|Of Mountains and Valleys

Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck is a master of moving high in the mountains. His training, technical expertise, and eye for product design are unbelievable. Here is an example:

[see more here and here]

Yet even Ueli Steck cannot live in the mountains. He lives in the valleys. Only a very small fraction of his life is spent on the summit of the many peaks he climbs. Mountain tops call us upward, but we do not live there.

That is the message of “The Place of Exaltation,” today’s reading at My Utmost for His Highest (Oct. 1). Commenting on Mark 9:2, Oswald Chambers wrote:

We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life— those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.

Yvon Chouinard and others have called mountain climbers like Ueli Steck conquerors of the useless. This is not meant as an insult but merely a realistic assessment. Yvon knows well that when you get to the top, there is nothing there. Stand-out climber Chris Sharma states the same, saying we climb for fun, unlike scientists who are doing important work like cancer research. Thankfully, the top has not been entirely useless for Yvon because he has allowed it to shape who he is. He has become a top advocate for ecological conservation because of his time in wild places. Similarly, Oswald Chambers speaks about how the mountains also shape us as Christians.

We are inclined to think that everything that happens is to be turned into useful teaching. In actual fact, it is to be turned into something even better than teaching, namely, character. The mountaintop is not meant to teach us anything, it is meant to make us something. There is a terrible trap in always asking, “What’s the use of this experience?” We can never measure spiritual matters in that way.

Chambers captures all of these meanings for Christians–connection with God on the summit, being changed in the experience, and also descending to serve others. It is said that more mountaineers die on the way down from the summit than on the way up. There are many reasons for this. Climbers may expend too much energy on the way up and don’t have sufficient reserves to make it back down. Or bad weather has moved in while they celebrated on the summit. Or they lose focus and make simple mistakes leading to a fall or disorientation. Chambers speaks to this need for strength for the descent as well as the life one lives back in the valley.

We have all experienced times of exaltation on the mountain, when we have seen things from God’s perspective and have wanted to stay there. But God will never allow us to stay there. The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain. If we only have the power to go up, something is wrong. It is a wonderful thing to be on the mountain with God, but a person only gets there so that he may later go down and lift up the demon-possessed people in the valley (see Mark 9:14-18). 

Having experienced the fulfillment of the mountain top experience, may we descend with strength, grace and courage to live and serve well in the valley.


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