Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mountaintops and Troughs

The Screwtape Letters purports to be a series of letters written by a senior tempter, Screwtape, part of the demonic corporation directed by the devil, to a junior tempter named Wormwood. We're reading and discussing this book in light of the witness of the Bible right now at Living Water.

In one of the "letters" that we'll be discussing today, Screwtape describes something that he calls, "the law of undulation," that series of troughs and mountaintops every Christian experiences as they seek to follow Christ.

The mountaintops are easy times, times when the risen Christ's presence seems palpable, when a person's every holy or happy desire seems to be met, and when praying, worshiping, serving in Christ's Name, telling others about Christ, and receiving Holy Communion are rich and full and immediate.

As Luke's account of Jesus' transfiguration, when three of His disciples were dazzled by the reality of Jesus' deity, power, and love clearly shown to them, we Christians prefer staying in this mountaintop phase."Master, it is good for us to be here," Peter said, then proposed building three "booths" to capture the moment forever. Peter wanted to move in and live on the mountaintop.

But in this life, lived in a fallen and imperfect world, the troughs must inevitably come.

The troughs are those periods when God seems distant, our prayers appear to fall back to the ground after we've lifted them to heaven, and when reading God's Word, worship, service in Christ's Name, and even receiving the Bread and the Wine, feel like tiresome, pointless chores.

The junior tempter Wormwood observes a dry trough period in a man he's charged with tempting away from God, from the Christ-like character, and from the freedom God gives us to be our true selves when we follow Christ. He thinks that this dry period must necessarily be a sign that the man is turning from Christ and is bound for hell, separation from God.

But Screwtape warns:
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will [for Screwtape, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the enemy], looks round upon the universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
It's in the trough periods when, despite everything within us screaming that God doesn't care or that, if He does, He must be indifferent to us, and when we want to chuck the whole Christian thing, and yet we try to keep following Christ and maintaining the Christian disciplines that allow God to communicate with us and work in our lives, that God can do His real work in believers.

"I don't feel like worshiping or praying or serving others for Christ's sake, but I'll do it anyway." The person who makes a statement like that is likely closer to Christ than he or she ever was when the Christian life seemed easy.

God's aim for us in this life isn't comfort. Believers in Christ will be comforted by His presence and His love, of course. But it's in the midst of adversity, when we maintain the habits of seeking God out and praising Him and loving and serving others in Christ's Name, despite how we feel, that we grow closer to Christ.

It's only after the bottom falls out that we reach our feet a little lower and find that the God we know in Christ was there all along, our solid ground. Our faith grows. Our character is forged. And God continues to make us and our characters over in His image, His real goal for us.

It was in a trough period he describes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, that the apostle Paul learned from God that, it's only when we perceive ourselves as being weak and helpless that we become open to the reality that to become who God made me to be (and who, deep down, I want to be), that the strength and power of God become fully manifest.

If you're in a trough right now, keep holding onto God--through things like prayer, regular worship attendance, receiving the Sacrament, studying God's Word, serving and fellowshiping with Christian believers. Even when you don't feel like doing any of these things. You will find again that He's there. Always. He hasn't forgotten you. Never. And your faith will grow. You will grow.

Mountaintops are nice. And in eternity, all who have believed in Christ will live securely on the mountaintop as we live in God's direct presence and find ourselves empowered to do all the work God will give us to do. There, we won't be wearied by the troughs. We will be wholly ourselves for all eternity and it will be amazing!

God gives us mountaintop experiences to let us know that the eternal mountaintop is real and it awaits all who believe. But He gives us troughs so that we know for sure, this life isn't all He has in mind for us.

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