The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Growing Close to God: The Critical Role of Choice (The Mountain Metaphor)

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If you’re a committed Christian, then at some point you decided that pleasing God was going to be your top priority in life.  This is certainly a fabulous thing, but it’s also just the first step in your personal journey with God.  In this post, we’re going to use a metaphor to understand how God deepens His bond with you after that critical decision point.  The purpose of this metaphor is to help you set realistic expectations in your relationship with God, as well as steer you clear of drawing wrong assumptions about how God responds to your frustrations along the way.

THE MOUNTAIN

When you first decide to get serious about living for God, it’s like deciding to climb to the top of a high mountain.  You’re new to mountain climbing, just as you’re new to living sold out to God.  But you pack up your climbing gear and off you go.

Now at first, hiking is fun.  The sun is shining, the scenery is pretty, and you’ve got a decent amount of energy.  But no matter how much you pace yourself, at some point, fatigue sets in.  The rest breaks become more frequent and you’re eating more snacks.  Every time you ease yourself down onto a fallen log or a boulder to take a break, you have a decision to make.  Should you keep pressing on or not?  This question demands a re-evaluation of your current priorities.  How important is it to you to reach the top of this mountain?  How important should it be?  What would you be missing out on if you turned back?  The more tired you get, the more frequently you’re going to ask yourself these questions, and the more important they will seem.

You’re now many hours into your hike. It’s getting dark, and it’s time to set up camp.  As you lie in your tent at a standstill in your journey, you’ve got a whole night to think about what this whole mountain trek means to you.  In other words, you spend all night scrutinizing your priorities and deciding to either keep them as they are or change them.

Now when morning comes, you wake up to discover that the weather has turned dark and grey.  You barely finish packing when the rain starts.  Well, this is a drag, and now you’re really questioning the wisdom of pressing on with your original plan of hiking all the way to the top of this mountain.  Does it really even matter? It’s just a dumb mountain.  Why did you ever think this was a good idea?  Because while you’re standing here on a slope of mud, you’re missing out on what could have been a fun weekend back home where it’s warm and dry.  You could be having lunch with a friend right now, or curled up in front of a fire with a good book.  But no, you’re stuck out here in the rain, all cold and wet, and with all of your favorite snacks already eaten.  Suddenly turning back starts sounding like the only wise choice.  After all, what real advantage is there to reaching the top of the mountain?  If the journey isn’t fun, then it’s not worth it, right?  It’s when you’re standing there watching little rivers of mud flow around your hiking boots that you reevaluate your priorities yet again.  What exactly is important to you about this experience?  If you’re just in it to have a jolly time, then clearly you need to head back.  Now that your circumstances have become miserable, you’re not going to find motivation to press on without setting your sights on a different goal than simply having fun.

SPIRITUAL PARALLELS

Now there’s a lot we can learn from our mountain climbing metaphor.  For starters, it teaches us the very important principle that trials force us to reevaluate our priorities in life.  This means mentally going through a list of our goals, thinking about how much importance we’ve assigned to each one, and then deciding if we want to make any adjustments.  At this point, you’ve already decided that you want to live for God.  When such decisions are hard for us to come to, we often want to think that we can just make the decision once and then permanently put it to rest.  But no, this isn’t at all how things work.  We don’t just decide one time to submit to God, trust God, obey God, or want God.  We decide these things over and over again throughout our whole lives.  This is one of the primary reasons God brings trials into our lives: to force us to reassess why we’re doing what we’re doing and decide if we want to make any changes.  But why does God want us to keep rehashing things like this?  Because He has designed us in such a way that we will become intensely bonded to whatever we choose most frequently in life and we’ll cease to care about the things and people that we stop choosing.

To get a feel for how this works in every day life, stop to consider how many things you’ve bought on sheer impulse only to then toss them into a drawer and forget about them?  Why was your interest in thse items so shallow and short-lived?  Because you only chose them once, and your choice was based on some emotional buzz.  When the item failed to be as great as you thought (which is the case for most impulse purchases) you set it aside and forgot about it. In other words, you stopped choosing it.

Single choice items, and single choice people will always be quick to fade into the background of your life.  That stranger who you chose to sit by one time on a bus, but who you didn’t choose to engage with after that—you don’t care about him.  But compare those impulse purchases to an item that you spent a long time dreaming about and saving up for.  Every time you put another dollar into that boat or house or car or television fund, you are choosing to make that item a priority in your life.  By the time you finally purchase it, you’ve already chosen it hundreds of times, and you feel much more emotionally attached to it than you ever did to your single choice purchases.  Now compare that stranger on the bus to the friend you’ve had for years.  The only way you’ve kept that friend for so long is by choosing her thousands of times.  When the two of you got into a fight, you reassessed your priorities and chose to keep her high on your list, so you swallowed your pride and sat down to talk things out.

Now simply being in a relationship doesn’t make that relationship a good one.  It’s very easy to stop choosing to make your spouse a priority while you keep living with them in the same house.  When you stop choosing them, the bond between the two of you begins to weaken, and after a while you find yourself not caring about them at all.  To establish bonds and to strengthen bonds, we humans must keep choosing to make the target of our bond a personal priority.  This is true in our relationship with God as well.  We can’t just decide once to be sold out to God and have that be the end of it.  To grow close to God, we must keep choosing to make Him a priority over and over again.

In our mountain metaphor, every time you took another step up that mountain, you were choosing the mountain over the comforts of home.  You were making the mountain your priority.  This wasn’t a strain when things were going well, and we’ll find that it isn’t hard to keep choosing God when our lives are going smoothly.  But the problem with easy choices is that they’re lacking in depth, and that also becomes a barrier to intimacy.

To form strong bonds, we humans need to not only keep repeating our choices, we need those choices to vary in difficulty.  Staying faithful to a wife who is making your life sweet is a pretty easy deal. But standing by your woman when she’s going through years of hormone hell and biting your head off in the midst of terrible mood swings is a whole different challenge.  When things stop being easy, the limits of our commitment are swiftly exposed, and that forces us to make a critical decision: will we invest more resources to deepen our commitment, or will we cut our losses and walk?

In our material, we often say that strengthening your bond with Him is one of God’s top priorities for you in life.  Once you understand that you need choice repetition and a variation in choice difficulty to form a strong bond with someone, you can understand why God has no intention of making your life a bowl of pitted cherries.  God is far too interested in developing a relationship with you to let you spend your life skipping through a field of flowers while He provides you with endless energy and sunshine.  No, that won’t do at all, because such a trial free existence would result in you totally forgetting God’s Name.  To keep you close to Him, God is going to keep creating circumstances in which you will find yourself having to put effort into keeping Him at the top of your priority list.  We’re talking about soul effort here, not a bunch of works.  Choosing God has nothing to do with reading your Bible every day or locking yourself into a prayer closet until you fall asleep from boredom.  Your chances to re-choose God arise when He whispers some preference to your soul while simultaneously presenting you with other options which are more appealing.  For example, you witness a crime.  But why should you get involved by speaking up?  You don’t want to have to take time off of work to talk to the police, and you certainly don’t want to get roped into some long, drawn out court trial.  So when the wrong guy is accused, you figure the lawyers will sort it out.  You don’t know any of the people involved, and you really don’t care what happens to any of them.  But then there’s God, telling you that He wants you to tell the police what you saw.  Obeying God is going to be a hassle, while blowing Him off sounds far more attractive.  Here is where you will be forced to reevaluate your priorities. Sure, at one point you said you were committed to living for God.  But what’s happened since then—have your priorities changed?  How much is pleasing God really worth to you?  What would be the cost of not pleasing Him, and is that a price you’re willing to pay?  These are the critical questions God is going to force you to go over a billion times in life, and how you answer them will have an enormous impact on how your relationship with God progresses.

Christians talk a lot about how great Heaven will be, and how fabulous it will be to finally get to see God face to face. But why do we think this will be fabulous?  God isn’t just smiles and sunshine—He can be ominous and downright terrifying when He wants to be.  This image Christians have of running into the arms of a God who they feel super bonded to is not an experience that we’re all going to have.  There’s no getting out of how God designed you, and you were designed in such a way that you cannot grow close to someone who you do not keep choosing to prioritize in your own life.  Certainly being in the Presence of God is going to be a shocking and overwhelmingly awesome experience, but there are many kinds of awe.  There is joyful awe and frightened awe.  When Yahweh descended on Mt. Sinai in Exodus, the Israelites were certainly filled with awe, but it was a very negative kind of awe.  That is why they pleaded with Moses to talk to Yahweh on their behalf, because they didn’t want anything to do with Him.  Is that the kind of dynamic you want to experience when you meet God in Heaven?  No, you’d much rather experience the kind of warm, intimate bond that results in all of those happy, cozy feelings that we’re always trying to manufacture cheap imitations of in our adrenaline driven worship concerts.  Well, God would like to have that kind of bond with you as well, but He’s not going to give it to you for free.  If you want to experience a rich, positive communion with God, then you’re going to have to choose Him far more often than you reject Him in life.  You’re going to have to be willing to have Him test and try you many different ways and keep pushing you to deepen your commitment to Him.  It doesn’t mean your life has to be one long frustrating grind.  But it does mean that you’ll have to keep intimacy with God higher on your priority list than circumstantial comforts.

DEVELOPING THE BOND

Let’s go back to our mountain metaphor, only this time let’s have God on that hike with you.  He says that this whole hiking experience has the potential to deepen your relationship with Him and that’s why He wants you to stick with it.  So when you’re all wet and irritated on the second day of your hike, and God is urging you to keep pressing on, you have a decision to make: is the chance of growing closer to Him more important to you than being comfortable in your earthsuit?  You decide that it is, so you keep pressing on, only now you’ve got an attitude because you know God is the One causing the rain.  “Is this really necessary?” you snap.  “Yes,” is His annoyingly brief answer.  This is how it works in real life: once we recognize that God is the true Source of our trials, we often get attitudinal with Him.  We question His wisdom.  We complain about His methods.  We gripe and gripe, and we’re just not very pleasant company to be with on that mountain.  But despite our grumbling, we’re still climbing, because our souls are still choosing to pursue God even though they don’t at all approve of His methods.

Throughout the Bible, we find a whole lot of griping going on by men who were showing serious commitment to God.  David sincerely loved Yahweh, yet we find him having many carnal hissy fits in the Psalms, during which he accuses Yahweh of being all sorts of nasty things.  Once we look at just how nasty David talks in some of his psalms, a very positive lesson emerges, because Yahweh’s final judgment of David was a very positive one. He said that David greatly pleased Him, even though we can all read about David messing up many times in the biblical records.  You see, God isn’t so short on patience that He’s going to write you off the first time you throw some bratty fit on the mountain.  On the contrary, God is extraordinarily compassionate, patient, and kind, and He knows how little it takes to tax us humans.  We’re not going to have whine free lives, nor will we come anywhere close to treating God as well as He deserves to be treated.  The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can lower our expectations, because expecting perfection from ourselves will only lead to bitter disillusionment.

The process of developing a deep bond with God includes a whole lot of fighting, griping, and futile attempts to coerce God into doing things our way.  Submitting to God isn’t something you do once and then close the book.  It’s something you do over and over again.  There will be times when you refuse to submit—times when you sit down in a huff and refuse to budge until God gives you what you want.  There will be other times when you declare you’re fed up and start storming your way back down the mountain only to change your mind and come back with a guilty apology.  God is extremely gracious, and He will put up with a lot of your shenanigans as long as your overall desire for Him remains strong, and that means that you keep making progress up that mountain.  But should you come to the point where you really do call it quits and head off down the mountain in a prolonged huff of stubborn rebellion, well then you run the risk of God refusing to ever escort you back up the mountain again.

You see, you can’t find your own way to an intimate bond with God.  You need Him to lead you there, and you need Him to create the vast array of experiences you need to deepen your commitment to Him.  When we try to accelerate our own growth by manufacturing trials for ourselves, those trials simply don’t produce the results we’re hoping for.  If God is not willing to draw us closer to Himself, then we’re simply stuck, and that’s really not somewhere that you want to be.  This is why it is so important that we keep choosing God whenever He makes re-choosing Him necessary.  When we find ourselves struggling to choose Him, or wanting to shove Him away, we need to ask Him to override us and force us down the path that He wants for us.  This is what permanent surrender is about: we recognize that we cannot trust ourselves to always make the wise choice and we submit ourselves entirely into God’s hands and ask Him to keep us close to Him at any cost.

When it comes to intimacy with God, we get what we pay for.  If we try to go cheap and purchase deep communion with God with only a small sliver of submission, we delude ourselves.  But if we willingly put on His yoke and hold nothing back in the submission department, then He says we can count on Him to honor the fact that we have given Him all that we have in our possession.  God knows that we are dust, and that our feelings towards Him swing wildly depending on our current circumstances and the condition of our earthsuits.  This is why He judges us by our soul choices, not our current mood, and He judges our choices within the context of the resources He knows that we had to work with.  One soul finds it easy to fully surrender all to a loving and gracious God, whereas another soul must overcome great obstacles of fear before daring to believe that God would even accept them.  We are not all the same.  God judges us each on an individual basis and rewards us according to how we responded to Him within the context of our understanding and abilities.

CONCLUSION

So what does our mountain metaphor teach us about the process of growing closer to God?  It teaches us not to expect a problem free life.  We’re going to have trials, but that is a good thing, because those trials will force us to keep reevaluating our priorities in life.  It is by continuously choosing to pursue God, and by choosing to deepen our commitment to Him in difficult times that we end up developing a rich, intimate bond with Him.  It is by saying “yes” countless times on earth that we end up running into the arms of a God who we feel deeply bonded to when we get to Heaven.  Intimacy with God isn’t something that just falls down on us like rain.  It is a precious treasure that He chooses to share with us as a reward for our willingness to keep choosing Him over and over again.  Every time we say “yes” to Him, we are taking another step up that mountain, however small, and we are moving one step closer to a richly satisfying existence.

FURTHER READING:
Choosing the Right Priorities: How does God want us to treat our brothers?
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Finding Peace in the Midst of Moral Dilemmas

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