle in Psalm 23. We see the reality of it in Psalm 44.
It’s too strong to say I didn’t believe this as a youngster. In truth I gave it lip service. I couldn’t have understood it. I used to believe that I was missing something in Psalms like this, that there was some secret that neither I nor the Psalmist could see, that it couldn’t have been just death and sorrow all around. And I conveniently decided that Job’s experience was some exception to the unwritten rule of holy living, that is; if we follow God, things get better!
When we read proverbs, it teaches us to believe that if we do the right things we’ll get the “right” results. And God is good, so He can’t possibly actually want me to suffer… can he? I just need to pray harder, or confess a hidden sin, or be more obedient? Do you see how easy it is to step back onto the slippery slope of “try harder.” This is works! This is religion. This is superstition. Not grace through faith.
While we’re on the topic of suffering, let’s not forget the rod and the staff. Now a staff for a shepherd was used to retrieve sheep and get them out of unfortunate predicaments and situations. Praise God for the staff! A rod, however, is mentioned in other places as being the means of discipline. Paul exhorts us to endure discipline. Somehow I didn’t make the pain connection with that word, but who has to “endure” fun?
So God leads us through the valley on purpose. The valley is filled with pain and frustration and questioning and danger. Why does God do this?
Psalm 23 can be read as seasons of a believer’s walk with God. These seasons don’t suggest sin. They suggest a good God who is guiding us through different seasons of life. He’s not going with us, we are going with Him! We haven’t taken him along, he’s taking us along! He’s holding the rod and the staff.
Season 1 is the mountain top or rest period. The believer’s provisions are met in such a way that she learns to trust God to an extent that she commits herself in some way to the Lord.
So, God good as He is, now leads the believer through the valley, that is season two – a season of testing. He tests whatever commitment was made. The greater the consecration, the greater the test. Jesus fasted alone in the desert for 40 days following his baptism. That’s a gnarly test. Nevertheless, we should expect testing. But why?
Training. It’s not testing like God doesn’t believe us. It’s testing like purifying a metal, or a component that has been created. When an engineer wants to design a product, the product is sent through multiple testing phases it see if it actually works as intended. We’re not products, but as believers, we are pruned. We don’t do more than surrender and let the gardener prune off everything that isn’t working to His desire. The Holy Spirit (the sap) flows through us to produce the fruit. It’s not the green pasture where this training-testing happens, it’s the valley. In testing a product, the point is to break it. In training for a race, a runner breaks down the muscles through use so that they can be rebuilt more effectively after the breaking period to be dedicated to winning the race. The rest happens in the green pasture, but the training and developing take place in the valley. There’s a quote out there about a ship captain not being made in the harbor or something like that. Same idea.
What are we being trained for? God’s glory. Through that experience, the believer comes to see God in his presence regardless of his surroundings, and his dependance moves from a God who provides tangibles, to God who provides the intangibles. Goodness, mercy, and presence are in the end better than the physical provision of the mountain, which is a quiet and peaceful life. Good as it is, God is on mission. So he moves the disciple to the presence of his enemies, and reveals himself to them through the now broken and fully entrusted to the Lord disciple. We find our enemies on the other side of the Vally, not up on the green pastures of Swiss Alps. The person who has passed through the trench is ready for witness. The broken disciple is the anointed disciple. Through our brokenness, and only through our brokenness, the light of God truly shines. Why? Because it’s in our brokenness that we come to the end of ourselves. This is the only way God truly uses us, where we have nothing of ourselves to offer. In our brokenness, God’s healing is clearly visible to the world. We stand not on our achievements or ability or ambition. We stand on his grace and mercy and healing in our lives. God’s mission begins where human self-effort ends. The places where we’ve been emptied (pruned) are the starting points for the world to see God in us. And he will bring us to the table, filled with those who have yet to know him like us, and they will see God through our brokenness.
The unbroken disciple, however, is still striving for the green grass and quiet stream of the mountain top. The broken disciple knows in her body God’s goodness and grace and mercy, not as something externally given, but flowing outward from within.
“You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. Psalm. 23:5-6
Season 3 is about fulfillment. But let’s be honest, this still sounds a bit lacking if our worldview is centered around feeling safe and comfortable. According to the Psalmist, God is our safety, not the mountaintop. He leads us through the trench, only to put us in the presence of enemies… and there anoint us with blessing. Raise your hand if you’ve felt safe in the presence of a big group of people who you didn’t know – they may or may not have it out for you. But David was king – his enemies would have been trying to kill him.
The person is not anointed in the church, or on the mountaintop, or in the “assembly.” She is anointed in the presence of her enemies. God has become visible to those that need him, and through the valley, she has learned He is safe, no matter what. This is the whole point – to bring both the person who knows God closer to God in depth of trust and dependence, and for God to reveal himself through the person to the world.
What did she do to earn it? Suffered in the trenches, was “comforted” by the rod of discipline, let the good shepherd pick her up out of the ditch when the rod wasn’t enough.
Do you see what’s happening here? This whole Psalm is actually about God’s leading and blessing. The writer has very little to do with any of it. And thus we arrive at the point. God leads us through mountains and valleys in his time for his purpose. We have little to do with any of it, accept to surrender and let him lead us. If we do, we experience new levels of his grace and peace in our lives. Our faith is strengthened, and our trust in Him deepened. That’s what He does! He leads us to places where he can show the world how good his love is. We now have experienced a depth of his love so that we can say, “Yes it was awful in the valley, but God was with me ands presence was so good that I wouldn’t trade the comfort I had on the mountaintop to not experience his presence in the valley!” This kind of testimony requires the valley.
If you’re living in a season of the mountaintop, Praise the Lord! But a valley is coming. If you’re living in a season of the valley, hold fast, anointing is coming. God anoints the one who is set-apart, or consecrated. That means all he is and has has been given over to the Lord. God has become Lord. If you’ve gone through a valley experience, you realize this to be true. God is proving to us to see for ourselves our commitment level to his purpose. It can be truly awful sometimes but it’s true.
Resist the temptation to abandon your trust in God. It’s ok to be upset. God can handle it and knows it’s hard. It was hard for Jesus too! In surrender, you will find God’s transforming presence.
It’s painful but it’s entirely worth it. The reward on the other side of the valley is worth every amount of suffering endured to arrive there. On the other side of the valley isn’t necessarily another mountain, but there is deep awareness of God’s love, faithfulness, and kindness. This is where there is true joy. The Psalmist says “my cup overflows.” He can’t contain how good God is proving to be in his life, his joy is overflowing out of him. He says like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
We aren’t meant to live on the mountain. We are meant to live in the presence of the Lord. Fortunately we don’t have to go anywhere to have that anymore thanks to His Spirit, Praise God the Father and our Lord Jesus! The experience of the mountain is valid and necessary, and we shouldn’t judge people who are having a hard go of life after the mountain top. They are in the fight. And it is God who leads them there. We can call it pruning, the trenches, discipline, or whatever you want, but the reality is it’ll feel like death and it’s really messy. But where we die, God brings life.
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.Proverbs 17:3
but [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Hebrews 12:10b,11
Be strong and take heart. The trench is coming, but it won’t last forever. God loves you. Sometimes it hurts. Nevertheless, it’s worth it. I would not trade the relationship I have with him, having been proved, for anything I gave up to arrive where I now am. On the contrary, I crave his leading more than ever. Leave me in his presence, one day there is better than a thousand elsewhere.
Nothing else even comes close.